Miss U.S.A., Emma Knight

Louis “Studs” Terkel

I wince when I’m called a former beauty queen or Miss U.S.A. I keep thinking they’re talking about someone else. There are certain images that come to mind when people talk about beauty queens. It’s mostly what’s known as t and a, tits and ass. No talent. For many girls who enter the contest, its part of the American Dream. It was never mine.

You used to sit around the TV and watch Miss America and it was exciting, we thought, glamorous. Fun, we thought. But by the time I was eight or nine, I didn’t feel comfortable. Soon I’m hitting my adolescence, like fourteen, but I’m not doing any dating and I’m feeling awkward and ugly. I’m much taller than most of the people in my class. I don’t feel I can compete the way I see girls competing for guys. I was very much of a loner. I felt intimidated by the amount of competition females were supposed to go through with each other. I didn’t like being told by Seventeen magazine: Subvert your interest if you have a crush on a guy, get interested in what he’s interested in. If you play cards, be sure not to beat him. I was very bad at these social games.
After I went to the University of Colorado for three and a half years, I had it. This was 1968 through ’71. I came home for the summer. An agent met me and wanted me to audition for commercials, modeling, acting jobs. Okay, I started auditioning and winning some.
I did things actors do when they’re starting out. You pass out literature at conventions, you do print ads, you pound the pavements, you send out your résumés. I had come to a model agency one cold day, and an agent came out and said, “I want you to enter a beauty contest.” I said, “No, uh-uh, never, never, never. I’ll lose, how humiliating.” She said: “I want some girls to represent the agency, might do you good.” So I filled out the application blank: Hobbies, measurements, blah, blah, blah. I got a letter: “Congratulations. You have been accepted as an entrant into the Miss Illinois Universe contest.” Now what do I do? I’m stuck.
You have to have a sponsor. Or you’re gonna have to pay several hundred dollars. So I called up the lady who was running it. Terribly sorry, I can’t do this. I don’t have the money. She calls back a couple of days later: “We found you a sponsor, it’s a lumber company.”
It was in Decatur. There were sixty-some contestants from all over the place. I went as a lumberjack: blue jeans, hiking boots, a flannel shirt, a pair of suspenders, and carrying an axe. You come out first in your costume and you introduce yourself and say your astrological sign or whatever it is they want you to say. You’re wearing a banner that has the sponsor’s name on it. Then you come out and do your pirouettes in your one-piece bathing suit, and the judges look at you a lot. Then you come out in your evening gown and pirouette around for a while. That’s the first night.
The second night, they’re gonna pick fifteen people. In between, you had judges’ interviews. For three minutes, they ask you anything they want. Can you answer questions? How do you handle yourself? Your poise, personality, blah, blah, blah. They’re called personality judges.
I thought. This will soon be over, get on a plane tomorrow, and no one will be wiser. Except that my name got called as one of the fifteen. You have to go through the whole thing all over again.
I’m thinking. I don’t have a prayer. I’d come to feel a certain kind of distance, except that they called my name. I was the winner, Miss Illinois. All I could do was laugh. I’m twenty-two, standing up there in a borrowed evening gown, thinking: “What am I doing here? This is like Tom Sawyer becomes an altar boy.”
I was considered old for a beauty queen, which is a little horrifying when you’re twenty-two. That’s much part of the beauty queen syndrome: the young, untouched, unthinking human being.
I had to go to this room and sign the Miss Illinois-Universe contract right away. Miss Universe, Incorporated, is the full name of the company. It’s owned by Kaiser-Roth Incorporated, which was bought out by Gulf & Western. Big business.
I’m sitting there with my glass of champagne and I’m reading over this contract. They said: “Oh, you don’t have to read it.” And I said: “I never sign anything that I don’t read.” They’re all waiting to take pictures, and I’m sitting there reading this long document. So I signed it and the phone rang and the guy was from a Chicago paper and said: “Tell me, is it Miss or Ms.?” I said: “It’s Ms.” He said, “You’re kidding?” I said, “No, I’m not.” He wrote an article the next day saying something like it finally happened: a beauty queen, a feminist. I thought I was a feminist before I was a beauty queen, why should I stop now?
Then I got into the publicity and training and interviews. It was a throwback to another time where crossed ankles and white gloves and teacups were present. I was taught how to walk around with a book on my head, how to sit daintily; how to pose in a bathing suit, and how to frizz my hair. They wanted curly hair, which I hate.
One day the trainer asked me to shake hands. I shook hands. She said: “That’s wrong. When you shake hands with a man, you always shake hands ring up.” I said: “Like the pope? Where my hand is up, like he’s gonna kiss it?” Right. I thought: Holy mackerel! It was a very long February and March and April and May.
I won the Miss U.S.A. pageant. I started to laugh. They tell me I’m the only beauty queen in history that didn’t cry when she won. It was on network television. I said: “No, I’m not kidding.” I didn’t know what else to say at that moment. In the press releases; they call it the great American Dream. There she is, Miss America, your ideal. Well, not my ideal, kid.
The minute you’re crowned, you become their property and subject to whatever they tell you. They wake you up at seven o’clock next morning and make you put on a negligee and serve you breakfast in bed, so that all the New York papers can come in and take your picture sitting in bed, while you’re absolutely bleary-eyed from the night before. They put on the Kayser-Roth negligee, hand you the tray, you take three bites. The photographer leave, you whip off the negligee, they take the breakfast away, and that’s it. I never did get any breakfast that day. (Laughs).
You immediately start making personal appearances. The Jaycees or the chamber of commerce says: “I want to book Miss U.S.A. for Christmas Day parade.” They pay, whatever it is, seven hundred fifty dollars a day, first-class air fare, round trip, expenses, so forth. If the United Fund calls and wants me to give a five-minute pitch on queens at a luncheon, they still have to pay a fee. Doesn’t matter that it’s a charity. It’s one hundred percent to Miss Universe, Incorporated. You get your salary. That’s your prize money for the year. I got fifteen thousand dollars, which is all taxed in New York. Maybe out of a check of three thousand dollars. I’d get fifteen hundred dollars.
From the day I won Miss U.S.A. to the day I left for Universe, almost two months later, I got a day and a half off. I made about two hundred fifty appearances that year. Maybe three hundred. Parades, shopping centers, and things. Snip ribbons. What else do you do at a shopping center? Model clothes. The nice thing I got to was public speaking. They said: “You want a ghost writer?” I said: “Hell no, I know how to talk.” I wrote my own speeches. They don’t trust girls to go out and talk because most of them can’t.
One of the big execs from General Motors asked me to do a speech in Washington, D.C., on the consumer and energy crisis. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the National Management Association. The White House, for some reason, sent me some stuff on it. I read it over, it was nonsense. So I stood up and said, “The reason we have an energy crisis is because we are, industrially and personally, pigs. We have a short-term view of the resources available to us; and unless we wake up to what we’re doing to our air and our water, we’ll have a dearth, not just a crisis.” They weren’t real pleased. (laughs).
What I resent most is that a lot of people didn’t expect me to live this version of the American Dream for myself. I was supposed to live it their way.
When it came out in a newspaper interview that I said Nixon should resign, that he was a crook, oh dear, the fur flew. They got very upset. I got an invitation to the White House. They wanted to shut me up. The Miss Universe Corporation had been trying to establish some sort of liaison with the White House for several years. I make anti-Nixon speeches and this invitation.

I figured they’re either gonna take me down to the basement and beat me up with a rubber hose or they’re gonna offer me a cabinet post. They had a list of fifteen or so people I was supposed to meet. I’ve never seen such a bunch of people with raw nerve endings. I was dying to bring a tape recorder but thought if you mention the word “Sony” in the Nixon White House, you’re in trouble. They’d have cardiac arrest. But I’m gonna bring along a pad and paper. They were patronizing. And when one of ‘em got me in his office and talked about all the journalists on television people being liberals, I brought up blacklisting, Red Channels, and the TV industry. He changed the subject.

Miss Universe took place in Athens, Greece. The junta was still in power. I saw a heck of a lot of jeeps and troops and machine guns. The Americans were supposed to keep a low profile. I have never been a great fan of the Greek junta, but I knew darn well I was gonna have to keep my mouth shut. I was still representing the United States, for better or for worse. Miss Philippines won. I ran second.

At the end of the year, you’re run absolutely ragged. That final evening, they usually have several queens from past years come back. Before they crown the new Miss U.S.A., the current one is supposed to take what they call the farewell walk. They call over the PA. Time for the old queen’s walk. I’m now twenty-three and I’m an old queen. And they have this idiot farewell speech playing over the airwaves as the old queen takes the walk. And you’re sitting in the throne for about thirty seconds, then you come down and they announce the name of the new one and you put the crown on her head. And then you’re out.

As the new one is crowned, the reporters and photographers rush on the stage. I’ve seen photographer shove the girl who has just given her reign up to thirty seconds before, shove her physically. I was gone by that time. I had jumped off the stage in my evening gown. It is very difficult for girls who are terrified of this ending. All of a sudden (snaps fingers), you’re out. Nobody gives a damn about the old one.

Miss U.S.A. and remnants thereof is the crown stored in the attic in my parent’s home. I don’t even know where the banners are. It wasn’t me the fans of Miss U.S.A. thought was pretty. What they think is pretty is the banner and crown on that lamp, I swear to God ten men would come in and ask it for a date. I’ll think about committing an axe murder if I’m not called anything but a former beauty queen. I can’t stand it anymore.

Several times during my year as what’s-her-face I had seen in the movie The Sting. There’s a gesture the characters use which means the con is on: they rub their nose. In my last fleeting moments as Miss U.S.A., as they were playing that silly farewell speech and I walked down the aisle and stood by the throne, I looked right into the camera and rubbed my finger across my nose. The next day, the pageant spent all their time telling people that I hadn’t done it. I spent the time telling them that, of course, I had. I simply meant: the con is on. (Laughs.)

Miss U.S.A. is in the same graveyard that Emma Knight the twelve-year-old is. Where the sixteen-year-old is. All the past selves. There comes a time when you have to bury those selves because you’ve grown into another one. You don’t keep exhuming the corpses.

If I could with every young girl in America for the next fifty years, I could tell them what I liked about the pageant. I could tell them what I hated. It wouldn’t make any difference. There’re always gonna be girls who want to enter the beauty pageant. That’s the fantasy: the American Dream.

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