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.