'Secrets of Miss America' explores the pageant's racist history and what's been done to correct it

Vanessa Williams was crowned the first Black Miss America in 1984.
Vanessa Williams was crowned the first Black Miss America in 1984. (Photo: A&E)

The Miss America organization has had a long and ugly history with racism and diversity, and Monday’s Secrets of Miss America explored just how long and just how ugly it’s been.

The new series from A&E dives into various secrets and controversies that have happened in and around America’s longest-running pageant. The latest episode began with a number of interview subjects — in this case former contestants — reading a rule from a 1948 Miss America contract that stated: “Contestant must be in good health and of the white race.”

That contract came during the tenure of Lenora Slaughter, who served as executive director from 1941 to 1967. Author Amy Argetsinger said during the show that Slaughter was a big reason the pageant survived, but that she’s also “responsible for a fairly toxic legacy that the pageant had a fairly hard time living down.”

The rule was phased out in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1970 that a Black woman actually won a state title in order to compete in the pageant and another decade until a Black woman was crowned Miss America.

That person was Vanessa Williams, who was named Miss America 1984 and then later relinquished her title after photos of her appeared in Penthouse magazine. The next few Black winners came in 1990 with Debbye Turner, 1991 with Marjorie Vincent and 1994 with Kimberly Aiken. But according to Brittany Lee Lewis, a professor of history and also Miss Delaware 2014, things were not really as they seemed.

“I think for outsiders looking at the Miss America organization, by the early '90s, it looks like all of the racial woes and problems have gone away,” Lewis said during Monday’s episode. “But the reality is they just became much more covert and underground, if you will.”

When Caressa Cameron became Miss America 2010, she began to have issues with the organization not being understanding of, or willing to help with, maintaining her hair for the many appearances she was booked for. She eventually had to cut most of her off and attend events wearing wigs — wigs that she had to find and buy for herself.

Caressa Cameron was crowned Miss America in 2010.
Caressa Cameron was crowned Miss America in 2010. (Photo: A&E)

“When you go into a beauty-driven industry, because at the end of the day we are still a beauty [pageant], we take pride in what we look like and in the image that we're presenting of ourselves. So to not be able to present the best image of myself, I think, was hard," Cameron tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I think [the organization] was ill-equipped to manage what they wanted Miss America's schedule to be, and then also what her needs would be in terms of maintaining a certain standard of beauty that she had. Then you insert being Black on top of that, which is a whole other need. It was just a cluster, for lack of a better word.”

In 2018, Cameron became part of a task force that was formed to “survey the lay of the land of the organization at every level.” The data they got back confirmed what many had already suspected, that a lack of diversity was happening on a major scale at the local level. The stats, which she believed had never been made public before, showed that 90% of their state directors and 87% of the judges all identified as being white.

Cameron said she received emails from girls all over the country at the local levels who were told to wear certain dresses because they were too “bottom-heavy,” or to wear a certain kind of makeup so their nose would appear smaller.

"I knew it was happening, but to see so many and hear so many stories was just like, 'Wow, this is happening all over the country, not just in Virginia.'"

Brent Adams, VP of Marketing and Development for the Miss America organization, said in the docuseries that after those findings they implemented policies to ensure that there’s at least one person of color on every judging panel.

"There’s probably a lot more we could do, but we wanted to at least start somewhere," he said.

There have been nine Black winners in the pageant's history, and Cameron tells Yahoo that while she thinks having rules around the judging panels is "huge," there is plenty more to be done.

"I think that also those tentacles need to spread into the leadership of the board of directors who are representing each local and each state title, and then also at the Miss America level because it's very hard to recruit girls who are of diverse backgrounds if there's no one there in leadership positions that can speak to their needs, that would know where they are to even find them, that would have the ability to connect with them if they were able to try to recruit them and that sort of thing," she says. "I think that's where we have the most room to grow, for our leadership to start to look more like America, so that we can then start recruiting more women to hold these titles that also look like the landscape of America."

Secrets of Miss America airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on A&E.