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Will LGBTQ+ contestants make Miss California relevant again?

It was the first sweltering summer weekend in rural Visalia, a Central Valley farming town known more for pistachios than beauty pageants. As the mercury hit 100 degrees on Saturday afternoon, residents ducked into half a dozen air-conditioned boutiques on Main Street that were packed with sequined gowns and jeweled crowns. 

A few blocks over, 43 women stood in silks and sky-high heels to vie for an iconic four-point crown: Miss California. The 2023 contestants were accomplished engineers, hopeful Olympians and magna cum laude college graduates. 

This year, in the state’s 99th pageant, there were changes. The Miss California 2023 competition, which operates under the banner of the Miss America organization, was moved from its previous locale of Fresno. After nixing the judgment of physical appearance from the competition in 2018, the national organization introduced a new “fitness and health” component. 

And Monroe Lace, Miss San Francisco 2023, became the first transgender woman to walk the stage of the California competition. Lace did not win; Sabrina Lewis, competing as Miss Berkeley, did. But Lace, 25, placed among Miss California’s top 12 semifinalists and swept the popular vote. She also got a final chance to share her talent onstage, performing a poem by Maya Angelou. 

“I am a woman—phenomenally,” Lace said, quoting Angelou at the final round. “Critics themselves have questioned what others see in me. They try so hard, but they can’t touch my inner mystery.” 

The Miss California semi-finalists displayed their evening wear for a final time before the judges picked the winner of the competition on July 1st, 2023. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Nationwide debates about queer and trans visibility have shined a new spotlight on what many have long thought of as an outdated tradition: pageants. LGBTQ+ titleholders are entering Miss California and Miss America’s ranks in droves, both expanding their pool of diverse candidates and challenging latent pageant norms surrounding beauty, gender and womanhood. Fighting waning public interest in these competitions, the famously demure and often apolitical Miss America organization faces a new phase of its decadeslong branding crisis. 

“That brand means so much to people,” said Crystal Lee, Miss California 2013 and that year’s national runner-up. “When a Miss America falls short on what that brand is, and what a ‘Miss America’ should be, [...] people can get really emotional.” 

How Miss America Got Here

Miss America started, in 1921, as a marketing scheme: Newspapers wanted to increase circulation and business ads in the Atlantic City area around Labor Day. In the years that followed, the event morphed into a major competition that celebrated national beauty ideals. Miss America is not to be confused with Miss USA, a subsidiary of the Miss Universe organization formerly owned by Donald Trump.

“People used to say, ‘Miss America is the girl who lives next door; Miss USA is the girl you wish lived next door,”

— Annika Wooton, Miss Kansas 2019-20 and Monroe Lace’s coach

From its inception as a scheme to attract tourists to the Atlantic City Boardwalk to its organization-wide rebranding in 2018, Miss America has always been an institution that reflects the shifting nature of what it means to be a woman. | Video by Jesse Rogala

Yet Miss America has publicly grappled with racial inequities and exclusion throughout its history, and especially in recent years. At the Miss California state competition this past weekend, where all five finalists were women of color, second runner-up Taylor Yamane spoke frequently about the need for diversity in the national organization’s ranks. 

“Being a brand ambassador means embracing diversity,” Yamane, an engineer, said. “The Miss California organization is advancing so much to have working women, women that are professionals, being the new Miss Californias.”

‘Not Our Only Path to Fame’

Even amid public scrutiny and the quibbles of pageantry, competitors fiercely defended the opportunities Miss America has provided. 

For starters, titleholders can win tens of thousands of dollars to help fund their education, with state winners receiving at least $20,000 in scholarships. The Miss America Organization also awards trophies and checks to semifinalists and top-scorers in the talent, interview and evening gown sections. 

And this year, the new Miss California also walked away with free veneers.  

But for many of the candidates—and particularly first-time and LGBTQ+ titleholders like Monroe Lace—the competition helped them discover their true identities and passions at a formative time in their early adulthood. Others saw the competition as an opportunity to perfect their public speaking skills, something that Lee said helped her get into Stanford University. 

“A lot of folks say the Miss America organization is dying. I think it's because women have so many more opportunities to be successful, and this is not our only path to fame.”

— Annika Wooton, Miss Kansas 2019-20

A Narrow View of Womanhood?

The promise of scholarships and crowns has drawn in thousands of hopeful contestants over Miss America’s 100-plus years. But its participants continue to grapple with the question of how womanhood should be measured, and if doing so through pageantry is even worthwhile

“What a lot of critics find problematic is that you're ultimately applying a 1-to-10 scale, from bad to good, on aspects of someone that they can't control,” Lee said, referring to the pageant’s judgment of beauty standards. “A lot of the women choose to compete because it's a place in which their natural gifts are celebrated.”

It’s hardly a new debate. Feminist activists first formally protested Miss America in 1968, crying out for equality as they threw brassieres and eyelash curlers into a “freedom trash can.” More than 50 years later, another chorus of outcries—this time related to the #MeToo movement—spurred the organization to dub the pageant “Miss America 2.0.” 

The 2018 rebrand nixed the bikini competition and changed the terms of the “evening gown” segment to allow Hillary Clinton-type pants suits or encourage other less traditionally feminine types of formal wear, part of numerous efforts to prioritize inclusion and advocacy in the competition. 

Delegates regularly cite the Miss California competition as an empowering experience that provides an array of professional opportunities but that can also require certain sacrifices. | Video by Jesse Rogala

Competitors say more diverse candidates won crowns and sashes after the rebrand. Onstage, the women spoke more candidly about politics and representation, as LGBTQ+ candidates wore their identities on their sleeves and more plus-size women were crowned. 

“I don't think a woman who looks like me before 2018 could have been allowed in any pageant, let alone Miss America,” said Miss Greater Derry 2023 Brían Nguyen, a New Hampshire social media influencer and the first transgender woman to win a local title. 

Not everyone was happy

“We are no longer a pageant,” wrote former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, who at the time was chair of the competition’s Board of Trustees. Other commentators took to the media to dissect if Miss America could survive Me Too’s upheavals or whether Miss America’s inability to keep up with the times would send it into a “tailspin of fatal uncoolness.”  

Today, some competitors say that Miss America is slowly slipping back to its old, pre-2018 values. For the current competition cycle, Miss America expanded the age limit to 28 years and added spoken-word performance as an acceptable talent. But the competition’s former “social impact initiative” may receive softer language, rebranded as a “service initiative.” Leadership also introduced a component that seemingly judges candidates by their physiques: fitness and health.

Brían Nguyen, Miss Greater Derry 2023, details her view of the pageant's view of change and progress. | Video by Jesse Rogala

Old-fashioned eligibility requirements remain: Miss America candidates can’t be married, nor can they have children during their reign. And contracts obtained by The Standard suggest that the organization may introduce tighter rules around gender for the 2025 competition cycle.

Former Miss Stamford Leah Juliett, a nonbinary activist, stepped down from their Connecticut title after hearing of rumored changes that could restrict future transgender competitors.

“The crown is just a symbol,” Juliett said. “It doesn't make sense to me why anyone would stay in the organization once it no longer represents what they thought it would, initially, when they joined.” 

In Perpetual Flux

Today, the Miss America organization, under new CEO Robin Fleming, must learn to balance the “traditional values” of its core identity and growing demands for diversity. Fleming has promised to “improve and expand” the organization, rolling out even more changes. But with the constant adding and subtraction of rules, some wonder if Miss America just doesn't know how to stay relevant in today’s fast-moving society. 

“If Miss America [happened] with its rules today, and I had an opportunity to compete in it, I probably would not. It’s the fact that they keep on changing, not necessarily the changes themselves.” 

— Crystal Lee, Miss California 2013

Contestants who became “firsts”—the first woman of color or the first openly LGBTQ+ candidate—describe how they often felt caught between the pressure to carry the torch for their communities while upholding the pageant’s ever-shifting brand. 

“Obviously as a first, as the first [trans woman] in this organization, there is this tiptoeing of ‘celebration’ and ‘individuality,'” said Nguyen, who is 19. “For me, I went into this organization, and it wasn't for me to be a trans liberator. However, as a trans person, it was very important for me to retain visibility and to open up that space.” 

Diverging national and organizational ideologies can make it daunting to speak out—especially after former queens have in the past received public backlash for doing so. Contestants told The Standard they were concerned about getting blacklisted after speaking their minds, and Miss California contestants were reminded in June that they could not “make statements that conflict with the mission of the brand.”

The Miss California executive director, Russ Gladden, declined to comment for this story, and The Standard was denied press access to the state competition. 

A Lifelong Dream

This year’s Miss California competition was a far cry from the original pageantry that characterized the pageant’s early years. Long gone were the boardwalks, press pools and televised sponsors. The Miss California 2023 competition was a carefully subdued event, tucked away in a rural town with barely any public signage and a sparse audience. 

If anything, the Miss California competition’s quieter production served as a metaphor for the current climate of uncertainty percolating around the pageant. Miss California’s state director mentioned onstage that the volunteer-run Miss California organization struggled financially during the pandemic, though Fleming disputed this and Gladden indicated that the state organization has since bounced back. 

But Fleming has pledged to double the amount of pageant participants in the coming years, and several judges at the Miss California competition said they were looking to crown a “brand ambassador” above all else. 

"A beauty pageant winner “walks the fine line of both being herself, but also meeting the impossible standard of honoring these visions that millions of people have in their heads.”

— Crystal Lee, Miss California 2013

Still, the crown remains a lifelong dream for the delegates—a group that includes engineers, tech entrepreneurs and a prospective Olympian. Many of them simply grew up watching Miss America on television. 

“As a trans woman, I never thought I could be part of a sisterhood,” Lace said during the interview round. “But there are 42 girls behind me who support me and love me for who I am. And that is why sisterhood is part of the Miss America organization—because all women deserve to be part of Miss California.” 

Miss Berkeley, Sabrina Lewis, was crowned Miss California this year and will advance to represent the state in the Miss America competition. | Video by Jesse Rogala

Lewis, Miss California 2023, will compete for the Miss America crown near the end of this year. A pageant veteran with experience in the glamorous Miss USA organization, Lewis is perhaps exactly what Miss America is looking for: Someone with the ambition to reach as far as the Olympics and academia, but whose polished, slender red-carpet looks embody the brand that Miss America first introduced a century ago, on a boardwalk in Atlantic City.