In New York: The Miss is a Hit

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"I'm so tired. I'm so tired of smiling. "

—Miss Kentucky 1936

It was one of those clear days with a high sky and the tease of a cool front coming through, the kind of day that falsely moves the elderly to wrap up like Admiral Byrd. Autumn was nigh, and with its approach had come a metronomic ritual of this time of year: the crowning of a fresh Miss America. The pageant had taken place in Atlantic City, as always, and then Miss America had traveled to New York City, as always. On this splendid day, bearing baggage filled with finery, she had checked into the Plaza, the starting block on a twelve-month run.

Right off, Vanessa Williams, the 56th Miss America and the first black, was subjected to considerably more attention than Miss Americas in the recent past. The press, perpetually smitten by a "first" in anything, had in hand another Sally Ride, so to speak—a barrier breaker. Absent now were the questions about the "ideal man." Hell, this was political! Williams, in turn, showed the inquisitors that "First Women" these days come with a sting. "I was chosen because I was qualified for the position," she said. "The fact that I was black was not a factor." She took her leave then and went about her business, the business of being Miss America.

For this, the first week, that arrangement meant answering mostly obvious questions. David Letterman asked her how many contestants were in the pageant, and Williams replied 50, as any of 45 million television viewers who saw the pageant could have told him. At a radio station, she was asked whether she was close to the other contestants, and she said it was difficult "to get close to 49 other women in one week." Having said that, she got into an elevator with a local newspaper reporter who asked whether she had acquired a fur. "Yes," said Miss America. "We got it at a wholesale house. It's a dyed mink with a fox collar."

The reporter then identified herself as a member of Friends of Animals. The subject was dropped. After coronation, the snipers come out.

The Miss America pageant has been around so long now that the hoopla usually subsides after a day or two, and Miss America is largely forgotten—unless she shows up in your town—till she crowns her successor the following fall. This Miss America was besieged for days, however, and she thought with good reason that it was probably because she was black, as well as frank, not because, as she would have it so, that she was being recognized for her talent. After all, her talent, singing and dancing, had got her this far, and now her color seemed to be at the heart of everything.

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