Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:00):

Hey, everyone. This is part two of our episodes about Vanessa Williams and Miss America. If you haven’t listened to part one, I recommend starting there.

Clips (00:08):

Our new Miss America is Vanessa Williams, Miss New York.

Jessica Bennett (00:14):

Vanessa Williams upended more than 60 years of white beauty standards when she was crowned Miss America in 1984, making history as the first Black pageant winner, but when a nude photo scandal forced her to cut her reign short, the public shaming was swift and relentless.

Clips (00:30):

Miss America, Vanessa Williams, took off her clothes, and now she’s being asked to give up her crown within 72 hours.

Jessica Bennett (00:37):

Racist hate mail was sent to her parents’ home. Derogatory graffiti was scrawled on shops in her hometown. She was characterized as a slut in the press. As one cultural historian put it, “She became the pageant’s own Hester Prynne,” but Vanessa Williams didn’t go away quietly. She would go on to make a staggering comeback and, of the publisher who released her nude photos, she vowed, “I won’t let that man destroy me.”


I’m Jessica Bennett-

Susie Banikarim (01:09):

… and I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:11):

This is In Retrospect where, each week, we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us-

Susie Banikarim (01:16):

… and that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (01:18):

Today, we’re talking about Vanessa Williams, who made history as the first Black Miss America, but whose win was overshadowed by a scandal that stripped her of her crown. We’re also talking about Miss America, the beauty pageant, that for more than a century sent a particular message about what womanhood was supposed to look like, young, thin, unmarried and white.

Susie Banikarim (01:40):

Jess, let’s take a moment to recap where we ended part one. Vanessa Williams has had this historic win as the first Black Miss America. She’s almost made it through the yearlong term, and it’s been a roller coaster. She’s had these amazing opportunities, but she’s also experienced some pretty explicit racist backlash.

Jessica Bennett (01:58):

Yeah. Exactly.

Susie Banikarim (01:59):

Just before her historic reign ends, Vanessa finds out that the porn magazine, Penthouse, is going to publish a bunch of nude photos she’d posed for as a model a few years before she entered the pageant, and it’s important to say that these nude photos were sold by the photographer without her permission. Right?

Jessica Bennett (02:20):

Yes. Exactly. They’re sold without her permission, and the photos are also with another woman in a lot of suggestive poses, which I’m saying only to note that there’s this homophobic undertone to the whole thing as well and Penthouse, the magazine, of course, really leans into the whole Miss America thing. One of the headlines is Here She Comes…

Susie Banikarim (02:40):

Of course. Of course, that’s how they frame it, and so now, we heard the clip at the top, the Miss America pageant is basically demanding she turn over her crown. They’ve given her just 72 hours to figure out what to do, but it doesn’t really sound like she has options. Right?

Jessica Bennett (02:56):

Yeah. It doesn’t really seem like she has many options, and so Vanessa and her family, and her publicist and her lawyer, they’re all hunkered down in her childhood home in Upstate New York trying to figure out what to do and, meanwhile, as you can imagine, the media is going crazy.

Susie Banikarim (03:11):

I can imagine. I imagine they’re going absolutely nuts.

Jessica Bennett (03:16):

This is the era of the tabloids. The New York Daily News headline says, “Miss America in Nude Pics.” Some of the other headlines, choice headlines, “Vanessa The Undressa”, that was real-

Susie Banikarim (03:27):

That’s terrible.

Jessica Bennett (03:29):

… and Mess America, mess like M-E-S-S, and then another one, “There She is… In the Buff.

Susie Banikarim (03:36):

Your heart really breaks for her. This has to feel so awful. She’s had this incredibly rough, overwhelming year. Even though it’s been exciting, to suddenly be exposed in this way, must feel terrible.

Jessica Bennett (03:49):

She actually in her memoir describes it as feeling like she’d been raped. It’s like it felt so utterly violating, and she had no control over how the images appeared or the fact that they did appear. What was interesting, too, is that all of the press at this time is then going and doing these man-on-the-street interviews where they’re just asking any old, random person what they think, and so there’s this interesting clip that I kept hearing in recap segments of this middle-aged, white lady pontificating on what she has done and what it means for Black people.

Clips (04:22):

I felt that she had the opportunity to do something really good for Black people, and she let them down.

Susie Banikarim (04:30):

Thank you, white lady, for telling us how Black people feel about Vanessa Williams. I’m sure Black people felt some sympathy for her, or at least some people did. I mean, this is not okay when someone releases pictures of you in this way. This is terrible.

Jessica Bennett (04:44):

Well, and it’s interesting, too, because this, of course, is before the time that we understood what that meant. We say now like she didn’t consent to the photos, but people weren’t using that language then. One of the interesting things that happens is that, at this time, she had done this whole cover shoot for Essence Magazine and they had this big piece coming out about her. It was really celebratory of her. When the editor got the news, it was too late to pull her from the cover. There she was in all of these negative headlines and she’s also on the cover of Essence which, interestingly, actually boosted Essence’s sales because, of course, it was now this scandal, but it also hurt their subscriptions because readers thought they were condoning these photos.

Susie Banikarim (05:27):

I mean that’s just ridiculous.

Jessica Bennett (05:29):

Yeah, and, of course, not surprisingly, when Penthouse actually does publish the images soon after Vanessa is given this heads-up, sales for that magazine go absolutely wild.

Clips (05:40):

While the photos may have ended her reign, they have not hurt sales of the magazine. They were booming.

Jessica Bennett (05:46):

Penthouse, by the way, we should note is an explicit magazine like much more so than Playboy. Playboy is considered in this genre like the tasteful one of the two.

Susie Banikarim (05:54):

Of course.

Jessica Bennett (05:56):

Over time, that issue of Penthouse would become the best-selling issue of all time, earning $24 million, none of which Vanessa Williams gets, of course, not that she would want it. It’s interesting because, at this time, Penthouse, this was like its MO, they had done something similar to Suzanne Somers a couple of years earlier. They would do this to Madonna a year later and then, somewhat famously, they did this to Pamela Anderson where they would buy these photos from whoever had them or leaked them. It didn’t matter whether the person who was in the photo had any say in it or wanted them to appear.

Susie Banikarim (06:31):

Oh, that’s right. I remember we talked about that during the Pamela Anderson episode. Okay, so they basically are creeps. I mean, that’s going to be my takeaway from this. This magazine hits the newsstands. What comes next?

Jessica Bennett (06:45):

As you know, the pageant is pushing for her to resign, and Al Marks, who is the head of the Miss America organization at this time, says, “She knows that the photographs are totally inconsistent with the Miss America image.” I mean, sure, and then he goes on to say, “As a man, as a father, as a grandfather, as a human being, I’ve never seen anything like these photos. I can’t even show them to my wife.”

Susie Banikarim (07:09):

I mean why is he showing Penthouse to his wife? Don’t do that then.

Jessica Bennett (07:12):

Or maybe do do that. Anyway, let me just say, for those wondering, because I feel like, if I were listening, I would be wondering what is actually in the photos, they are extremely sexually suggestive. She’s simulating sex acts with this other model. There is full frontal. You can really imagine how mortifying this is for her.

Susie Banikarim (07:30):

I really feel for her. How did her parents react?

Jessica Bennett (07:35):

Yeah. I mean, you can just imagine having to tell your parents this is occurring, but her parents were actually supportive and were, in fact, really opposed to her resigning. Her father told The Post at the time, “Our feeling is that she should continue with it. We feel she’s earned it. We feel it could be seen as an admission of guilt of having done something that was wrong and distasteful, and we don’t feel that she did.”

Susie Banikarim (07:56):

I mean that’s honestly really nice. It’s good that she had supportive parents who really held her up during this because, in a lot of cases, people’s parents aren’t this understanding. I like that for her.

Jessica Bennett (08:07):

Yeah, and there were people who supported her through this, too. I mean, once somebody becomes an underdog, sometimes people come out of the woodwork in support. There were those who took to the streets with signs that said things like, “Long Live the Queen,” and, “Boycott Penthouse,” and were protesting the magazine and really did stand by her.

Clips (08:25):

Long live the queen. Long live the queen.

Jessica Bennett (08:29):

Finally, after her 72 hours are up, Vanessa Williams holds a press conference to address the question of her resignation.

Clips (08:36):

Please, I would like to start. Can everyone hear me? Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of the press, and thank you for your attendance today.

Jessica Bennett (08:45):

She reads from a paper of her prepared remarks. This is a packed room. It’s happening in Manhattan. You can see that she’s charismatic even in the face of these charges. Her voice is clear and calm. She manages to smile and make eye contact.

Clips (09:00):

As you all know, the Miss America pageant has asked for me to resign as Miss America 1984. Now is the time for my response.

Jessica Bennett (09:09):

First, she addresses how the photos came to be. It’s 1982. She’s a freshman in college. She replies to a models-wanted classified ad and, when she goes in, the photographer who’s hiring is basically like, “Look, if you want to be a model, you need a portfolio. I can help you with that,” and so the photographer offers her a summer job as his receptionist and makeup artist. She had some experience in that. She says they had a mostly normal working relationship, but then he would frequently ask if she wanted to pose nude and, eventually, she agrees.

Clips (09:42):

Based on his persistence and encouragement that I would be a good subject and his assurance that the photographs would just be for me to see, I was ultimately persuaded to do a session.

Jessica Bennett (09:56):

First, they do an artsy nude shoot in a forest. These photos are never leaked. Then, a week later, he asks her if she wants to do another nude shoot and, this time, it’s with another woman. The poses in the nude shoot look like they’re meant to be simulating sex.

Clips (10:10):

Each pose was set up. At no time was there any spontaneous or ongoing activity between myself and the other model.

Jessica Bennett (10:21):

One thing I want to note here is that she does tell people later on, “I know these photos look incriminating, but, believe me, there was no lesbian activity.” That, in and of itself, we could unpack, but that’s what she says. He promised her that these would be silhouette-style photos. You wouldn’t be able to see her face. He promises that he will not publish them. He lied, obviously.

Clips (10:43):

After viewing the photos, I was enraged and I felt a deep sense of personal embarrassment. It is one thing to face up to a mistake that one makes in youth, but it’s almost totally devastating to have to share it with the American public and the world at large as both a human being and as Miss American.

Jessica Bennett (11:03):

She then goes on to thank her family, friends and all of those who’ve come to her defense in what she describes as “the most difficult time in my young life” and then she says-

Clips (11:12):

Therefore, I do officially relinquish my title as Miss American 1984 to the Miss America pageant.

Clips (11:33):

Good evening. Miss America Vanessa Williams has lost her crown.

Clips (11:37):

Vanessa Williams yielded her crown as the glamour pageant demanded.

Clips (11:40):

She was stripped of her crown, that apparently being the only thing she had not previously doffed voluntarily.

Susie Banikarim (11:48):

Jess, I’m curious, did she have to resign? Are there actually rules in the pageant that she had violated?

Jessica Bennett (11:54):

Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, technically not, but she had signed a contract swearing to, quote, good moral character, so that leaves it to Miss America to decide what good moral character is, and then she had also pledged that she had not engaged in what they described as acts of moral turpitude. The contract doesn’t define moral turpitude or good moral character, but I think that you can make the assumption that they didn’t think this was appropriate.

Susie Banikarim (12:20):

I’m embarrassed to admit that I do not know what turpitude means.

Jessica Bennett (12:23):

That’s so funny. I was just thinking the same thing. I was like, “What is moral turpitude?” Clearly, we need to Google that, but I feel like we get the gist. Right?

Susie Banikarim (12:31):

We get the idea. We get the idea. Now, she’s resigned. Does she go away quietly, or then what?

Jessica Bennett (12:39):

First off, she vows to keep fighting, which I think is pretty interesting. There’s this famous interview she gives to People Magazine shortly after all this happens in 1984 that she starts by saying, “I’m going to fight if it takes my last dime. I’m fighting for my life and for the people I’ve let down.”

Susie Banikarim (12:55):

Good for her.

Jessica Bennett (12:56):

Yeah, it is good for her, and to be able to say that, she’s not just backing away quietly, but one of the things that is so sad in the same interview is that she talks about how she feels like she hasn’t just let women down, but she’s let the whole Black community down. She goes on to say, “I made a terrible error in judgment. I know I’ll have to pay for it as long as I live,” and then there’s this line, which I feel like is one of these lines I’ve heard repeated and is one of the reasons why I wanted to revisit this story where she says, “But I am not a lesbian and I am not a slut, and somehow I’m going to make people believe me.”

Susie Banikarim (13:31):

I mean, you can understand why she felt the need to say that, but it’s depressing because there’s so many layers of ingrained homophobia and shame around sex in that. It makes sense. She’s a product of her time, but now we would be clear that there’s nothing wrong with being a lesbian and, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with being a slut. Your body, your choice. What happens to the title because it’s pretty close to the end of the term. Right?

Jessica Bennett (14:00):

Good question. I mean, you would think that they could just wait until the following year, but they actually promote, or whatever the word is in Miss America land, her first runner-up, who is this woman Suzette Charles, also a Black woman. She assumes the throne and, when she does, she says she would represent “the wholesome American image”, so really putting herself in contrast to what people were perceiving Vanessa as.

Susie Banikarim (14:23):

I don’t like Suzette Charles. I feel like she’s being rude to Vanessa with this little comment.

Jessica Bennett (14:28):

Yeah. I mean, it does seem that way, and then the pageant allows Vanessa to keep the scholarship money, but she does lose a bunch of money in endorsement deals. That’s a product of being Miss America. All of these companies partner with you. You do endorsements, and so she loses that money. She ultimately ends up suing the magazine and the photographer, but they argue that she had signed waivers allowing them to use the photos.


Vanessa says that’s not the case, but, basically, what happens is her lawyers warn her that her life and her sexual life, if she goes through with the suit, would be put so firmly under the microscope either in discovery or in deposition, and so she drops the suit. Meanwhile, as all of this is going down, it turns out this is great for Miss America, the pageant. They gain renewed interest in 1984. Ticket sales jump by 20%. Viewership briefly leaps back to 74 million. They’re thriving-

Susie Banikarim (15:23):

It’s so crazy. Of course.

Jessica Bennett (15:25):

… in the wake of this scandal.

Susie Banikarim (15:26):

There’s nothing like a scandal to resurrect something.

Jessica Bennett (15:28):

Right, so then you may think we’re getting to the end of the bad parts of this story, but it’s not actually over yet because what happens is that more nude photos come to life-

Susie Banikarim (15:37):

Oh, my God.

Jessica Bennett (15:38):

… and, again, Penthouse prints them out.

Susie Banikarim (15:40):

This poor girl.

Jessica Bennett (15:42):

I know. I know. Basically, this is from a shoot from around the same time, and this is a different photographer, another supposed fashion photographer. The scandal this time is that it was an S&M-esque shoot. Vanessa is in a leather harness and handcuffs, and the photos are published in the January 1985 edition of Penthouse.

Susie Banikarim (16:05):

This time, she thought she had all the negatives. She had actually made the effort to get the negatives of these photos.

Jessica Bennett (16:12):

Yes. In this case, she’s talked about how she was really uncomfortable mid-shoot. She knew that she felt uncomfortable. She cut the shoot short and she went back a week later, I think, with her boyfriend at the time to get all of the negatives, or so she thought. It’s interesting, too, because all of this reminds me of these stories that have come out more recently about Terry Richardson and all of these “fashion photographers” who are men who coerce models.

Susie Banikarim (16:37):

I was just thinking about that. I think, if you were not around for this era, some of these stories may seem strange. Why did she agree to do these things? The reality is, if you were a model coming up in the ’80s, you were asked to do these shoots and, if you didn’t do them, you were considered prude and sometimes dinged in your career, so it was an impossible choice. You needed to show that you were game and you were playful and you were willing to take risks. I’m sure she felt like she had to do this. She felt like-

Jessica Bennett (17:08):

Well, and she’s so young. I mean she’s a teenager, so what better does she know?

Susie Banikarim (17:11):

Yeah, she is so young. It’s always easy to forget when we’re talking about these stories that these are 19, 20, 21-year-old girls usually. Is she really demoralized at this point?

Jessica Bennett (17:21):

She’s so strong. She’s actually steadfast. Even as the second hit, the second terrible thing comes, she’s going to keep fighting. In that People Magazine article I mentioned, she says of the head of Penthouse Magazine, “One thing you can be sure of, I won’t let that man destroy me,” and she doesn’t. She’s adamant that she’s going to fight for the bigger dream for her, which always was to be in the entertainment business, to be a singer, an actress.

Clips (17:47):

I feel, at this time, I should expend my energies in launching what I hope will be a successful career in the entertainment business. I feel my new career will be the greatest challenge in my life.

Susie Banikarim (17:59):

This episode just makes me love Vanessa Williams more and more. It’s really inspiring that she did not just crawl away they wanted her to and hide.

Jessica Bennett (18:09):

She does end up taking some time away from the spotlight, probably smart, but what happens is she makes one of the greatest comebacks in entertainment history. (singing) Yeah, I mean, we recognize that song. Vanessa Williams goes on to have a very successful career as a late-’80s pop star. Her debut album drops in 1988. It has multiple singles on the Billboard charts, and then she goes on to receive 11 Grammy nominations. She enters stage and film. She becomes a television actress.

Susie Banikarim (18:42):

I love it.

Jessica Bennett (18:42):

She’s nominated for four Emmys and a Tony-

Susie Banikarim (18:45):


Jessica Bennett (18:45):

… all sorts of accolades, really, really successful, and she performs a song in Pocahontas (singing) which then ended up winning the academy award for best original song.

Susie Banikarim (18:59):

I just want to say that it’s amazing that she went from being dethroned to appearing in a Disney movie.

Jessica Bennett (19:06):

I know. Right?

Susie Banikarim (19:09):

That’s amazing. Right. She really has-

Jessica Bennett (19:10):

No. It really is.

Susie Banikarim (19:10):

… totally turned things around.

Jessica Bennett (19:12):

It’s so interesting to think about what allows someone to move past a thing that happened in this era where we didn’t let women move past things and what doesn’t. What are the small differences that allowed her to seemingly really move on from this and become a huge star. On Ugly Betty, I remember loving her character Wilhelmina.

Susie Banikarim (19:31):

Oh, yes, I love Ugly Betty.

Clips (19:32):

Even if I wanted to express sympathy, I physically can’t.

Jessica Bennett (19:34):

It’s so good. If it isn’t already clear, Vanessa really is a multifaceted talent. She’s on Broadway. She does mainstream TV. She’s a singer. She has gone on to write books. She really is doing everything that she set out to do and said she would.

Susie Banikarim (19:51):

I think it’s partially just who she is. Right? I mean she is someone who refuses to be torn down. I mean there is something really amazing about that.

Jessica Bennett (20:01):

Actually, she acknowledges that later. In 1996, she gets a career achievement prize, and she says in her speech, “I knew, once the dust settled, I would ultimately get the chance to do what I do best,” and she really did.

Susie Banikarim (20:13):

She did. Yes, Vanessa Williams, hero.

Jessica Bennett (20:16):

Also, who needs Miss America anyway?

Susie Banikarim (20:17):

Yeah. She really didn’t need Miss America. In fact, she rose from those ashes and was able to never look back. Right?

Jessica Bennett (20:24):

Well, okay, kind of, except that she does go back many years later. Basically, as Vanessa’s career rises, Miss America’s currency, stock, whatever you want to call it, plummets-

Susie Banikarim (20:37):

Oh, interesting.

Jessica Bennett (20:38):

… not surprisingly. Recently, 32 years after her crowning and dethroning, in 2015, Miss america actually invites her to be a judge.

Susie Banikarim (20:48):

Oh, my God. Isn’t that funny? It’s so funny, and also that must have felt so good.

Jessica Bennett (20:54):

I wonder what was going through her mind when she was deciding whether or not to accept.

Susie Banikarim (20:58):


Jessica Bennett (20:58):

Actually, it ended up causing like its own mini-scandal because the question was whether she would apologize to them, no, or if the organization would apologize to her and how that would play out.

Susie Banikarim (21:10):

Oh, my God.

Jessica Bennett (21:11):

When she does finally get up on stage at the 2015 pageant, it must have been so validating. Sam Haskell, who then was the pageant CEO, apologizes to her and to her mother who is in the audience.

Clips (21:24):

You have lived your life in grace and dignity, and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984 when you resigned. Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Ms. Helen Williams.

Susie Banikarim (21:54):

I really am so happy right now. I love it.

Jessica Bennett (21:56):

I know.

Susie Banikarim (21:57):

I didn’t know anything about this, and I love it.

Jessica Bennett (21:59):

It’s like the ultimate vindication a little bit.

Susie Banikarim (22:02):

Yes, she gets her revenge. You’ve been to Miss America. Right? Was that the year you went?

Jessica Bennett (22:21):

Yes, I have been to Miss America.

Susie Banikarim (22:22):

I love it.

Jessica Bennett (22:23):

Actually, it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.

Susie Banikarim (22:26):

I would go.

Jessica Bennett (22:26):

Sometimes, you just get to go on a reporting trip and it’s like, “Ah, this is why I do this,” and Miss America was that for me.

Susie Banikarim (22:32):

Yeah, I love a weird reporting trip.

Jessica Bennett (22:34):

It was not the year that Vanessa Williams came back. It was a couple of years later, but it was interesting because she appears and then a year or so later is when the Me Too movement begins, and so by the time I’m going is when this really complex conversation is happening in the culture about what is appropriate and what is appropriate when it comes to even something as seemingly silly as a beauty pageant. There’s all this discussion around whether beauty pageants should exist at all, if swimsuits should be allowed. Is that objectification? Then, actually, that year that I went, Gretchen Carlson, she is the woman who successfully sued Fox News for sexual harassment, the former newscaster-

Susie Banikarim (23:19):

Yes, and a former Miss America. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (23:19):

… and also Miss America, had taken over for that guy I mentioned earlier, Sam Haskell, who had gotten in trouble for sending lewd emails about the contestants, naturally.

Susie Banikarim (23:30):

But, of course, there’s always a bad man somewhere in the shadows whenever we’re talking about anything.

Jessica Bennett (23:35):

Right? I know. I know.

Susie Banikarim (23:35):

What was it like? Tell me everything.

Jessica Bennett (23:38):

It’s on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. It’s in this huge stadium, and I’m expecting it to be glitzy and glam, and it is not that. It’s pretty dark, literally dark, and also feels dark. There’s not very many people there. At one point, I’m poking around, trying to get a sense of the place, and I go down this long hallway that’s the backstage area of any stadium, and I come across the actual office to the Miss America headquarters. It has a sad piece of paper identifying it as such.

Susie Banikarim (24:10):

Oh, God.

Jessica Bennett (24:10):

It’s like this dark, dingy office with gray, dirty carpets. It’s all pretty rundown. Atlantic City has had financial trouble and is pretty rundown, too. They were so desperate for people to come to the event itself that people were handing out flyers to random passer-bys on the street-

Susie Banikarim (24:31):

Like to go for free?

Jessica Bennett (24:32):

… offering free tickets to fill empty seats. The flyer said, “All you need to do is get dressed up really nice and show up to Boardwalk Hall.”

Susie Banikarim (24:40):

Oh, yeah, I mean its time has passed. I think it might be time to accept that Miss America’s time has passed.

Jessica Bennett (24:46):

It really is. Right? I mean, that was really why I was there in the first place. It was like they were attempting to rebrand for the modern era, and so what did that mean? Well, for starters, there was a lot of linguistic terminology change happening. It was no longer being called a pageant this year. It was being called a competition. The participants were no longer participants or contestants. They were candidates as if they were running-

Susie Banikarim (25:11):

Oh, as if they were running for office?

Jessica Bennett (25:14):

… for office, yeah, and they were interviewing for the job of Miss America.

Susie Banikarim (25:17):

I see. Yes.

Jessica Bennett (25:17):

It was really framed as a job.

Susie Banikarim (25:19):

Because I’m always interviewing with Vaseline on my teeth and a sash.

Jessica Bennett (25:22):

Right? Exactly. They had gotten rid of the runway, and the word “miss” had actually been stripped from the sashes. Normally, it’s like Miss Washington, Miss New York. It would just say New York, but each sash did also still have a little pocket for your lipstick, too.

Susie Banikarim (25:37):

Oh, I never knew the sashes had that. That’s actually very functional.

Jessica Bennett (25:41):

Then, of course, as I mentioned, there were no swimsuits. That was really the big change, and so when Gretchen Carlson, who was then the head of the organization, would talk about it, she’d be like, “This is a place where we can highlight diverse and inclusive and empowered candidates and leaders. They’re beautiful inside and out.” It was like all this euphemism.

Susie Banikarim (26:00):

Yes, they’re beautiful inside and out, but we’re still going to pick the most beautiful.

Jessica Bennett (26:04):

Right? No. I do. I mean, I feel like I went in with a lot of stereotypes about Miss America, many of which we’ve probably expressed here on this podcast, but these women were really impressive I must say. They were impressive not just because they were, literally, neuroscientists. They were Harvard software developers who worked for Microsoft, a woman who worked in STEM. One of them had started a cancer organization. They talked about growing up with incarcerated parents and had developed non-profit organizations to deal with campus sexual assault, all of those really impressive things, but then, on top of that, they could dance and do ventriloquism and play the harmonica.

Susie Banikarim (26:46):

Isn’t one of the talents you mentioned clogging? Did some of them do clogging?

Jessica Bennett (26:51):

Oh, my God, yes. I have some amazing videos from this that I wish we could show, but, yes, there was a clogging episode. There was one. How do I even describe this? It was like an interpretive dance with a ghost.

Susie Banikarim (27:06):

That does not clarify anything for me.

Jessica Bennett (27:08):

She was performing with a ghost. I don’t know, but it was all just incredible.

Susie Banikarim (27:12):

I also feel like the only reason I know about baton twirling is pageants. I’m always envisioning someone up there with a baton. I mean it is really interesting that such fascinating women are choosing to do this. Is it for the scholarship money? It’s interesting that these women who are going to Harvard or are neuroscientists are drawn to this still in some way.

Jessica Bennett (27:33):

I mean, I think a lot of them are doing it for the scholarship money and for visibility for their non-profit organizations to cure… Insert specific kind of cancer or other bad thing. They really were very mission-driven.

Susie Banikarim (27:46):

Really fascinating.

Jessica Bennett (27:48):

I don’t know. Maybe all of these women had really interesting paths and they just weren’t able to express them during the time when Miss America was popular or maybe they’ve gone out of their way to recruit people who have interesting paths. I don’t know, but what appeared to be much more progressive or what they were aiming to have to be much more progressive on the outside was having a full-fledge, as one woman described it to me, civil war-

Susie Banikarim (28:13):

Oh, wow.

Jessica Bennett (28:14):

… on the inside. All right. If you were to imagine going into a conference room in this giant stadium where all of these states and local enthusiasts, really strong enthusiasts who have a lot of feelings about Miss America, were gathering to essentially try to stage a coup to overthrow the president.

Susie Banikarim (28:41):

They were trying to overthrow Gretchen Carlson.

Jessica Bennett (28:44):

I think it was just a culture war happening on a micro level inside this organization. They did not want it to change. There was a real division about whether they wanted it to change or not, whether she was the right leader for it. In the week leading up to the pageant, there were posters hung around town in Atlantic City with giant letters calling Gretchen Carlson “so fake”.

Susie Banikarim (29:06):


Jessica Bennett (29:07):

It’s like fully middle school.

Susie Banikarim (29:08):

I love a dark underbelly. I like it.

Jessica Bennett (29:11):

There was a blue sash with the words “Gretchen sucks” that was placed on this statue of Miss America that’s perched outside the hall, because it’s been taking place here for so many years, so people would go and pose in front of that statue and it would have the sash on it that said, “Gretchen sucks.”

Susie Banikarim (29:26):

I just want to say that I would watch a scripted series about the war inside Miss America because I bet you it would be hilarious.

Jessica Bennett (29:33):

I mean maybe we need to do that.

Susie Banikarim (29:34):

I’m in. Let’s do it.

Jessica Bennett (29:36):

I wish I had recordings that we could play, but, basically, I snuck into this secret meeting of the local leaders where they were plotting this overthrow. It was so interesting because it was happening at the same time that Miss America was just grasping for relevance and, at this time, viewership was basically at an all-time low. They tried moving it to different stations. They tried all these different things, but nobody wanted to watch Miss America. They couldn’t even fill the literal seats in the stadium we were in. I don’t know. Maybe it was a bit of a last gasp, but I just happened to be lucky enough to witness it.

Susie Banikarim (30:13):

Yeah. I do feel like that’s lucky. I wish I had been there with you. I can’t believe you didn’t invite me. Where is Miss America today? Is it totally off the air now?

Jessica Bennett (30:23):

I’m sure if you were to ask a Miss America enthusiast this question, they would say something really different, but it’s pretty much irrelevant. It’s only livestreamed on their website now. People are not watching it. It did not air on TV last year. I’m not sure what the state of it is, and I don’t think people are talking about it really.

Susie Banikarim (30:42):

It reminds me of when we talk about soap operas. There’s always going to be fans. There’s always going to be people who feel a real connection, but there are just some things that don’t maintain the same cultural relevance.

Jessica Bennett (30:54):

Even things with long, interesting, albeit problematic, the word we hate and don’t like to use on the show, histories sometimes have to get retired. The good news here is Vanessa Williams doesn’t need Miss America. She is way past that. She is thriving.

Susie Banikarim (31:13):

I know. Vanessa Williams is thriving. That is the message of this podcast. What’s she been doing lately?

Jessica Bennett (31:20):

She has been a judge on RuPaul’s Queen of the Universe, which is the drag queen singing competition which is very fun.

Susie Banikarim (31:26):

Very fun.

Jessica Bennett (31:27):

She is in a Broadway show, a recent Broadway show called POTUS where she actually plays the first lady. It’s an all-female cast. It was described as, I haven’t seen it, but like “bridesmaids in the White House who are trying to keep the president alive”. It sounds very fun. She recently turned 60 and, as she told Jennifer Hudson on her talk show-

Clips (31:47):

There is a sense of ease. The older you get, the less you care about what everybody else has to say.

Susie Banikarim (31:53):

This is the best. I love a comeback story. This has been one of my favorites, so I feel like this is a great place to end it.

Jessica Bennett (32:01):

As they put it in Miss Congeniality, she is beauty, she is grace, she is Miss United States, but I guess, in this case, Miss America, and also screw Miss America.


Before we go, I wanted to give a quick shoutout to two authors whose books were instrumental in our research of this episode. The first is Margot Mifflin whose book is Looking for Miss America, A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, and the second is Amy Argetsinger whose book is There She Was, The Secret History of Miss America. They’re both fascinating reads, and you can find links to them in our show notes.

Susie Banikarim (32:42):

Jess, we talked about some fun reporting you did on Miss America in this episode, but, all week long, you’ve been asking me about stories from my past. Next week, we’re going to reveal some fun behind-the-scenes experiences we’ve both had. Right?

Jessica Bennett (32:56):

Like the time you booked Jessica Simpson for Katie Couric’s show?

Susie Banikarim (32:59):

Yes. I’m finally going to talk about Jessica Simpson, which I know you’ve been dying to hear about.

Jessica Bennett (33:05):

I have, so tune in next week and you’ll hear all about it.

Susie Banikarim (33:08):

This is In retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (33:26):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (33:36):

You can also find this on Instagram @jessicabennett and at @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This Is 18.

Jessica Bennett (33:45):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart Podcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (33:59):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith, additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim-

Jessica Bennett (34:17):

… and Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.