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Do Beauty Pageants Exploit Women?

Aired March 2, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: There she is, but is she really a winner? Tonight, as a new Miss USA is about to be crowned, are beauty pageants good for women or do they exploit them?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal, and in San Francisco, Miss America 2000, Heather French Henry.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Tonight: from pardon politics to sexual politics, and beauty pageants.

It's probably the hottest thing to hit Gary, Indiana ever: tonight's Miss USA Pageant. You go, girl. A big 50th anniversary celebration, emceed by "Star Trek's" William Shatner, and broadcast live from Gary's Trump Casino, of all places.

Residents of Gary say this is just the kind of big event needed to put their Rust Belt town back on the map. But some feminist organizations argue that beauty pageants, whether it's Miss USA or Miss America, are really symbols of decline, a throwback to the days when women were respected for how good they looked in a bathing suit and nothing else.

So, what's wrong with women in bathing suits? That's our debate tonight: is it time to put an end to old-fashioned beauty pageants, or are they harmless reminders of old-fashioned values?

Sitting in, again, on the right tonight: Julia Reed of "Vogue" and "Newsweek" magazine.

PRESS: Heather French, let me come to you first in San Francisco. Thank you so much for joining us.

I realize it is immodest of me to quote myself, but I wanted to quote you something that I wrote about your pageant, the Miss America Pageant. Quote, "The Miss America Pageant is a historic reminder of the days when men believed a woman's place was on a meat rack, not in a business suit.

Miss America is a painful relic of a time when American girls believed the only way to success was to strut or sell their bodies."

Heather, I wrote that July 23, 1984. I was right then, and I'm right today, aren't I?

HEATHER FRENCH HENRY, MISS AMERICA 2000: Bill, I'm shocked that you would write something like that, especially after I spoke at the Info '99 breakfast, which is a political breakfast in Washington, D.C.

PRESS: I remember seeing you there, meeting you there.

HENRY: That's right. And in fact, I'm pretty shocked that they keep calling it the old-fashioned days, when a Miss America, such as myself, currently has a piece of legislation named after them, called The Heather French Henry Homeless Veterans Act, which was authorized by Congressman Lane Evans from Illinois, to really be a comprehensive piece of legislation for homeless veterans.

I really think we're heading in the right direction. We've made a lot of changes, just as government agencies make changes. Sometimes it takes a little longer, but we're offering a very positive role model for young women today, especially to get involved in politics.

PRESS: Well, I admire the work that you do for the homeless veterans, and I hear what you're saying that the organization has changed, and yet the events themselves don't seem to reflect that.

Let me quote you something also that Mark Brown wrote just a couple of days ago in "The Chicago Sun Times." Quote: "We move as a society toward treating women with great respect, and then we parade them on stage to check out the body parts we respect the most." So...

HENRY: Actually, I have to correct you there.

Bill: ... there's a bit of a disconnect.

HENRY: No, I have to correct you there. I know everyone's going to harp on the swimsuit part of the competition. Again, I will stress to you that the interview that no one sees is 45 percent of that score, and that's a 12 1/2 minute interview, and I will dare to say that really depicts who is going to be Miss America.

Of course, I'm just talking from the Miss America organization standpoint, a nonprofit entity. And then also we have a talent portion of the competition -- 75 percent of that score goes on what the individual's independent choices are with her platform, with her position and what she wants to do in the future.

And I will dare to say that if you saw my 12-and-a-half minute interview, I think you would find a very outspoken, independent, well- educated young woman, much like the thousands of young women that we feed into the system each year, while offering them a full-paid scholarship to school. I was the only 24-year-old I know at the time whose student loans were purely paid off by the Miss America organization.

JULIA REED, GUEST CO-HOST: Before I came here tonight, I talked to my assistant at "Vogue," and she is a very smart, very bright, well-educated 23-year-old woman who took women's studies classes at Duke University. And she said, when I told her what we're talking about, she said, hadn't that conversation been over?

And I knew what she meant. Wasn't the feminist movement about empowering women to make whatever choice they wanted to, including parading around in bathing suits in beauty pageants?

ELEANOR SMEAL, PRESIDENT, FEMINIST MAJORITY FOUNDATION: Well, let's face it: One of the first things the feminist movement did in this wave was to picket the beauty pageants in '68, and then again in the '70s. And one of things -- one of the reasons they have become a little more modern is because of our pushing.

I mean, that's why the scholarships went up. That's why -- in fact, if you look on their Web site, the pageant even gives the feminist movement credit for emphasizing more the professional career of a woman.

So, in reality, all of our pushing has helped. But one of the reasons why it's still important to discuss it is because we still face a time when many women in this country -- millions -- are uncomfortable with their body image. You have anorexia, you have bulimia, you have all kinds of pressures on young women, because we still judge them too much by how they look.

REED: OK. Now, I want to go to body image, because you've cited that a lot as criticism of these pageants. I mean, let's face it -- I mean, beauty pageants are a small, small part of the American culture that reminds us -- that points out body image.

The magazine I work for, "Vogue" is one of them. TV -- but also, obesity is a problem in this country. I don't know why it's so bad to sort of strive for an ideal. But that's not really the point. It's still...

SMEAL: No, no, no, not an ideal. Because actually, if you look at pageant victories -- the people who are crowned -- frequently they are so thin that they -- wait a minute.


FRENCH: I'm sorry...

PRESS: All right, let's...

SMEAL: But studies show that people who compete in the pageants are...

REED: I think that -- I know, but people are making a choice to compete in those pageants. There's a piece in "The Washington Post" today about Miss D.C., who is going to be competing later on tonight. She happens to have a degree in phys ed from George Washington University. She is a personal trainer. She has -- you know, she is very blessed, and she is a size two and five.

Now, why shouldn't she use that great body of hers to pay for furthering her education, if this is what she wants? SMEAL: Everything is about choice, but she should also be informed. And what we are just -- what we're pointing out is what -- we are constantly pushing in this culture is almost anorexia.

But let's even go from there. Of course, you have to worry about obesity too. But -- we all come in all different sized and shapes, and what we shouldn't be just judging women constantly on appearances.

PRESS: Heather, I know you wanted to jump in there -- remark something about that.

HENRY: Yeah, I'm sorry, Eleanor, I didn't mean -- I didn't know it was being miked, but I resort back to, you know, again, the swimsuit competition, which is less than 5 percent of the score, which is purely probably for entertainment value, and one -- I will tell you I publicly disagreed with it while I was competing. I think I was the only contestant to do so.

But again, I think Julia is right. Miss America -- you know, the youth don't look at Miss America and say, I want to look like her, or I want to dress like Miss America. In fact, the 20,000 miles a month that I traveled, all the youth that came up to me were so impressed that a young woman my age who came from a family of a father who is a disabled Vietnam veteran, with low-income family, was the first to attend college in her family, and actually succeeded in walking the halls of Congress, pounding down on the doors of the Oval office to make the country aware of veterans issues, which was so long denied and ignored, and it took a 24-year-old fashion-designing Miss America to do that.

So, I think what -- instead of combating each other, we should be working together, because we're essentially working for the same thing, which is empowerment. You work for a different target group of women, and we work for a different target group of young women by offering scholarship and the opportunity to have a spotlight, a podium and a platform in order to that. And I think helping 25 million American veterans can't be wrong.

PRESS: Elly?

SMEAL: Well, let's face it, I'm glad that you're doing it, and we love the scholarship part, and we love the charity part, and also I hope you run for a political office.

But let's face it, the more we push -- actually, we're working together, because we're creating more opportunity for women, and we're shaping and changing the culture.

And one part of that culture is these pageants, and basically, if we can influence them to push more in the profession, more on the public service, more on the full person, then we are achieving something, because superficiality is costing a lot for women.

PRESS: But, Heather, I want to come back to these scholarships, which you've mentioned a couple of times. You know, we appreciate the fact they've got scholarships. Thanks to the efforts of Elly and others, the scholarships have gone up. But my question is, you know, why should these scholarships be limited to women that just have great bodies or great breasts? I mean, what's that has to do with it at all? Isn't it all about brains?

HENRY: Well, essentially, Bill, it's not about -- actually, if you have heard what I said before, less than 5 percent of the score is even swimsuit-oriented. So, we keep harping on the swimsuit competition, when they girls are only in their swimsuits for five seconds, and people are on a catwalk for a half-hour parading around, but no one seems to mind that.

PRESS: Well, you seem to be fixated on the swimsuit. I'm not just talking about the swimsuit. It's an evening gown -- it's the whole thing about strutting on the stage, and I'm -- I guess what I'm asking, if you're going to give a scholarship, then why shouldn't every young woman be eligible, even if she is a plain-Jane and has a hook nose, and, you know, is afraid to be seen in public?

HENRY: Well, we offer scholarship from the local, state to the national level. What the country sees is the final 51 who are well- poised. And I think that's what every -- you know, facet of the competition represents.

You know, you may be right. And different parts of the pageant may need to phase out in the future. But again, instead of creating divisive issues that really divide women's organizations that are women oriented, you know, can we not stop combating each other and join together, because we feed hundreds of thousands of young women into the community that are actually making a difference.

And so we feel we are empowering young women to be able to walk across the stage. Because for every one of us that will do that will do that, there're at least a thousand who hate to talk in front of people and who aren't involved in their community.

SMEAL: Well, maybe you can join us in trying to get rid of some of these children pageants. I mean, one of the things the JonBenet Ramsey case did is show the exploitation of little girls. And how in some of these pageants, it's not like the first time they're doing this. They start 3, 4, 5. I mean, let's face it. This is now empowering, this is really taking advantage.

HENRY: Well the interesting thing there, I mean, has anybody seen a little league ball game? If someone is going to be a professional baseball ballplayer you would expect them to play little league.

I have never seen the type of behavior that goes on in little league baseball, anywhere near our system. Again, of course, I can only speak for Miss America.

SMEAL: I don't want to be out there for little league because I also sued and picket them so that girls could have -- I mean, we're equal opportunity picketers here -- so girls could have a chance at playing sports, but let's be real. That's nothing like a 3 and 4 and 5-year-old in a beauty contest like JonBenet Ramsey was. HENRY: Well, I think the interesting...

PRESS: All right, ladies, I'm going to ask you both, if I can, Heather, just to hold that thought because we're going to take a break here. And when we come back let's pick up on that point.

What about beauty pageants for little girls? Should they be encouraged?

And let me just tell you, exciting news: both of our guests are going to be in the CROSSFIRE chat room tonight right after the show. You know how we get there. Log on to

We'll be right back with more CROSSFIRE about these beauty pageants.


REED: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Julia Reed, sitting in on the right. Many feminists describe beauty pageants as demeaning to women and out of sync with the times, but more than 12 million people are expected to watch the Miss USA Pageant tonight, and thousands of women vie for a chance to strut their stuff in it. Why is it wrong to want to win or to watch?

Joining us from San Francisco, Miss America 2000 Heather French Henry; and here in Washington, Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Eleanor, when Donald Trump bought the Miss USA and the Miss Universe rights, he said, you know, this is a great show. And that's why he's putting it on, people love to watch it. What's wrong with that? Why is it any different to want to watch the Miss USA Pageant than want to stand in line to get Rockettes tickets? And why is it any different to want to be a Rockette than wanting to be a pageant -- pageant winner.

SMEAL: The Rockettes -- it's about as old-fashioned as the Miss America Pageant.


REED: Well, you know, but what's -- you're making a value judgment, it seems to me, on being in these pageants, as though someone is dragging them in. I mean, this is not like President Bush's new budget, you know.

SMEAL: Well, let's face it, in the old days, it was one -- and about the only way you get to get a scholarship to go to college, and in fact, when...

REED: But it's not now!

SMEAL: I know. And why? Because we've opened a lot of doors. And we should keep reminding people that women should not be judged principally on looks, and we still do too much of that. And these pageants -- she -- we can say all we want, and I'm very happy they are doing more charity, I'm very happy they're doing more political work and the scholarship program, but I wish they were doing more of that, and that we weren't judging women on how they looked, their shape. We're now down to a size zero, for God's sake!

HENRY: But Eleanor, I really have to break in here and tell you that, you know, that two-hour special that you see on television is nothing compared to what the title holders do. I got one day off a month. I flew...

SMEAL: Well, why don't show some of that then?

HENRY: ... twenty thousand miles. Well, we tried to get the press. It's people -- you know, organizations...

SMEAL: You could make that interesting.


HENRY: And with veteran's issues -- with veteran's issues, I made it pretty interesting, I was very outspoken...

SMEAL: It would be a great debate.

HENRY: ... I'm in the controversy, and, you know, it's just -- we have got to raise scholarship money for the organization. The telecast, of course, which is different -- we are not owned by Donald Trump, we are a nonprofit entity ran by 300,000 volunteers and 20 paid staff, so our organization tries to focus as much as we can -- and we have to provide a little bit of the entertainment value to get the people to watch, but Miss America is out there, as well as the local representatives, working night and day, and we never get the credit for that, because people keep harping on the unimportant issues.

REED: Well, listen, I am on your side, but I think you're being too defensive.

Let me go back to something that Eleanor's saying. Aren't you judging people on the way they look? Aren't you making a value judgment? If I -- listen, if I was a great pianist, which I wish I were -- I mean, I took piano lessons and I am no good at it -- just like I would not be good in doing what Heather does -- but Juilliard is not going to give me a scholarship, they are going to give the scholarship to the woman who can play the piano the best.

Miss America is going to give a scholarship, Miss USA is going to give a scholarship to the woman who looks the best in a bathing suit. Why is that wrong? You tell me you were judging these women because of the way they look, not the pageant.

SMEAL: No, we're not judging the women. We're saying we're hoping that more women succeed. We're not judging the woman.

We're talking about a culture that is favoring a pageant for scholarship, not if a person is good at their profession. I mean, that's still looking at women one way, and this is just a symptom. This is not -- I agree with you that the pageant is not the whole of it.

But I'm looking at -- I'm talking on college campuses, and I'm looking at colleges now where you have "Eating Disorder Week." I'm looking at colleges where you have -- at the University of Miami and Ohio, when I was there not too long ago, there was a dorm -- the dorm has to change its plumbing rather frequently -- the first-year dorm -- because of the problem of bulimia.

And what we should be, as a whole society, trying to figure out how we, in fact, don't judge people on the basis of looks, and do look at some more important qualities.

PRESS: Heather, I want to come back to you, and move on to this subject that Elly raised just before the break, which is whatever we think about Miss USA and Miss America, at least they're grown-ups, and they're making a choice, and they know what they're doing.

Isn't that far, far different from these little kiddie pageants? There are about 3,000 of them in this country, there are over $1 billion industry, where these mothers put their little daughters on the stage, who hardly know what they're doing, and they dress them up very sexily, they teach them very erotic movements, if you will, and put them up on stage.

Aren't these mothers sort of exploiting their daughters just for their own egos?

HENRY: Well, I have to tell you, Bill, my mother never pushed me into a pageant. In fact, I was involved in far more than just a pageant...

PRESS: I'm not talking about you.

HENRY: But I am part of that. And of course, I can't speak for all of those organizations, but you take one extreme cause or effect like the Jon Benet Ramsey case, and the press exploits it.

The fact is, only grandparents and mothers or fathers are there to watch those tiny pageants. They are not on national television.

SMEAL: I don't know about that.

HENRY: Well, I do -- I was in them.

SMEAL: I don't know about that, because there's some concern about...


HENRY: And I was never pushed into a pageant. In fact, I actually got out of them, because I was a tomboy, but got back in when I was about 11, because I enjoy musical theater. I enjoyed being on the stage, I enjoyed being able to perform in front of audiences, so I'm not sure how much pushing is going on. SMEAL: But what age would you say is too young?

HENRY: I would say...

SMEAL: And is three, four and five dressing them up as if they were 20 years old, is that wrong?

HENRY: I'll say it's too young when the contestant, or the young individual does not understand what it means just to have fun on stage, and it's not there just to win the title. You're not there about the crown. You're there to get the experience.

SMEAL: But wouldn't you say...

HENRY: If parents are pushing any kid, whether it's Little League, whether it's musical theater, a sport or a pageant, you know, I don't condone that at all. It's the young person that has to make that decision for themselves.

PRESS: Here, I got a quick question. We are just about out of time. But Julia mentioned that 12 million people are going to be watching Miss USA today. That's the lowest that have ever watched it. Last year, the lowest audience ever watched the Miss America Pageant.

This is not 1921, this is not 1965. Don't you think the American people are telling us, by tuning it off, that it's time to turn it off?

HENRY: Actually, not when we have shows like "Survivor" and "Temptation Island" and all of those realistic television shows.

Actually, Miss America did rather well, from what I believe, last year. And I can't -- you know, I can't comment on the Miss USA system, because that's not the system that I'm not involved in. But we have increased our number of contestants and those involved because of the community service.

You know, I would just like to have a future where maybe, you know, Elly and I can work together to really help empower young women even more. But with the power of the crown, you can get to a lot of places.

PRESS: All right, when you do work together, just remember where you met and where you joined forces, right here on CROSSFIRE.

Elly Smeal, thank you so much for joining us. Heather French out in San Francisco, thanks for being with us.

And when we come back, Miss USA and Mr. America will have some very appropriate closing comments.


PRESS: Don't forget, you can join both of our guests, Heather French Henry and Eleanor Smeal in our CNN chat room, the CROSSFIRE chat room, right after the show, at You know, Julia, I remember a lot of things from the '50s. I remember the black-and-white TV, I remember the Edsel, I remember Chesterfield Cigarettes. They're all gone. I think it's time that the Miss America Pageant went, too.

REED: I think you're crazy. Looking at and listening to Heather tonight -- I mean, that woman was incredibly focused, very articulate. I wish I had gone through a pageant or two, I could have handled Eleanor a lot better.

PRESS: But not, but -- just to me, I think Eleanor was right. It just puts up -- focuses on the wrong image of women and just on how they look.

REED: Isn't that a woman's choice?


I thought we fought so that women could make their own choices, and now you're saying -- whatever -- you're making value judgments on what that choice is.

PRESS: It is a woman's choice.

REED: Nobody is dragging these women to Gary, Indiana.

PRESS: Well, I'm for RuPaul for Miss America. I think that would open up the whole contest.

REED: I'm sure there's a pageant or two that will take him.

PRESS: On the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

From the right?

REED: From the right, I'm Julia Reed. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: And I'll see in the "THE SPIN ROOM" at 10:30 tonight. See you later.



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