A pointed series of live interview questions about white supremacists, climate change, Confederate statues and President Trump immediately preceded the selection Sunday night of North Dakota’s Cara Mund as Miss America 2018.
This late-in-the-game shift from showbiz to substance was startling; there I was, along with thousands of others, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City expecting a pageant all about high heels, bikinis, and of course, scholarships, when the tightly scripted, briskly paced event detoured from the razzle-dazzle to the political.
Turned out that Hurricane Irma was not the only storm backdropping the festivities; even the contentious subject of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election came up during the otherwise relentlessly upbeat extravaganza.
And I hadn’t imagined that Trump, who once owned the rival Miss Universe pageant and famously disrespected a past winner of that competition as a zaftig has-been, would become such a looming presence in the closing cliffhanger moments of this year’s Miss America.
Mund, who went to the same North Dakota high school as Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, said Trump was wrong to pull the United States out of of the international climate change agreement known as the Paris Accord.
“We need to be at that table, and I think it’s just a bad decision on behalf of the United States,” she said.
Asked to be a “jury” and declare whether the president colluded with Russian efforts to sway the election, Miss Missouri, Jennifer Davis, opted for a verdict of innocent unless evidence proves otherwise.
Miss Texas, Margana Wood, criticized Trump for not having spoken out earlier against the white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., and described the death of a counter-protester there as a “terrorist act.”
And Miss New Jersey, Kaitlyn Schoeffel, said Confederate statues are part of American history and should be treated as such.
The crowd — many of those near me were cheering for Schoeffel, their Egg Harbor Township homegirl — seemed unfazed to find the pageant morphing into Meet the Press.
Nearly two frenzied hours of thumping pop music, “contemporary” dance routines by cartwheeling contestants and perky pitches for hurricane relief (and hair care products) had created a certain … effervescent ambiance.
The evening gowns, the epic smiling, and all those waterfalls of hair onstage in the appealingly venerable venue of Boardwalk Hall were almost intoxicating. With all due respect to saxophone-playing Katie Schreckengast, who made for a memorable Miss Pennsylvania but did not make the final group of semi-finalists, I found myself nearly carried away by the Schoeffel pep rally next to me.
“We couldn’t be any prouder of Kaitlyn,” said Shari Kaminski, 51, of Mays Landing, who brought along a hand-made placard with Schoeffel’s photo on it. “We love her,” said Kaminski’s daughter, Gabrielle, 13, a teen pageant contestant who’s been mentored by Schoeffel.
The potentially controversial answers by several of the semi-finalists did not seem to harm their prospects; Mund won, Davis was the first runner-up and Schoeffel the second.
And I was struck by the fact that while the pageant has long been seen by some as a frivolous, pointless, and retrograde display of attitudes most charitably defined as passe, this year’s competition may well be remembered for taking its contestants seriously enough to ask them serious questions.