Here She Comes, Miss America: It’s Not Only About Crowns and Sashes

The Miss America pageant isn’t only about what the ladies have worn over the years and the changing fashions. Sure, the winning gowns have featured everything from plunging necklines to mermaid silhouettes – and it’s always fun to see how styles change. But Miss America has been through some major milestones over the years.

Photo by Everett, Shutterstock / Source: Pinterest / Pinterest /

Miss America first started out as a bathing suit contest back in 1921, and ever since, the organization has gone through many changes, like the removal of the swimsuit and evening gown portions, for one. The American tradition of pageantry may seem one-dimensional at first glance, but Margot Mifflin (the author of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100 Year Quest to Define Womanhood) has argued that what some might think of as a superficial beauty pageant is actually intertwined with so many popular, political and social facets.

Here’s a look at the Miss America winners – and the history of the pageant – over the years…

1921: Margaret Gorman

It all started in 1921. Once women got the right to vote in 1920, they had a chance to be a “queen.” Atlantic City, in desperation to extend its summer tourism, put on the first Fall Frolic: a parade of young attractive women rolling along the famous boardwalk in wheeled chairs. A success, it turned into a popularity contest the following year.

Margaret Gorman, 1921. First Miss America At Atlantic City In 1921.
Margaret Gorman, 1921. First Miss America At Atlantic City In 1921. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

16-year-old Margaret Gorman, from Washington, D.C., won the crown. She traveled to Atlantic City to compete in what was advertised as the “Inter-City Beauty” contest. She took home the Golden Mermaid trophy and returned to high school in D.C. It wasn’t called Miss America until 1922, which meant that Gorman is the only contestant to receive her crown a year after her win. She passed away in 1995 at 90.

1922 and 1923: Mary Katherine Campbell

Mary Katherine Campbell of Ohio was first crowned Miss Columbus when she was 17 years old. She then went on to win the Miss America pageant. She became the first high school graduate to take the title. She lied about her age in order to enter the pageant in Atlantic City. She competed again the following year and won the Miss America title in 1923.

Mary Katherine Campbell
Mary Katherine Campbell. Source:

She is the only contestant to have won twice. During the 1924 pageant, the judges’ scores revealed that Campbell nearly won the title a third time. Thus, the Miss America Organization changed the rules to stipulate that “a contestant may only win the Miss America title once.” She passed away in 1990 at the age of 84.

1925: Fay Lanphier

Fay Lanphier, from Oakland, California, won the title of Miss Santa Cruz a year prior, in 1924, and finished fourth in the Miss America pageant. Come 1925, she competed again as Miss California, marking her as the first Miss America to represent her state. An article published in the New York Graphic claimed that the pageant was rigged for Lanphier to win, which caused a lot of controversies.

Fay Lanphier
Fay Lanphier. Source:

That article was later retracted in September of 1928. Even in the throes of controversy, Lanphier still went on a 16-week dance tour, enabling her to earn about $50,000. She also had a brief film career, appearing in The American Venus (1926). She passed away in 1959 at the age of 53.

1926: Norma Smallwood (The First Native American contestant)

Norma Smallwood, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, became the first American Indian (Cherokee) to wear the Miss America crown. The way she stood out among the popular flapper girls of the time is one of the reasons she became a popular poster girl for Meadows Washing Machines and Westinghouse Electric, among others. She earned $100,000 during her year-long reign.

Miss America. Miss America 1926 Norma Smallwood, 1926.
Miss America. Miss America 1926 Norma Smallwood, 1926. Photo By Everett/Shutterstock

Although she originally planned to return to the Oklahoma College for Women after her year, instead, she accepted an offer to tour the U.S. on the Orpheum Circuit for $1,500 a week. Smallwood passed away in May 1966 at the age of 56.

1927: Lois Delander

Miss Illinois Lois Delander won the last title before Miss America was canceled for several years. She was 16 when she was crowned. The Joliet, Illinois native and high school junior won the crown on her parents’ 20th wedding anniversary. Delander became one of the most famous models to appear in the Gerlach Barklow Co. art calendars. She died in 1985 at the age of 73.

Miss America Lois Delander with her parents
Miss America Lois Delander, a Joliet High School junior who was selected queen of beauty at the Atlantic City pageant, is seen with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Albin Delander, in 1927. Source: Pinterest

The pageant was canceled after 1927 due to “a combination of bad press and criticism from religious and women’s groups.” The pageant organizers shut it down but vowed to return to the boardwalk in the future when the Boardwalk Convention Center would be built.

1933: Marian Bergeron

The pageant returned for a year in 1933, only to get shut down yet again. That year, the pageant was held without the outdoor parades and other attractions. Considering it was the Great Depression, Atlantic City hotels deemed the events too expensive to host. After skipping a year in 1934, Miss America finally returned for good in 1935.

Marian Bergeron
Marian Bergeron. Source: Reddit

Marian Bergeron was an established vocalist from West Haven, Connecticut. She won the Miss America crown at the age of 15. With all the commotion during the tallying of the votes, Bergeron didn’t even realize she had won until a dressing assistant placed the banner on her. She then became a public speaker and supporter of the pageant. She died in 2002 at 84.

1935: Henrietta Leaver

A child of the Great Depression, Henrietta Leaver was forced to drop out of high school to make money for her family. Her grandmother suggested she enter the Miss Pittsburgh contest, which she did and won. Leaver then tap-danced her way to the Miss America crown in a silver-and-green gown.

Henrietta Leaver
Henrietta Leaver. Source: Pinterest

She was later sculpted by Pittsburgh sculptor Frank Vittor. After posing for him, in a swimsuit, she was shocked to discover that the statue depicted her nude. She went to Los Angeles to escape all the publicity. There, she began a brief modeling career. Leaver eventually moved back to the East Coast to raise her daughters. She passed away in 1993 at the age of 77.

1936: Rose Veronica Coyle

By the time Rose Veronica Coyle was crowned Miss America, the pageant was finally able to pay off its debt (thanks to all its events and contestants – 46 in total). This year also marked the first time interviews were part of the competition.

Rose Veronica Coyle
Rose Veronica Coyle. Source:

Coyle was the first winner to receive an encore in the talent completion. She sang I Can’t Escape from You and performed an eight-minute long tap dance routine. She was twice married with one daughter and passed away in 1988 at the age of 73.

The next winner became part of the first Miss America scandal…

1937: Bette Cooper (The Winner Who Went Missing)

Bette Cooper actually landed in the Miss America pageant on a dare. Apparently, she never expected to win, let alone fall in love with her assigned chauffeur and local escort for the week, a man named Louis Off.

Bette Cooper
Bette Cooper (1920-2017). Winner of the Miss America Pageant in 1937. Photographed With Her Trophy, September 1937. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

Off reportedly told Cooper that he would dump her if she won, saying, “I don’t want to be known as Mr. Miss America.” Cooper was, nonetheless, announced as the queen but failed to show up to her first official appearance the following morning. It was Off who helped her sneak out of the hotel at night.

1937: Miss America Disappeared

Off then whisked her away as they escaped by motorboat to his home. The result was the strangest photo in Miss America history: an empty throne flanked by the runners-up, smiling as if the crowned Cooper was sitting right there.

Bette Cooper
Bette Cooper. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

It should come as no surprise that the romance between Cooper and Off didn’t last. Cooper was forced by the pageant organizers to make at least a few (half-hearted) public appearances as the reigning queen. When her time was up, she disappeared yet again. This time to Connecticut to raise a family, and she never looked back.

1938: Marilyn Meseke

Two new rules were established in 1938. First, the contestants had to be between 18 and 28 years old to enter. Second, the talent portion of the competition became mandatory. The talent portion was introduced a few years prior, in 1935, but it was only optional at the time and counted towards 25% of the contestants’ scores.

Marilyn Meseke
Marilyn Meseke. Source: Pinterest

A third rule was added, too, limiting the competition to single women only, meaning the contestants couldn’t be married, divorced, or even have had a marriage annulled if they were going to compete. Marilyn Meseke from Marion, Ohio, was crowned Miss America this year.

1940: Frances Burke

Miss Pennsylvania Frances Burke ventured briefly into film and modeling before giving it all up to raise a family in Philadelphia. She was married to Lawrence Kenney for 50 years and raised four children. Burke was a volunteer at a nursing home and became active in the PTA at her children’s school.

Frances Burke sitting in a large chair with a crown and sash on

“The Pageant was the highlight of my young life,” she said. “The honor of being Miss America launched a successful modeling career, gave a jump-start to my self-esteem, and enabled me to meet many wonderful people along the way.”

1941: Rosemary LaPlanche

Rosemary LaPlanche became Miss California at the age of 16, despite the rules dictating that participants must be 18 to enter. In 1940, she was a runner-up in the Miss America pageant and competed again in 1941, this time winning the title. But complaints were made, and so a new rule was enacted stipulating that contestants could only participate in the competition once.

A photograph of Rosemary sitting on the bed with her sash on looking at the newspaper / Rosemary posing on a loveseat with a long dress on
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As Miss America, LaPlanche traveled with the USO; she sold war bonds and even signed with RKO films. The actress was in more than 50 films throughout her lifetime. In the late 1940s, she hosted her own radio show and became one of the first female TV hosts.

1945: Bess Myerson (The First Jewish Winner)

Miss New York, Bess Myerson was the first and only Jewish woman to be crowned Miss America. Although she was celebrated, there was negativity as well. For example, she didn’t have as many bookings as previous queens because she was Jewish.

Bess Myerson posing with a ribbon attached to her dress
Photo by Everett / Shutterstock

Lenora Slaughter, the executive director of the pageant from 1941 and 1967, urged Myerson to change her last name. Bess refused, saying, “I’m proud of my name.” After her reign, she remained involved in New York City politics. She was part of the new legislation of open-dating and unit pricing in supermarkets. She devoted the rest of her life to civic and philanthropic organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League.

1946: Marilyn Buferd

Marilyn Buferd was crowned Miss America in 1946 when a new feature was introduced. The organization divided its new scholarship fund among Buferd and the 15 finalists. The pageant also decided that the term “bathing suit” was out, replacing it with the more succinct term “swimsuit.”

Marilyn Buferd posing with her trophy / Barbara Walker posing with her sash, wand, and crown
Marilyn Buferd (left) and Barbara Walker (right). Source: Pinterest (both)

1947: Barbara Walker

It was around this time that a change in fashion required contestants to wear two-piece swimsuits, a rule banned the following year. 1947 was the last year in which the winner, Barbara Walker, was crowned in her bathing suit.

1948: Yun Tau Zane (The First Asian American)

This marked the first time an Asian-American woman competed in the pageant. Yun Tau Zane represented Hawaii, which at the time wasn’t even an official state yet. She was the runner-up in the first Miss Hawaii contest this year and then took the crown after the original winner, Bebe Shopp, was disqualified for not having enough high school credits.

Yun Tau Zane Chee posing on a grassy patch with her skirt surrounding her
Source: Pinterest

Later that year, Zane, who was born in Hawaii but had a Chinese background, traveled to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant, becoming the first Asian American to win. She died in 2002 from cancer at the age of 73.

1949: Jacque Mercer

Jacque Mercer, Miss Arizona, won the title in 1949. But since she got both married and divorced during her reign, the organization re-instituted a rule against contestants who were married or pregnant.

Jacque Mercer posing against a chair / Jacque Mercer with her crown, wand, and sash for winning Miss America
Source: / Pinterest

The next year, the Miss America title became post-dated by three months. So, instead of a 1950 Miss America, the winner was to be crowned in 1951. The practice is still in use today. That said, technically, there was no Miss America in 1950; the title jumped from 1949 to 1951.

It was in 1950 that the pageant’s “Rule Seven” was abolished. The rule? That “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.”

1951: Yolande Betbeze (and the Birth of the Rival Miss USA)

Miss Alabama Yolanda Betbeze was crowned in 1951. A devout Catholic who was raised in a convent, Betbeze is best remembered for refusing to pose in a swimsuit after having won the title. “I’m an opera singer, not a pin-up!” she stated proudly.

A portrait of Yolande Betbeze wearing the crown / Yolande Betbeze waving with her Miss Alabama sash
Source: / Photo by Everett, Shutterstock

Because of this, Catalina, the swimsuit pageant sponsor, was offended and withdrew its support, prompting the rival pageant, Miss USA, to be created. The first Miss USA competition was held in Long Beach, California, in 1952. Miss USA winners then compete at the worldwide Miss Universe beauty pageant.

1952: Colleen Hutchins

Miss Utah Colleen Hutchins took the crown just before the pageant started being broadcast on television. Standing over six feet tall in heels, Hutchins was an accomplished athlete who worked her way towards a master’s degree in drama.

A portrait of Colleen Hutchins / Colleen Hutchins wearing the winning crown and sash
Source: / Pinterest

After her reign, she performed on Broadway as well as in Europe before first moving to Germany and then Bel Air with her husband, a physician, and member of the New York Knicks. They raised four All-American College and Olympic athletes. Hutchins later devoted her life to philanthropic causes. She passed away in 2010 at 83.

1955: Lee Meriwether (and the Ugly Cry)

Miss California Lee Meriwether entered the pageant world while a student at the City College of San Francisco. She was nominated to participate by a fraternity, saying, “I never would have entered on my own.” After her time as Miss America, Meriwether joined the TODAY show as a “TODAY Girl.”

A portrait of Lee Meriwether wearing her crown / Lee Meriwether wearing a sash and crown and holding a wand on stage
Source: / Pinterest

She then made her debut in the film and TV industry, most famously playing Betty in the Barnaby Jones series from 1973 to 1980. Meriweather was also one of the first to be seen displaying the “ugly cry.” About 27 million Americans watched her get crowned in the first televised pageant.

1960: Lynda Lee Mead

Lynda Lee Mead was a University of Mississippi graduate, where she was a member of the Chi Omega sorority. Her Miss America predecessor, Mary Ann Mobley, was her very own sorority sister and the first winner to be from Mississippi. Mead was titled Miss Mississippi in 1959.

A portrait of Lynda Mead wearing her crown

Mead is still alive, aged 81, and the owner and president of French Country Imports in France. She also runs the interior design firm Shea-Moore Design. She is a widow with five adult children. Her husband died in 2015.

1962: Maria Fletcher

In 1961, 1,500 women competed in Atlantic City for the Cinderella-themed 40th Royal Reunion Pageant. 85 million viewers tuned in to watch Nancy Fleming win the crown. Then, in 1962, representing North Carolina, Maria Fletcher was crowned Miss America. Before that, she was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall.

Maria Fletcher wearing her crown / Maria Fletcher laughing
Source: / Photo by Anthony Wallace, ANL, Shutterstock

At the Orange Bowl Parade, Fletcher wore her pageant gown on the Miss America float. She didn’t even notice when her gown caught on fire and considered herself lucky when a bystander quickly stomped the flames out, saving both Fletcher and her gown.

1965: Vonda Van Dyke

From Phoenix, Arizona, Miss Arizona became the first Miss America contestant to perform as a ventriloquist during the talent portion of the pageant. She was also the first one to speak about her faith on national television (something generally considered a no-no in those days).

A portrait of Vonda Van Dyke wearing her crown / Vonda Van Dyke holding her ventriloquist puppet
Source: / Twitter

After her reign, Van Dyke became a singer and wrote two books –while attending the University of California. Since her college days, Van Dyke has written and published three more books and recorded four albums. Now, 77 and retired, she lives in Southern California.

1966: Deborah Bryant (The First One to be Broadcast in Color)

The judge’s panel this year was star-studded, with Oscar-winner Joan Crawford joining the team. It only makes sense that they went all out, considering it was the first time that the pageant was broadcast in color. Deborah Bryant was also the first Kansas resident to claim the crown.

A portrait of Deborah Bryant in a white lacey dress / Deborah Bryant posing on stage with her trophy and sash
Source: / Pinterest

Although color televisions were first sold over a decade earlier in 1953, they were still too expensive for the average American consumer. But by 1966, all of the three big broadcast channels were airing prime-time TV in color. Now viewers could finally catch all the glitz and glamour in real color.

1969: Judith Ford (and the Anti-Pageant Protests)

Miss Illinois became Miss America performing a trampoline routine for the talent portion of her competition. In fact, Ford was even a member of the men’s trampoline team at her college. This was a time when protests against the pageants, specifically by women, were being held.

A portrait of Judith Ford wearing her crown / Judith Ford crying while being crowned Miss America
Source: / Pinterest

One flyer called Miss America a “degrading, mindless-boob-girlie symbol.” The idea of “bra-burning feminists” originated during these protests. There was the “Freedom Trash Can,” in which women threw their bras, girdles, curlers, fake eyelashes, and women’s magazines. Aside from labeling the pageant as sexist, many Americans started protested it because they felt it supported the Vietnam War.

1970: Pamela Eldred

Miss Michigan, Pam Eldred, was a graduate of the University of Detroit Percy. She continued traveling as a dancer, model, and spokesperson after her reign as Miss America. She then decided to stick around her home town and open an image consulting business in West Bloomfield with the skills she gained as a color consultant and aesthetician.

A portrait of Pamela Eldred / A color photograph of Pamela Eldred posing in a pink dress with the red cape, crown, and wand
Source: / Flickr

Eldred worked for a number of charities, especially ones involved with special needs families. The now 72-year-old is retired and spends her time in Michigan and Florida with her husband Norman N. Robbins.

1971: Phyllis George (and the First Black Contestant)

Although Phyllis George was crowned Miss America in 1971, it was actually Cheryl Adrienne Browne (representing Iowa) who was most noted as the pageant’s first African-American contestant. Miss America 1971 was also the 50th Miss America pageant, and it is fitting that they celebrated their golden anniversary with a much-needed step towards diversity.

Phyllis George posing with her crown / Cheryl Adrienne Browne wearing a smaller crown
Source: / Pinterest

Up until that year, Miss America contestants had almost always been white (or Native American). It would be years, though – 13 years to be exact – until a Black woman would win the title. Diversity, after all, was a slow-moving process.

1977: Dorothy Benham

Dorothy Benham of Minnesota won the crown in 1977. She went on to appear in the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 1989. She also performed on the Crystal Cathedral program on TV called Hour of Power.

Dorothy Benham wearing the crown / Dorothy Benham wearing a pink dress and the Miss Minnesota sash
Source: / Pinterest

However, during this 1977 pageant, there was another notable step in diversity this year as Delaware’s Day Deborah Rica Lipford (known also as Dr. Day Gardner) made history as the first Black contestant to reach the top 10 semi-finalists. Gardner’s first novel, If Not for Grace, was published in 2011.

1981: Susan Powell (and a New Host)

1981 marked the year in which actor Ron Ely was named the new host of Miss America after Bert Parks was ousted in 1980. Miss Oklahoma Susan Powell won the 1981 Miss America crown. After her one-year reign, she embarked on a singing career in opera, starting out with the Seattle Opera as Adele in Die Fledermaus.

Susan Powell wearing the crown and holding flowers / Susan Powell holding flowers in an evening gown
Source: / Pinterest

In 1993, she started hosting Home Matters on the Discovery Channel and was one of the judges for the Miss America pageant in 2007. Powell is now 61 and last performed on the program Don’t Forget the Lyrics in 2008.

1984: Vanessa Williams (The First Black Winner and First to Resign)

Representing New York, Vanessa Williams made history as the first Black woman to win the Miss America title, taking home awards for both the swimsuit and talent competition. 10 months into her reign, though, Williams resigned. Why? Because private nude photos of her, taken by a professional photographer, were made public.

Vanessa Williams wearing the crown and holding her scepter / Vanessa Williams on the red carpet in 2017
Source: eBay / Photo by Efren Landaos, Shutterstock

Williams stepped down after Penthouse both purchased and published the unauthorized photos which she had posed for years earlier. Although she resigned, she was still allowed to keep her crown and scholarship money. Williams went on to become a recording artist and an Emmy- and Tony-nominated actress. She was also on Desperate Housewives.

1984: Suzette Charles (Stepping In for Williams)

Runner-up Suzette Charles, representing New Jersey, stepped in for Vanessa Williams after her resignation. Charles was used to being in the spotlight as she was a child performer. She landed a spot on Sesame Street and The Electric Company when she was only eight years old.

Suzette Charles posing with the host Gary Collins
Suzette Charles and Miss America host Gary Collins. Source: Pinterest

Since her brief period as the pageant queen in 1984, she performed on several soap operas and showed off her vocal talent on tours with some major artists, such as Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder. She’s now 57 years old with two children and a husband, Dr. Leonard Bley.

1985: Sharlene Wells (The First Foreign and Bilingual Winner)

Born in Paraguay, Miss Utah Sharlene Wells became the only foreign-born, bilingual contestant to win the Miss America crown. At the 1985 pageant, she showed her talent of playing the Paraguayan harp and sang in Spanish for what was then a record audience of over 100 million viewers.

Sharlene Wells holding a bouquet of roses

After she graduated magna cum laude from BYU, Wells earned another “first.” She became one of the first women to work on-air for ESPN in 1987. She later earned an Emmy nomination for her work as well as the Miller Lite Women’s Sports Journalism award.

1986: Susan Akin

1985 was the last year that bust, waist, and hip measurements would appear in the show. As race and diversity was one positive step, this was one towards focusing less on physical appearance. At the time, critics of Miss America wanted the pageant to eliminate the swimsuit portion completely, but the organization agreed to remove the sizing information only.

Susan Akin posing with her crown / Susan Akin being crowned by Sharlene Wells
Sharlene Wells crowning Susan Akin. Source: / Pinterest

Susan Akin won in 1986 after computer modeling had successfully predicted that Akin would win the title, with odds of seven to one. During these years, she participated in over 110 pageants. She also traveled extensively with Bob Hope, performing mainly in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

1989: Gretchen Carlson (The One Played by Nicole Kidman in Bombshell)

Long before her prominent news career, Miss America winner Gretchen Carlson took home the crown and sash. She then joined the board of the organization. However, Gretchen faced some backlash as multiple Miss Americas came forward, demanding that Gretchen resign from the board for bullying multiple contestants.

Gretchen Carlson wearing her crown / Gretchen Carlson posing with her crown and a large bouquet of roses
Source: / Photo by Everett, Shutterstock

Carlson only resigned as Chairwoman of the Board in 2019. Carlson is actually one of the major players in the Fox News scandal that claimed sexual harassment. In the film Bombshell, Carlson was played by Nicole Kidman. She was once named one of the 100 most Influential People in the World.

1990: Debbye Turner

With a new decade, Miss America now saw winners become more and more invested in social justice causes. It was a new era in which every winner was required to have a platform/special cause that they would then speak about during their national speaking tour.

Debbye Turner playing the xylophone / Debbye Turner posing with a bouquet of roses
Source: Pinterest /

Debbye Turner was crowned in 1990 and was the first to have an official platform. Hers was “Motivating Youth to Excellence.” Turner went on to be a staff correspondent for CBS News, a position she has held since 2001. She’s also a resident veterinarian for The Early Show. She earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 1991.

1992: Carolyn Suzanne Sapp

In 1991, Regis Philbin and Kathy Lee Gifford co-emceed the event. Winner Carolyn Suzanne Sapp became the first contestant from Hawaii to win the crown. In 1993, the rules regarding age changed again. Contestants now had to be between 17 and 24 to enter the contest.

Carolyn Sapp posing with her crown / Carolyn Sapp being crowned

However, this age change eventually became controversial. Later on, in 2014, Amanda Longacre (the former Miss Delaware) sued the organization for unfairly disqualifying her. She entered the competition fully disclosing her age, only to be disqualified for turning 25 that October. She was replaced after only a few weeks into her reign and lost her scholarship money. According to court documents, a senior official at the Miss Delaware Scholarship Organization told her they would make it up to her by “throwing her a wine and cheese pajama party.”

1995: Heather Whitestone (The First Deaf Winner)

Heather Whitestone made history when she became the first deaf woman to be crowned Miss America. She had lost her hearing when she was only 18 months old. She started the STARS program, Success Through Action and Realization of your Dreams, and traveled the globe participating in campaigns to identify early hearing loss.

A portrait of Heather Whitestone wearing her crown / Heather Whitestone smiling and signing ‘I love you’ while wearing the crown on stage
Source: / Pinterest

In 2011, thanks to a cochlear implant, she gained some of her hearing back. Whitestone wrote four books, raised three sons, and became a spokesperson for the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education. She continues as an advocate for the deaf community and others with disabilities.

1999: Nicole Johnson

The 1998 Miss America pageant finally allowed contestants to wear two-piece bathing suits, the first time since 1947. It may be hard to believe now, but bikinis were banned in the pageant until 1997. In 1999, Nicole Johnson won the crown and became not only the first winner with diabetes but the first with any type of life-threatening disease.

A portrait of Nicole Johnson wearing her crown / Nicole Johnson looking very excited while being crowned
Source: / Pinterest

She publicized her insulin pump. Her official platform was “Diabetes Awareness,” and since her reign, she’s worked as a journalist, international consultant, and advocate for diabetes issues, raising over $26 million for research on the disease.

1999: A New Controversial Rule

CEO Robert Beck announced that there would no longer be a rule that contestants couldn’t be divorced or have had an abortion. The rule, which had been in place since 1950, was abolished after he was advised that such a rule might be in violation of New Jersey anti-discrimination laws. The new rule stated that the contestant should be currently unmarried and not a parent of any child.

Mallory Hagan reacting excitedly to being crowned Miss America in 2013
Source: Shutterstock

This move was met with extreme backlash, however. The reigning queen, Nicole Johnson, expressed disappointment, and many pageant officials were against it, claiming the new rules “strike at the very heart of the ideal that Miss America represents.” Beck was fired two weeks after his announcement. The rule still stands: “Miss America must be childless.”

2000: Heather Renee French

Miss Kentucky Heather French was the first winner of the new millennium, choosing to speak about raising awareness of homeless veterans. By the end of her year as Miss America, she was awarded the Woman of Achievement Award and was later given the Purple Heart Recognition Award for her advocacy on veterans’ issues.

Heather French holding her crown / Heather French excited while being crowned
Source: / Pinterest

A year after winning the crown, she gave birth to her first daughter with her husband and Kentucky Lt. Governor Stephen Henry. She’s also a published children’s book author and executive director of the Heather French Foundation for Veterans, Inc.

2004: Ericka Dunlap

After the 9/11 terror attacks, there was a debate on whether to postpone the show. In the end, contestants decided against postponing it, and Oregon’s Katie Marie Harman was crowned.

Ericka Dunlap looking excited while being crowned / Ericka Dunlap and her husband with their backpacks on the show Amazing Race
Source: / IMDb

In 2004, Ericka Dunlap became the first Black contestant to hold the title of Miss Florida before entering the Miss America competition. She won the crown over runners-up Kanoelani Gibson (Miss Hawaii) and Tina Sauerhammer (Miss Wisconsin.) You might recognize both Dunlap and her husband, who went on to compete on the 15th season of The Amazing Race.

After record-low ratings, ABC dropped the pageant in October of 2004, with Atlantic City following suit in August of the next year.

2005: Deidre Downs

Alabama’s Deidre Downs got involved in the pageant world so that she could finance her education at the University of Virginia. She gave up her volleyball scholarship to focus on her studies. The Rhodes Scholar finalist won awards for her community service efforts.

Deidre Downs holding her crown / Deidre Downs waving on stage after winning Miss America
Source: / Pinterest

When her 16-month reign came to an end in 2006, she became a spokesperson for the hearing health campaign Sound Effects. She shared her own experiences of hearing loss and wearing a digital hearing aid.

Around this time, Miss America moved to Las Vegas and got picked up by CMT (Country Music Television). With that, the pageant started being held in January, a format that hasn’t been working since 1950.

2008: Joining the Reality TV World

In 2008, the pageant changed networks again (due to CMT’s low ratings), now broadcast on TLC (The Learning Channel), a channel that was struggling for relevance in the new millennium. In an attempt to bring the show into the 21st century, they added an interactive component: a 16th finalist was chosen by the audience at home.

Miss America Kirsten Haglund posing in front of a backdrop with ‘TLC,’ ‘Miss America,’ and ‘Planet Hollywood’ written all over it
Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008. Source: Shutterstock

There was also a move made to capitalize on the country’s growing obsession with reality television. TLC started airing a show called Miss America: Reality Check. They filmed the boot camp leading up to the pageant, thus turning it into a reality show.

2010: Caressa Cameron

Miss Virginia Caressa Cameron won the crown this year. She beat the rest in the talent portion of the pageant and competed on a platform of HIV/AIDS awareness. During her reign, she spoke to more than 10,000 students around the country, receiving the President’s Volunteer Service Award for her efforts in raising AIDS education awareness in middle schools.

Caressa Cameron showing off her crown as she poses on the red carpet / Caressa Cameron being crowned Miss America with Mario Lopez standing aside her
Source: Shutterstock

She traveled over 250,000 miles in her year of service, calling her platform “Real Talk: AIDS in America.” She performed during the 2009 Presidential Inauguration and the 2010 White House Christmas Tree lighting.

2011: Teresa Scanlan (The First Time Gay Rights Was Raised)

Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan was 17 when she won, becoming the youngest to win in recent pageant history. She’s also the first winner from Nebraska to hold the title. Scanlan later revealed that she suffered from depression during her tenure.

Teresa Scanlan on the red carpet wearing her crown / Teresa Scanlan on stage holding a large bouquet of roses after being crowned
Photo by Carolyn Contino, BEI, Shutterstock / Source: Shutterstock

The 2011 competition also featured the first contestant to raise the issue of gay rights. Miss New York 2010, Claire Buffie, was placed in the top 12. Buffie said she chose the issue of gay rights “because my older sister, Sarah, is gay, and I have a lot of gay friends and a gay roommate.”

2011 was the year Miss America went back “home” to ABC, but it still was being held in Las Vegas to appeal to a younger audience.

2012: Laura Kaeppeler

Wisconsin’s Laura Kaeppeler won the crown and traveled 20,000 miles per month, working with organizations that advocated for children of incarcerated parents. Kaeppeler is known for her singing voice, which she’s lent to many sporting events.

Laura Kaeppeler holding her crown on the red carpet in 2012 / Laura Kaeppeler tearing up excitedly while being crowned
Source: Shutterstock

2012 was another history-making year, as Montana’s Alexis Wineman was the first contestant with autism. Wineman was diagnosed when she was 11 years old, and seven years later, she represented the state of Montana at the 2013 pageant, also marking her as the third disabled contestant in the pageant’s history.

The next year, Miss America returned to Atlantic City in September 2013.

2013 and 2014: Mallory Hagan and Nina Davuluri

As a result of the move to Atlantic City, 2013’s winner, Mallory Hagan, only served for nine months. After that, New York’s Nina Davuluri took the crown. Sadly, she quickly became the target of racism and xenophobia. The Indian-American was frequently misidentified as Middle Eastern or Muslim and associated with terrorist organizations.

Mallory Hagan holding a large bouquet of roses while wearing the crown on the red carpet / Nina Davuluri wearing the crown
Source: Shutterstock / Photo by Mediapunch, Shutterstock

Davuluri became the first Indian-American to win, performing a Bollywood dance for her talent portion. 2013 saw another first: Miss Kansas Theresa Vail was the first contestant to show off her tattoos. As she explained: “My whole platform is empowering women to overcome stereotypes and break barriers. What a hypocrite I would be if I covered my ink.”

2016: Betty Cantrell

Despite a controversial answer to a question about Tom Brady’s scandal of “Deflategate,” Georgia’s Betty Cantrell won the crown. Then, Erin O’Flaherty of Missouri competed in the 2017 pageant as the first openly gay contestant. She had come out during college, which was when she began competing in pageants.

Betty Cantrell on the red carpet in 2016
Photo by Brian To / Shutterstock / Shutterstock

“I can’t tell you how many positive messages I get on a daily basis from people, and not only in the LGBT community,” she said. She didn’t win, but it was nonetheless a big leap for LGBT representation on the pageant circuit.

2017: The Email Scandal

In December 2017, several high-ranking officials in the organization were fired or resigned due to a leak of emails that contained insults, profanity, and other unprofessional remarks about the pageant’s previous winners. There was even one death wish.

Gretchen Carlson on the red carpet in 2020
Gretchen Carlson. Photo by Broadimage / Shutterstock

The three officials, CEO Sam Haskell, President Josh Randle, and Chairman Lynn Weidner, were ousted after an open letter called for their removal. Former Miss America Gretchen Carlson was then appointed chairman of the organization in January 2018. She became the first former winner to join as Chairman. Now on board, she changed a few things…

2018: The Swimsuit Era Is Over

Carlson announced that the upcoming 2018 event would not include a swimsuit portion and declared that it be called competition from now on, rather than a pageant. Moreover, women would be called candidates instead of contestants.

Miss America Cara Mund posing at the lookout at the Empire State building 2017
Cara Mund, Miss America 2017. Photo by Mediapunch / Shutterstock

She also announced that candidates would no longer be judged on their physical appearance. You can imagine how mixed the reactions were. Her reign set off a civil war inside the organization, with rivals accusing her of illegally seizing power and shaking things up too much. It was then that Carlson was accused of bullying.

2019: Camille Schrier (The Reigning Winner)

Carlson stepped down, and former Miss South Dakota Shantel Krebs took over in the leadership role. She told The Post that the talent competition was now going to be a lot like Shark Tank or a TED talk. 2019 saw biochemist Camille Schrier win by conducting a science experiment in her talent portion.

Camille Schrier spinning in her red strapless ball gown 2020
Photo by Lev Radin / Pacific Press / Shutterstock

Viewers watched as she tossed liquid into flasks of hydrogen peroxide and saw the colorful bursts of foam fly into the air. It was a pretty big change, considering how many past candidates traditionally had talents such as music, singing, and dancing.

Miss America is scheduled to continue in 2021 due to the pandemic.