If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then “our ideal,” as Bert Parks used to sing at the Miss America pageant, the event about which he crooned, was, let’s say, limited in hue. In fact, until the early 1970s, “non-white women were barred from competing, a restriction that was codified in the pageant’s ‘Rule number seven’, which stated that ‘contestants must be of good health and of the white race.'” Some of the more prominent winners were Bess Myerson (NY-1945, the only Jewish winner), Lee Meriwether (CA-1955), Mary Ann Mobley (MS-1959), and Phyllis George (TX-1971).
The result of this overt racism was the institution of the Miss Black America pageant in 1968.
Then in 1984, the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams of New York was crowned. The discussion from some nattering nabobs of negativism, though, was that she won only because she was a light-skinned, green-eyed black woman, that she was not “black enough.” Then the terrible news that she was compelled to resign because of some pictures she had taken a couple years earlier had found their way into Penthouse magazine. The mortification among many black people I spoke with at the time was quite great. Interestingly, the last seven weeks of that term was completed by Suzette Charles of New Jersey, yet another black woman.
One might have thought that the scandal would have snuffed out the career of Vanessa Lynn Williams before it started; it did not. She has reached stardom as both as a singer (her debut album in 1988 was The Right Stuff) and actress (Into the Woods, on Broadway; Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, on TV), thus earning her “multiple Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award nominations. She is arguably the most successful Miss America winner in the field of entertainment.”
My favorite song of hers – yes, it’s out of season – is What Child Is This [LISTEN].