Foolish of me to say a few days ago that I'd uttered my last word on the subject of beauty queens. Mrs Lott's remark that "real" feminists don't enter pageants jogged my memory that I once met and interviewed one who did. And if Mrs Lott knows about her, it would explain her heart-felt "ergh".
It's the final of the 1988 Miss California contest, a lead-up to Miss America. As the clip begins, note behind and to the left of that expanse of front-row 80s shoulder pad the young woman in blue. The two finalists are named and step to the left, putting the woman in blue on their right. Don't blink or you'll miss what happens next.
She's Michelle Anderson of Santa Cruz. The silk banner she pulled from her decolletage read "Beauty pageants hurt all women", and her protest earned international coverage.
I was living in Berkley at the time, with a photographer. I tracked Michelle down and a few days later S and I drove down to Santa Cruz to interview her. Her studio apartment was bright and airy and a bit student-messy. The blue dress hung resplendent on a wall. Michelle was cheerful, forthright, unrepentant. The profile I wrote up was published in the Listener in, I think, 1989, but neither its online archives nor my own go back that far so I'll have to rely on other contemporary reports.
Here's the New York Times of June 16, 1988:
Beauty Contestant Denounces the 'Indignities'
SAN DIEGO, June 15— A beauty contestant who pulled a protest banner from her bra in the middle of the Miss California pageant Monday says she plotted the disruption for a year and a half.
The contestant, Michelle Anderson, displayed a white silk banner declaring 'Pageants Hurt All Women' just as the winner, Marlise Ricardos, was about to be announced.
Other participants yanked away the banner, and security guards promptly removed Miss Anderson, who was Miss Santa Cruz, from the San Diego Civic Center's stage.
At a news conference Tuesday, Miss Anderson, who is a college student, said she dieted, took voice lessons and spent $5,000 over a period of 18 months to carry her message against beauty pageants to the contest stage.
'Expose the Lies'
'I wanted to go behind the scenes of pageants and expose the lies they promote, such as women like to be judged by men, or like to duct tape their breasts,'Miss Anderson said.
She said beauty pageants gave women the message that to be beautiful they had to be thin, blonde and young.
'Women suffer severe indignities to try to be beautiful according to these standards,' she said.
The 21-year-old Miss Anderson is a junior at the University of California at Santa Cruz majoring in community studies. She said her protest cost her the Miss Santa Cruz title and a $3,000 scholarship.
Organizers reacted to her move with anger and surprise. ...
Miss Anderson said the idea for the stunt came in a protest planning session with a former model, Ann Simonton [pictured], whose Santa Cruz-based group, MediaWatch, has staged a number of pageant demonstrations.
Largest Possible Audience
The plan was for Miss Anderson to get to the largest possible audience before sharing her message. If she had won the Miss California pageant, she would have kept silent until reaching the Miss America pageant.
The people.com archive backgrounds the story:
The daughter of a now retired Air Force colonel, Anderson discovered her feminist consciousness early.... [T]wo years ago, Anderson met Ann Simonton. Once a top model, Simonton had come to believe that pageants dehumanize women, and for eight years she had picketed the Miss California pageant. Simonton asked Anderson to phone for details of the pageant so she could make plans for a new demonstration. "I pretended I wanted to be a contestant," says Anderson. "Then all of a sudden I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what an idea...' "
Tall (5'11"), somewhat blond and already striking, Anderson set out to make herself over in the image of a perfectly groomed pageant champion. She bleached her hair, dieted, took voice lessons, spent hours in tanning salons. She also embarked on a campaign of deception, claiming, for example, to be a fundamentalist Christian. For all her preparation, Anderson had to settle for third place in the 1987 Santa Cruz pageant.
Relieved, she reverted to being herself. But as the 1988 pageant neared, she decided to try again. "The first time, I didn't know about taping my breasts, didn't know I was supposed to spray my butt to keep my swimsuit from riding up," she says. At the urging of pageant officials, she came on with studied meekness at interviews. Last February she became Miss Santa Cruz. Even runner-up Frey admits, "She deserved to win."
During her three-month reign, Anderson cheerfully attended gas station openings and dance recitals while she plotted her protest. "It was incredibly intense," she says of the moment of unfurling, "but I had no second thoughts." After getting the bum's rush, she changed quickly out of her white [sic] evening gown to join Simonton and 60 other protestors on the sidewalk outside.
And finally, the Orlando Sentinel followed up two years later:
SANTA CRUZ, CALIF. — She has gained 30 pounds, doesn't wear makeup and no longer glues her swimsuit to her body. Now she wears blue jeans and sweat shirts, and she feels most comfortable when she can be 'just plain ugly.'
It has been nearly two years since Michelle Anderson of Santa Cruz infiltrated the Miss California Pageant and during the finale unfurled a banner that read 'pageants hurt all women.'
What followed was a full-scale media blitz - Anderson's story was carried in newspapers around the country and as far away as Germany. She even got a guest spot on the Geraldo show.
'I had no idea that the story would be as big as it was,' Anderson said recently. 'It was just a whirlwind after the protest. People were calling me wanting to buy the rights to my life story, make a movie of the week. One guy called and wanted to make a poster of me.'
Anderson, 23, admits she made some mistakes the first time around. Still, she says, she would do it again - in a heartbeat.
'I have no regrets about what I did. My message is that pageants demean all women in a variety of ways, and my experience on the inside only reaffirmed that it's true,' she said. 'Because real women don't look like that and real women feel terrible that they don't look like that.'
Anderson said women in the pageant put duct tape under their breasts to create cleavage and starved to be thin. She said contestants would spray adhesive all over their bodies to keep their suits in place during the swimsuit competition.
After the Miss California Pageant in June 1988, it took about a year for her life to return to normal. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in May 1989 with honors and an undergraduate degree in community studies (the study of social change). In addition, she has written a book about her experiences inside the Miss California Pageant. It's called Becoming Barbie: Tales of an Undercover Beauty Queen.
Anderson got the idea for the book's title when she thought back to a make-over session between the Miss Santa Cruz and Miss California pageants in the spring of 1988.
'There were these people there and they kept putting more and more makeup on me, and making my hair bigger and bigger,' Anderson recalled. 'When they were done, they stood back and crooned, 'Oh my, who does she look like? She looks just like Barbie.' It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I thought I was going to vomit.'
Michelle Anderson's most telling insight into the pageant game was that she wasn’t beautiful but that she learned to be “good at” beauty.
Be very afraid, Mrs Lott.