Hilary Levey Friedman is the author of the new book Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America. She also has written the book Playing to Win. She teaches at Brown University.
Q: In your acknowledgments, you write of the book, "On some level, I've been working on this my whole life..." What impact did your mother's experience as Miss America have on you, and did writing the book change how you thought about beauty pageants?
A: Well, I definitely never would have written a book on beauty pageants if not for her win!
It's funny because growing up, and into college, I rarely wanted to share that she was Miss America. I thought others would judge me based on that fact (plus, where I grew up in Michigan, a lot of people knew her so sometimes it didn't need to be said). Now, it's one of the first things many people learn about me.
Before this book I thought most pageants were Miss America, Miss USA, and child pageants. Seeing how pageants are used to preserve culture in different communities, reflecting different views of womanhood, was eye-opening-- as in Miss Navajo and Miss Chinatown USA, for example.
Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about beauty pageants?
A: That winners are all Southern, blonde, and dumb. While it is true that there are more contestants in the South, I show that more winners at major pageants have been brunette, and I think examples from many of the women's own lives dispel the last stereotype.
More persistent is the notion that pageants are frivolous, but I hope I show how embedded and consequential they have been, and continue to be, in American society.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: For this book I used so many different research methods that it might be easier to say what I didn't use! The one I didn't use is focus groups, but otherwise lots of interviews, observations, visiting archives, content analysis, and more.
Because I hadn't previously done archival work in person before, getting to see the personal papers of Lenora Slaughter at the Smithsonian was a particular thrill. Finding a copy of the original letter she wrote proposing a scholarship be awarded to Miss America was a very welcome surprise.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I want readers to come away with some facts they might not have previously known, but more importantly I want them to see that women's history - broadly defined - matters. I want them to know that feminism and beauty pageants, and beauty and brains, are not mutually exclusive, and I hope it helps people reflect on different experiences they have had in their own lives.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Honestly, the pandemic has upended a lot of plans -- in the present and future. At the moment I'm focusing on being there for my family and students through the rest of this year, and then hopefully I will know much more.
Q: Anything else we should know?
--Interview with Deborah Kalb