The competition will be fierce at this year’s Miss’d America Pageant.
There’s something magical that happens when Atlantic City businessmen start thinking about pageants — and marketing — at the same time. Beloved and cherished traditions that last for decades can be born.
That’s certainly what happened when A.C. businessmen got together in 1921 and tried to figure out a way to keep tourists around for a few weeks after Labor Day. They came up with a bathing beauty pageant that would quickly morph into the Miss America Pageant. The Pageant would reign as America’s premier beauty pageant until 2005 when it disappeared from the public conscious forever (or moved to Vegas, same thing).
But before it left, the Miss America Pageant had established not only a relationship with southern New Jersey as a whole, but also a long and torrid love affair with Atlantic City’s gay community. And for one local businessman, that combo would make the magic marketing lightning strike again.
“The Miss America Pageant was always on a Saturday Night,” says John Schultz, former Atlantic City councilman and former owner of The Brass Rail and the Studio Six nightclub. “And right after the pageant [Studio Six] would fill up with all the people who worked the pageant — the dancers and the hair stylists, everyone who worked the show. But the next night was always dead in the city, you know a Sunday night. And a lot of people who worked the show stayed over because it was easier to travel out of the city on Mondays. So I came up with an idea for a show we could do that night.”
Schultz thought drag queens, and lots of them. Schultz’s brainchild was a mock staging of the more famous pageant using guys in drag as contestants. It was dubbed the Miss’d America Pageant and debuted around 1990.
It was a perfect fit right from the start. Though most pageant fans in the area either served as pageant volunteers, took in the now much-missed Miss America Boardwalk Parade or loyally watched it on TV, the region’s gay community took it a step farther. It was the city’s gay community, after all, that flocked to New York Avenue during the parade and started the famed “show us your shoes” tradition. And they were the ones who filled up Boardwalk Hall for the boring preliminaries as well as the big broadcast. With such a solid demographic in the pageant audience, what better way to finish up the weekend than a drag show?
Still, like Miss America, it took a few years for the Miss’d America Pageant to really gain prominence.
“The first time we did the show, I think we crowned the winner with a Burger King paper crown and we gave her dead roses wrapped in the want ads,” Schultz says. “But the funniest thing was when she won. She fainted. I mean she really fainted.”
The little drag show might have stayed small, but then fate and singer Jennifer Holiday would intervene. Holiday was playing an AIDS benefit at the nightclub and she had required a rather large stage for her show. The stage was still standing when the Miss’d America Pageant came up again.
“That was the first time we had it on a big stage with a runway,” says Schultz. “So Miss’d America was crowned on Jennifer Holiday’s stage. From there it just started to grow every year.”
In fact, the Miss’d America Pageant grew in popularity through the 1990s and early 2000s even as the real deal down the Boardwalk was losing its luster. Still, when Miss America skulked away — uhm, relocated — the Miss’d America Pageant faded away as well.
“Miss America left and there was that one year that there was no pageant [in 2005],” Schultz says. “The event was designed to be after the pageant. Then suddenly the pageant’s in Vegas and it’s in January, not September. While all that’s happening, at the same time we were selling the club and retiring from the business, so it just stopped.”
That could have been the end of Atlantic City’s alternative tradition. But in the end, it’s hard to keep a good drag queen down. This Sunday (Jan. 31, still the day after the Miss America 2010 Pageant) Miss’d America, will rise again with a special return engagement at Boardwalk Hall. The pageant’s rebirth is the brainchild of the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance.
“We were trying to come up with an idea for a benefit show for the group,” says Rich Helfant, president of the alliance. “And we came up with the idea of bringing back the Miss’d America Pageant. It’s been gone for a long time, but people loved it. And the media had loved it too. It seemed perfect.”
Helfant himself worked on the pageant at Studio Six from its inception and has very specific memories of the event.
“What I remember is laughter, laughter and laughter,” he says. “This new show won’t be any different.”
Almost immediately two of the city’s casino companies, Harrah’s and Trump properties, expressed an interest in doing the show. Both saw the pageant as an opportunity to increase marketing of the city to the gay community, one of the goals of the alliance.
“But then we thought of Boardwalk Hall,” Helfant says. “It’s a neutral site and all the casinos could get behind it. And it’s where the original Miss America Pageant was held. Boardwalk Hall means something to people who grew up around here. So we took the idea to the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority [ACCVA] and they loved it too.”
By November, the alliance, the ACCVA and the Schultz-Hill Foundation announced that the drag queens would be back, strutting their stuff at Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom.
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