Teresa Scanlan is standing outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center with her hands on her hips and her hips wrapped in a tight cheetah-print dress. It’s a Monday afternoon in April, three months after she became, at 17, the youngest Miss America in memory, and Washington, D.C., has just begun to bloom. The weather is warm enough for Scanlan to wear her dress without a coat and her four-inch heels without stockings, as though the day had optimized itself with her audience in mind: young men freshly medevaced from Afghanistan. Scanlan’s tour manager, Carmen Gonzales, instructs her that the visit is blocked off at two hours on the schedule, starting at 3 p.m., and that it is time they went inside. “Great!” Scanlan says. “We need to find a bathroom.”
Scanlan spends a lot of time in bathrooms. Having located the Walter Reed facilities, she sets her only accessory, a wooden lunchbox, on the counter. Scanlan and the box travel some 20,000 miles per month, and though it is only three months old, the box is already well scuffed. She flips it open and lifts the Miss America crown from the blue velvet lining. “It’s not made of diamonds—people always ask,” she says, setting the crown on her head. The object is as glitzy as the tiara that Marilyn Monroe moons over in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but Scanlan straps it on like a drill instructor donning a pith helmet. It takes her 30 seconds to pin the crown to her head with a couple of bobby pins. “Lip gloss?” Gonzales suggests, offering a wand. “Oh, goodness, yes.”
In full stage makeup and with hair the color of a potato chip, Scanlan is vibrant and leonine. She doesn’t pause to look at herself in the mirror, moving quickly, instead, back to the hospital lobby. Waiting amid the low hum of life-giving machinery is the rest of her party—a couple of USO executives and Dennis Muilenburg, the president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security. Today’s visit is an unusually weighty event on the Miss America calendar, which is crammed with a year’s worth of receptions, clean-ups, duct-tape festivals, furniture-store signings, and club-sandwich luncheons. As the group moves into the hospital corridor, young men in Nikes and sweatpants (if they’ve suffered one amputation) or no pants at all (if both legs are gone) look up and then down again, responding only when Scanlan approaches to touch a shoulder or offer a photograph. Nobody recognizes her.
Teresa’s bedside manner is a combination of big sister and bombshell, which works pretty well to dispel the self-consciousness of a teenager missing half of his body. “Matt! All right. Spelled with one T or two T’s?” she asks, posing with a soldier who has lost two legs and one arm. Matt bends his hand awkwardly so that Scanlan can’t see where three fingers have been blown off. In the gym, she plays with a service dog named Wally and spots a soldier learning to walk on a pair of prosthetic legs. Most civilians might hesitate to approach the newly impaired, but Scanlan zooms right over and asks what it feels like to use the prosthetics. “Like walking on stilts,” the soldier explains, pleased with her directness. They chat about Florida, where he is from and where Scanlan has recently acquired a sunburn. Nearby, Muilenburg hands out commemorative Boeing coins, telling the injured men that the only reason he’s in the defense business is to serve guys like them. “Keep making things that blow them up,” a soldier calls from bed. Muilenburg gives him a coin.
This year’s Miss America pageant, the ninetieth, took place on January 15 in Las Vegas. Fifty-three contestants filled a glittery stage to tap-dance, pirouette, perform a ventriloquist duet of “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” and otherwise compete for one large chunk and many small chunks of scholarship money. Except for one perverse feature—the requirement that eliminated contestants remain onstage to watch the pageant roll forth without them—it made for pretty dull viewing.
At its peak, Miss America was an index of feminine aspiration. In 1960, when the country as a whole held only 180 million possible viewers, the show reached 85 million of them. As late as 1968, the pageant was still significant enough to provoke a feminist outcry at its Atlantic City venue (protesters crowned a live sheep and deposited padded bras in a trash can). But by 2007, viewership had dropped to 2.7 million, marking the low point of the pageant’s downhill slide. Given that beauty pageants have proliferated since the sixties, the ratings dip may have less to do with datedness than with the fact that a pageant’s chief metric—poise—is not and has never been a telegenic virtue. Miss America is all finished product and no process, and contemporary viewers tend to crave the exact opposite. The pageant ethos of perfectibility seems as quaint, these days, as the “Miss” honorific.
Thanks to a jump from cable to network TV, this year’s ratings rose to a respectable 6.6 million. The number, interestingly, climbed as the two-hour telecast wore on, suggesting that something about the narrowing pool of candidates—or one candidate in particular—was attracting viewers. It wasn’t obvious at first. Because each of the Miss America contenders is practiced and anatomically correct, tiny distinctions in presentation carry a great deal of weight. And for the most part, the young ladies of 2011 played it safe. Contestants barely speak for the first half of the show, and it’s hard to stand out when you’re one of several dozen women grinning silently in taffeta.
The exception was Miss Nebraska, who performed her piano glissandi with some violence, spoke forcefully about WikiLeaks (“When it came to that situation, it was actually based on espionage”), and shared her intention to be a Supreme Court justice. Watching the pageant, I was struck by her attractiveness, quotability, toughness, faith, and ambition. As weird and unfashionable as pageant standards may seem, Scanlan’s ruthless beauty-queen comportment feels immediately familiar in 2011, when political candidates are held to a standard of faultlessness that only a doll might plausibly meet (women candidates in particular). Transport Scanlan from her Miss America context into the political arena and the anachronistic pageant armor seems, suddenly, a shrewdly contemporary asset. In a limo one morning after breakfast, just weeks after winning her title, she tells me that she can see herself as president. It doesn’t sound like an unreasonable plan.
Fort Belvoir, when we arrive, is a Vatican-size post in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a population that numbers about the same as that of Scanlan’s small hometown. Her first task is to read out loud to several classes of schoolchildren and then to answer their questions. The children ask things like “Are you a princess?” (“I am a kind of American princess”) and “Why did they pick you?” (she laughs and says that it’s a good question). In one class, Scanlan asks whether anyone watched the pageant. Only a few kids raise their hands. “It was boring,” a second-grader tells her.
Next on the schedule is an early lunch with troops, which will take place in a rec center and may or may not involve lasagne. The room has been set up like a child’s birthday party with streamers, Sierra Mist, and a supermarket sheet cake. A couple of men watching TV are hypnotized by a nude woman in a Greek-yogurt commercial, and several tubes of jock-itch cream are lying about. A tardy Marine enters the room and spots Scanlan, the sheet cake, and the two dozen troops. “I was told there was free food here, but there ain’t a whole lot,” he says, sighing. Later, when Scanlan asks if anyone would like to take a photo with her, a soldier named Steven calls out, “I don’t think so,” to much laughter. “That was mean,” someone tells him. “Was it?” Steven asks. “My bad.”
When lasagne arrives, Scanlan fills her plate, finds a seat at the table of Marines, and starts a conversation about rattlesnakes. I take a chair at the Army table and ask whether anyone caught Scanlan’s win on TV. “I didn’t know they still did the pageant crap,” Steven says. “I thought that was a nineties thing.” The men vacuum up noodles and ask five questions about Scanlan: (1) Does she watch sports? (2) Is she a Mormon? (3) Does she like to party? (4) Does she retain her title, like the president, when she’s no longer Miss America? (5) What’s her favorite gum? The conversation quickly advances to Forrest Gump, a toddler who got drunk at Applebee’s, and the question of whether cake counts as candy.
The Miss America Organization doesn’t allow reporters any real one-on-one time with the winner, and Gonzales is careful to intervene whenever Scanlan and I might have a moment of privacy. (Moments of privacy with others are prohibited, too: Gonzales requests a connecting suite at each hotel.) At one rest spot, confined to a baking-hot limo while Scanlan eats breakfast, I scroll through pictures of her on my phone. Browsing, I notice that (a) she looks exactly the same in real life as she does in photos, and (b) she looks exactly the same in every photo. The consistency is the result of her stage makeup, which she wears not only onstage but everywhere, and which exactly replicates the makeup of a Barbie doll: penciled brows, a thick stripe of eyeliner, eyelids that shade from dark to light, and pink lip gloss. It’s an unfashionably laborious look but a deeply familiar one, and in this way it illustrates the Miss America conundrum: A winner, though she need not be beautiful, must evoke the pleasures of recognition. She must look like Miss America, and she must want to look like Miss America. My conviction that Teresa is a tough nut to crack begins to morph into fear that cracking the nut will yield an identical nut inside.
If you Google “Teresa Scanlan,” the second suggestion that pops up, after “Teresa Scanlan bikini,” is “Teresa Scanlan wig.” This is not a meme or a joke. Her decision to compete in the Miss America pageant wearing a wig became an item of interest only after Scanlan won, with debate flaring up online on the topic of whether a wig is technically cheating (it is not) or just unforgivably weird.
It does not strike Scanlan as weird at all. Most of the other girls wore extensions, she points out. (“I don’t really see the difference. It’s all basically the same thing.”) The appeal of wigs first occurred to her when she met Miss Delaware, who has alopecia and is allergic to her own hair. “I was trying to figure out what I could do to help my hair because it really was getting damaged,” Scanlan tells me. Years of dyeing and styling her hair for pageants had left it frizzled. After researching the options, she bought herself a ticket to Tampa, where she sat for three days’ worth of fittings with a wigmaker named Bobbi Russell. The result was a pair of hairpieces that Scanlan washes and styles every day, both of them long and blonde but not enough of either to look vulgar. She likes to keep one wig curly and the other straight, for variety’s sake, and although the wigs cost $2,400 each—they are made of real human hair—she notes that the company wound up donating both. When off-duty, the wigs stay propped on little heads in her hotel room.
Teresa is a pro. Downtime, for her, means signing thank-you letters on personalized stationery, tapping out Twitter and Facebook updates on an iPad, filing business cards, and taking notes for a guidebook she plans to assemble for future Miss Americas. (Sample advice: Pack your makeup separately from the rest of your luggage, in case the luggage goes missing.) Watching her work in the limousine, I find it easy to imagine Scanlan marching from the womb with a firm handshake, unimpeachable hair, and talking points.
“You learn to make life bearable,” she says about her childhood, “and then to make it enjoyable.”
It is much harder to imagine her as a teenager, although that is technically what Scanlan is. Pageant styling plays funny tricks with age—the wigs and makeup can make toddlers look like adult women (which is perturbing) and young women look like older women (which is merely curious). The Miss America look is no longer the standard of American beauty, and her appearance can transplant awkwardly into real life. At Walter Reed, I watched two administrators, a man and a woman, digest Scanlan as she passed out of earshot.
Man: Didja see her? She’s cute.
Woman: I think the dress is a little bit much.
Man: But that’s just pageant style.
Woman: So you’re saying it’s okay?
Man: I’m just saying that’s how it is.
The grand prize of the Miss America pageant is $50,000 toward college tuition, roughly the cost of one year at a typical private school. Teresa plans to use her fund to attend Patrick Henry College, a small liberal-arts school in Purcellville, Virginia, founded in 2000 by a Christian home-schooling activist. Eighty percent of its student body comes from a home-schooling background, like Teresa. Also like Teresa, many of Patrick Henry’s students hope to work on Capitol Hill. (She plans on becoming a Nebraska congresswoman before becoming president.) In just its first five years, the school came to rival Georgetown in the number of internships its students earned in the White House. It is also distinguished by the intensity of its religious commitments. Matriculating students are required to sign a Statement of Faith acknowledging the existence of Satan, expected to seek parental approval in romantic decisions, and prohibited from dancing on campus. Scanlan tells me there was never a question in her mind about where she wanted to go to college.
Home-schooling favors the serious child, and Scanlan was “very, very serious” as a young girl. “Probably the most serious kid you would ever meet,” she says. “And not very happy. I was so serious about everything.” Her parents, Mark and Janie, are a child psychiatrist and a homemaker, respectively, though “homemaker” in this case involves full-time teaching, since Janie has home-schooled six of her seven children. (Teresa didn’t know about her older half-brother, who was put up for adoption and is now 31, until last year. Meeting him was “something to get used to,” she says, but “really great.”)
At age 6, Scanlan lobbied to join her siblings in a room furnished by their parents with desks and school supplies. Later, but not much later, she developed the habit of waking up early and finishing all of her work before lunchtime, which left the afternoons free for piano practice, volunteer work, and dance. She grew interested in religion at about the same time and loved to stay up late memorizing Scripture. Her early diaries, she tells me, are full of complaints about her parents making her put away the Bible to go to bed. At 7, she asked her father if she could get baptized.
As Scanlan talks about her youth, it becomes clear that she was one of those kids born with a disposition grievously maladapted to childhood: extremely sensitive, shy, self-scrutinizing, and uncomfortable around her peers. “You learn to make life bearable,” she says, when I ask about this time, “and then to make it enjoyable.” One of her favorite Bible verses comes from Timothy 4:12—16: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”
The pageant business began when Scanlan was 13, on her own initiative. It was the one project, she says, in which she couldn’t control the outcome: “With dance and piano, you know what level you’re at. With pageants, you could do your very best and still not know the outcome. It was not in my hands.” When the Miss Nebraska competition rolled around, she considered the event a trial run in preparation for the following year. Winning the pageant was a surprise, and she doesn’t take credit for it. “God shows that it’s not you, it’s Him, and obviously there was nothing that I did. The same thing happened with Miss America.”
Success strengthened her resolve. “I really feel like this is what I’m meant to do, and there’s a purpose and a reason to everything I do,” Scanlan says. The remark is punctuated with a smile. As with many public figures, Teresa’s smile is frequent and doesn’t seem to mean as much as when other people smile. When asked to elaborate on her political ideas, she eases into Palin-style verbal curlicues. “Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to find those that you completely admire in what they’re doing,” she says. “But there’s plenty. I admire really any women in politics, because it’s very difficult, and there’s a huge discrepancy between the number of women and men, and so it’s been great to see more women come up in those positions, and I think that’s great, that we’re moving toward that.”
Asking Scanlan about politics, it turns out, is like watching somebody fool around with a yo-yo: The game is not interactive; it’s vaguely frustrating and boring to watch, but you have to admire the skill involved. If most teenagers fling opinions around willy-nilly and with a minimum number of words, Scanlan’s facility runs along opposite lines. Her withholding is strategic, not airheaded. What issues interest her? I ask. “I’m sure it’ll change so much by the time I get there. Honestly, it’s pretty crazy to look back at history and see how the hot-button issues change drastically from decade to decade. Really, the time line I’m looking at is so far in the future I can’t honestly imagine what’s going to be on our plate at that time. You certainly hope that it’s going to be improved from now, that it will be better, but we’ll see. It’s gonna be a long way from now, so we’ll see what comes up and what there is.” She pauses, then adds, “Miss America is a nonpartisan position.”