Indian touch breathes life into moribund Miss America pageant

WASHINGTON (TIP): How much the nearly century-old Miss America pageant has declined in salience is best illustrated by this joke on Jay Leno’s late night show following the crowning of Indian-American Nina Davuluri last weekend: Apparently, he cracked, Davuluri won the title by answering a question that no one else could possibly answer: ”What is the name of last year’s Miss America?” Indeed, few if any remember the winners in previous pageants going back many years. After nearly half-century of live and televised dominance (at its peak in the 1960s it was the highest rated TV program in America), the Miss America competition steadily declined in popularity till it was turfed out of its stomping grounds — or catwalk — in Atlantic City and on ABC television. Exiled to Las Vegas and sundry TV channels in 2004, when its audience dwindled to fewer than 10 million (down from 33 million just six years before), the pageant was all but written off. Until now.

Crowning a dusky Indian-American beauty on its return to Atlantic City and ABC seems just the tonic — or wellengineered coincidence — that the flagging pageant needed. The Miss America organization said this week this year’s competition raked in the best ratings in nine years, and the winner, Nina Davuluri, has generated more interest and requests for appearances than any previous Miss America — especially from India, her country of origin. “There’s been a lot of buzz about Nina, but I think a lot has to do with her being the first Indian American to become Miss America. We’re very happy about it, but it’s just hard to keep up,” Erica Fiocco, marketing coordinator for Miss America, was quoted as telling the Syracuse Post- Standard, Davuluri’s home town newspaper, citing the flood of interview requests from US and around the world, particularly India. In fact, demand is so strong that organizers say they will probably send Davuluri to India sometime in the coming months. It’s a giant leap for the pageant that has long been inward looking — and for the longest time, restricted to whites.

In fact, non-white women were barred from competing till the 1970s, a restriction that was said to be codified in the pageant’s “rule number seven,” which stated that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Although African- Americans appeared in musical numbers and the margins as far back as 1923 (when they were cast as slaves), it wasn’t until 1974 that the first black winner – Rebecca Ann King – emerged. Since then, there have been more than half dozen colored winners, but it was only at the turn of the century that the first Asian-American won the title. Of course, it is unlikely the pageant will ever regain the oomph of its yesteryears (100,000 people turned up to watch the contest in 1921). The rise of feminism and the civil liberties movement changed America, which is why there is speculation that the organization may be looking abroad to revive its fortunes. And crowning an Indian-American appears to be a happy augury, even though it has generated a new debate about ethnicity and color.

There has been copious commentary on how the dusky beauty went on to become Miss America but would never make the grade in colorconscious India with its fetish for fair skin. Not that color discrimination is a “pigment of the imagination” in US going by a few racist comments on Twitter. But commodification of beauty has increasingly come under attack from liberal quarters. ”A lot of people say having an Indian- American as Miss America is a sign of progress. I think it is. We should pat ourselves on the back for objectifying women without regard to ethnicity,” gibed comedian Craig Ferguson. Indeed, but a few initial flames on Twitter, an Indian-American conquering one of the last frontiers in America has attracted quite a bit of attention to an ethnic group that is already celebrated as America’s most accomplished and successful — even if it perpetuates some stereotypes. In an undisguised aside on Indian computer savvy, Conan O’Brien joked about the three questions the judges asked Davuluri: Why do you want to be Miss America?, What will you do with the prize?, and How do I get my laptop to reboot?’

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