Miss America Can’t Save Atlantic City

The out-of-touch celebration of docile womanhood is just another sad reminder of how far the town has fallen.

Wrapped in brown construction paper in my office are two Miss America composites that I bought last year from an antique store in Cape May. One is from 1950, the other 1959. In the 1950 photo, the women are standing together on the boardwalk, in one-piece bathing suits with thick shoulder straps and bottoms that cut straight across their thighs. In 1959, they’re decked out in evening gowns, belled at the bottom, white gloves up past their elbows.

I should hate Miss America, for two very big reasons.

First, I should despise an event that celebrates bikini bodies, bleached smiles, shiny hair and that all the best girls are pretty pretty pretty! There is no sparkly blanket of scholarship big enough to smother the old fashioned values the pageant celebrates. As long as being judged on how you look in a bathing suit counts a sliver of a percentage toward who wins the crown, Miss America will always be a beauty pageant.

Second, bringing back an antiquated event on an already-busy September weekend is not going to make a dent in Atlantic City’s ticker tape list of problems. It’s not going to save the city. No one thing will, but I can think of a lot better ways to spend the $7.3 million N.J. has thrown at the pageant—plus the $1.7 million spent to reinforce the boardwalk to hold pageant crowds—to bring the show back here from Las Vegas.

But there they are, the ladies not quite yet on my wall.

Miss America is a leftover from Atlantic City’s glory days, born in the era of diving horses, vaudeville shows played out on piers stretching over the ocean, and of Nucky Johnson, the real-life inspiration for Nucky Thompson of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The first pageant winner, Margaret Gorman, was 16. Her crown looked like a piece of coral.

By the time I spent my summers in a campground 30 miles south of the city in the 1980s, Atlantic City had fallen very far from grace, a slide that started when the U.S. Army moved out of its hotels and boarding houses after WW II.

Gambling, introduced in 1976, was pitched as a savior, but all the money and development that was meant to lift its residents out of poverty were dumped into behemoth casino and hotel complexes on the boardwalk, and stayed there.

After the casinos came to town, Miss America—outdated as she may have been—stood as a gambling antidote. Here was this thing, this one thing that was a reminder of what once was popular when, as my grandmother told me, women wore their best furs to stroll down the boardwalk, even on hot summer nights.

As a kid, I’d watch the pageant on TV while lying on the living room floor with my mother and sister. We’d laugh at the tap dancing, the big hair, and the gush of the winner tears. But by the time I went to college in the late 1990s, I was watching the spectacle in my dorm by myself. The reality of the way women actually lived in America had finally caught up. Viewership waned. In 2005, ABC dropped the pageant. Organizers asked for more money to stay in Atlantic City on top of the $720,000 already given them by the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, and when they didn’t get it, they decamped to Las Vegas in 2006. Atlantic City, which was so broken in so many ways, had been its home, but as soon as they had the chance, the pageant bolted. I stopped watching.

I’m not surprised it didn’t work out in Las Vegas. Miss America is no less old fashioned except a few of the contestants have tattoos. And the whole thing is as fake as ever. Those pictures of Miss America contestants posing in front of the Atlantic City airport? Staged. They had been bussed in for the photos.

So the pageant’s coming back to Atlantic City with a couple million of taxpayer dollars while our Gov. Chris Christie cries poverty and does things like refuse to set up a state-run health insurance exchange, block the permanent expansion of Medicaid and the full instatement of the Homestead Tax rebate program. Homes at beach towns north of Atlantic City are still tipped into the sand. Atlantic City remains in a cycle of poverty and crime. Revel went bankrupt, not even a year after opening. Casino earnings, which include everything not just gambling, are down 45 percent. Most Americans thought the Atlantic City Boardwalk was tossed into the ocean during Hurricane Sandy when, in reality, the portion of the boardwalk that was shown as broken, one not close to the casino glare, had collapsed long before the storm.

Bringing back a beauty pageant that celebrates pretty, docile women in a world where 40 percent of family breadwinners are female isn’t going to fix these things for Atlantic City. There aren’t enough tourist dollars to go around.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t hung the ladies on my office wall just yet. I bought the composites because they’re a piece of Atlantic City history, albeit an outdated one. But I’m not sure I can take the daily reminder of how far Atlantic City has fallen, and the bad moves being made, like giving millions to a beauty pageant, that keep it mired in such bad place.

On Sept. 15, I’ll be back in that campground, with no way to watch the show.

I won’t be missing much.

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