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.