Originally appeared in High Times, Jan. 1983
At the Greyhound Gate to Atlantic City, three ticket-holding blind persons were swiftly refused entry by the bus driver. The seats were oversold; the door pumped shut and off he drove. One of them began to cry because she had been separated from a blind companion already on the bus. The two others were shaken up, their dreams of attending Miss America pretty much shattered. A dozen last-minute beauty-pageant freaks stood cursing on the Greyhound ticket line at Port Authority New York, in a desperate attempt to make the show. It was the final night of the 1982 Miss America Pageant.
I was able to make a 5:30 New Jersey Transit bus, hoping to land an interview with the First Runner-Up on the morning after. Who cared about Miss America? The First Runner-Up was a hotter subject; she’d be neglected, bitter, dying for an interview, suffering from the pain of the greatest almost in her life. She wouldn’t get her face on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or see herself in Nestle ads. But what were the functions of First Runner-Up? Was she sort of the vice-president, ready to jump in should Miss America get impeached or assassinated? Furthermore, I’d get to blurt out great questions, like, “Do you believe in premarital sex?”
During the three-hour journey, we passed through eight toll booths, which many folks can’t afford on the way back. At the outskirts of Atlantic City was a mile-long stretch of makeshift parking lot, filled to capacity on the climactic night of the seven-day pageant. From the bus depot, I made a beeline to the stadium-sized Convention Center, adjacent to the Playboy Hotel. Only four contestants were put up at the Playboy, the least of any hotel. The other 46 girls were divvied up by the remaining eight casinos, who boasted their pictures in the lobbies.
Swarming over the boardwalk was a Halloween-like procession of Miss America freaks—clean-cut families with little girls decked out in Jr. Miss America gowns and crowns, sending little boys into breathless double takes—for a minute, by golly, you might mistake one for a real contestant.
I made it to the Press Hospitality Center in the nick of time. Here was a spread of ham and cheese sandwiches, sodas, TV monitors, and eight courtesy typewriters. A few hundred members of the straightest press I’d ever seen warmly greeted each other at this blessed event. They would spread the good news into every town and hamlet in the USA. Priority One Badges were given only to “wire service personnel,” reps of “area newspapers meeting deadlines,” official Miss America Pageant photogs, NBC News. These folks were given runway seats, and first privileges for interviews and pictures. I don’t recall what publications Priority Two encompassed, but they invented a brand new Priority Three for High Times. I picked up my press badge, with my name badly misspelled, and was directed to two wrong locations before being seated light-years from the stage in these sub-bleachers. An old, drunken photographer shared my location, hiccupping in a stupor. Above me was a thirty-foot-high monitor screen, the transparent backside of which I could see through if I craned my neck. From this I observed the pageant.
But no matter. Miss America was a good thing, not a negative thing, the most glamorous high-school graduation ceremony around. Hundreds of girls won fat scholarships through the bush leagues of the Miss America system, learned poise, dignity, the spirit of competition. These fifty angels had won local and state pageants, they were the pride and joy of their communities, an inspiration to millions of little lassies who dreamed of someday winning the coveted crown. The Miss America Pageant could also be a springboard to talk-show hostom, the most sought-after goal among contestants. These were Positive Girls, my favorite kind.
The show opened with a slapdash medley of pop songs that contained so many metaphorical references to prostitution, I gagged on my soda. “I’m a Working Girl,” they sang, leading into a chorus of “Les girls,” and some out-of-context lines from “I Am Woman.” Next, they introduced ten semifinalists in evening gowns to the tune of “Send in the Clowns.” Gary Collins was host—a second-rate sub for the out-to-pasture Bert Parks. His wife, Mary Ann Mobley, was among the parade of former Miss Americas who walked the runway before the show. Miss America 1933 got the largest applause on the 50th anniversary of her title, and there were many missing and/or dead Miss Americas who couldn’t make it.
Among the distinguished panel of seven judges were Foster Brooks, professional “drunk,” Rod McKuen, who recently saw fit to publicize himself as a victim of homosexual child-rape, and Wink Martindale, host of some atrocity called Tic-Tac-Dough. Now, here were fifty gals who had spent years training for this, the Olympics of beauty contests, and it all rode on the judgment of Foster, Rod and Wink. Or perhaps they were befitting judges for these slick, well-packaged, professional beauty contestants, carefully groomed by their town fathers to give two-sided answers and smile on cue, as they sought TV careers. But something about Wink irked the shit out of me.
The most bizarre “talent” of the evening was displayed by Miss Arizona. Although the program described it as “Free Form Gymnastics,” it was nothing short of contortion. She whipped her legs back over her spine into some grotesque spiderlike posture and crawled around the stage. Apparently, her sponsors felt this hideous contortion would cinch the crown, but who the hell needed a tarantula-woman for Miss America?
When the new Miss America took her celebrated walk down the runway, a brigade of eighteen New Jersey state troopers followed closely behind the TV camera, in case one of those Priority One press people made a lunatic lunge for the Miss.
The drunken photog awoke. “I’m gonna see what’s-iz-name, Brooks Foster,” he bragged, tripping past me. “And then I’ll say hello to my good pal, Wink.”
The big press conference for the Newly Crowned was held in the carnival tent Press Center. With her splendid-girl Court of Honor and a police escort, Miss America, having had an ample half-hour to wipe away the tears, and probably change panties, posed for ten minutes of pix (photogs only) in a sealed-off tent. Then, with cameras still whirring, she was escorted to the podium for questioning. Miss California she was, and just a tad slurry-looking compared to last year’s Elizabeth Ward, who was as wholesome as bleached Wonder Bread. Debra Sue Maffett, blond, twenty-five, former drum majorette, all-round Positive Girl, first defended her nose job as a “medical operation for a deviated septum”; all of her family had required nose jobs to correct this breathing problem (amyl poppers, coke abuse? Huffin’ glue? Lacquer heads? Bus-fume suckers?). Debra Sue dated several men (“No one seriously”), and was a member of the National Man Watcher’s Association, which led her to hand out Well Worth Watching cards to men at random.
It was later revealed that this winner, Miss California, had failed in three attempts to be crowned Miss Texas. After the third try at Texas, she had “extensive cosmetic surgery” before entering the California Pageant, according to the muckraking director of the Miss Texas Pageant. “Her nose, her chin, and I’m not sure what else.” (Debra Sue hailed from a small town actually called Cut and Shoot, Texas.)
Besides the twenty-grand pageant prize, Debra Sue would bring in over $100,000 during her Miss A. reign from public appearances and ads. “I’m still just Debbie and I’ll still be just Debbie when it’s over,” said the sweet thing. “I’d like to have a talk show, be a wife and mother, there’s so much I want to do—”
After the Saturday-night broadcast, at midnight, the pageant officially relinquished its supervision over all contestants, save for the new Miss America. The forty-nine losers were on their own, and most would skip town first thing in the morning. I had to act fast, and spent the following hour seeking the whereabouts of First Runner-Up, Desiree Denise Daniels, Miss Tennessee. She was on the sixth floor at the Tropicana. Only four messages awaited her at the front desk when I added mine—request for interview with High Times mag at her convenience on Sunday. I hit the blackjack tables till 4 a.m., checking the front desk every half-hour, but Miss Tennessee hadn’t answered her red message light. There was no answer each time the desk clerk phoned.
At 4 a.m. I discovered that every hotel on the boardwalk was booked solid. But I hadn’t counted on the flophouses being sold out, which they were during Miss America week. The next chapter of my Miss America nightmare unfolded with an endless series of NO VACANCY signs all the way to the back streets of the Monopoly board. Fleabag motel clerks found it laughable when I asked if they knew of any vacancies. I took to the streets, a loser at the casinos.
At 8 a.m., Room 217 at the Bull Shippers Plaza Motor Inn on Pennsylvania Avenue became available. I grabbed it. There was even a telephone, on which to make frantic backup calls for other contestant interviews. A Black hooker tried to bust into my room, but no dice, honey, I was here for the First Runner-Up. A dozen calls later, I broke through the incredible protective layers of hostesses and hometown security nets that surrounded Miss Tennessee. These girls were harder to reach than Bo Derek. Everything had to be cleared through some men in Room 4425 at Caesar’s—her “state traveling companions.” A fifteen-minute interlude could be arranged if I showed up at Caesar’s front desk by 11 a.m. Lying on a firm mattress at the Bull Shippers Inn, I nauseously refined my twenty Runner-Up questions.
Needless to say, some good old boys from Tennessee—tough-looking ones in their forties—showed up by noon. They explained something about “gals and schedules”; the women were still packing at the Tropicana, they apologized, and they’d have to catch a plane, so no interviews. I made a few more calls to sponsors of other contestants, but couldn’t even pin down Miss Alaska. The prettiest contestant of them all, Miss Georgia, was reportedly packing her last bags right there at Caesar’s, but her people also gave me the runaround. (Was it High Times? Should I have whipped out the Screw press pass?) Out in the streets, Miss America contestants and their entourages were leaving in unstoppable droves. But I had been a bad little reporter who came unconnected, and couldn’t even land whoever came in fiftieth. By this time, I would have even made a mad dash for Wink fuckin’ Martindale. But even he had skipped town.
© 1983, 2010, Josh Alan Friedman