On Sunday night, the current Miss America — Kira Kazantsev of New York — passes her crown to a new woman who (in the words of the pageant’s founder) “represents the highest ideals. She is a real combination of beauty, grace, and intelligence, artistic and refined.”
Media hype? Epitome of misplaced values? Dusty relic?
Penny Pearlman does not think so.
The Westport resident believes that women need a lot more than a great body and nice smile to be named Miss America.
Pearlman says contest winners are not just pretty. They’re also pretty smart,
Also passionate, insightful and eloquent.
Those are not just her thoughts. She spent several months traveling across the country. She interviewed 22 former Miss Americas.
Now — on the eve of the 95th annual pageant — is a great time to talk about a book she wrote after all that. Pretty Smart: Lessons From Our Miss Americas portrays these women as beautiful and intelligent enough to win — and smart enough to make the most those victories.
Pearlman is not a veteran writer. She worked for many years in healthcare, including consulting and as a vice president at Bridgeport Hospital.
She also earned an MBA from Wharton, and has a master’s in art therapy.
“Every 5 years I get restless,” she says. “I always have to do something different.”
As a consultant, she thought about the qualities of successful people. She realized that Miss America winners exemplified all those traits.
Pearlman had not watched the pageant since she was a child, back in the 1950s and ’60s. She hadn’t really thought about it, either.
But the idea of Miss Americas as successful women stuck with her. She decided to write a book about them, then signed on with the Westport Writers’ Workshop to hone her skills.
Still, she was a nobody. When she asked former winners to chat, no one responded.
So Pearlman did what resourceful people (like Miss Americas) do: She tried a different approach.
In January 2007, she flew to Las Vegas. (That’s where the pageant relocated for a few years — with a different date — in an unsuccessful attempt to shed its Atlantic City baggage.)
She waited in a theater lobby for former Miss Americas to appear, after a preliminary event. Several agreed to talk.
Two weeks later, Pearlman was in Louisville with 2000 winner Heather French. They had a great conversation.
That opened the door to other interviews. Over the next 8 months, Pearlman met 22 Miss Americas. They included big names, like Lee Meriwether (1955) and Mary Ann Mobley (1959). (Arguably the most famous of all — Bess Myerson — was too ill to talk.)
After winning the Miss America title, Phyllis George became a businesswoman, actress and sportscaster. She was also First Lady of Kentucky.
The conversations were wide-ranging, insightful and fun. Phyllis George (1971) took Pearlman to the Carlyle in New York. Judy Collins recognized George, and came over to chat. George ended up writing the forward to Pearlman’s book.
The interviews convinced the author that her premise was right.
“All the women have different personalities, and different looks,” Pearlman says. “But they all had a dream, and the drive to achieve it.”
Miss Americas went to schools like Harvard and Stanford. Several earned graduate degrees, even Ph.D.s.
“They are intelligent, articulate women,” Pearlman notes. “But they don’t sit on their laurels. All of them saw Miss America as a platform to jump off, and do bigger things.”
In 1989 the pageant added a social cause component. This is not window dressing. Pearlman says that winners have embraced — passionately and personally — causes like drunk driving, literacy and AIDS awareness.
She also sees the Miss America contest as feminist. “Long before Betty Friedan, it’s emphasized college, and the achievements of women,” Pearlman insists.
Pretty Smart focuses on Miss Americas. But, Pearlman says, “it’s really about how to be a winner in any field. And how to inspire people to follow their dreams.”
Pretty smart on her part, too.
(Penny Pearlman speaks about her book at 6:30 p.m. tonight [Thursday, September 10] at the Westport Historical Society. Two former Miss Connecticuts will be there too. There is a $10 donation, and reservations are required; call 203-222-1424. Click here for more information.)
(Hat tip: Prill Boyle)