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By Tim Merrill | March 11, 2002

There she is! Lisa Ades’ “Miss America” is an affectionate look at that epic, extravagantly shallow American institution, the Miss America pageant. The documentary was produced for PBS’ American Experience series with the full cooperation of the Miss America organization, so it may lack a certain edge (and Vanessa Williams is conspicuous by her absence). It’s no exposé, but it is a completely enjoyable work, overflowing with big dreams, big tears and really big hair.
Back in September 1921, everyone’s favorite flesh carnival was launched by a group of Atlantic City businessmen to entice tourists post-summer. The spectacle of “patriotic T&A” was an instant success, embodying the American obsession with gorgeousness as never before. Of course all the participating girls were white then – Tall, Blonde and Southern was the ideal – and would be for many decades to come. The film makes terrific use of archival footage from the earliest days right up through the peak years of tackiness, the ’60s and ’70s, and also benefits from moving and funny interviews with past winners Mary Bergeron, Bess Myerson (the first Jewish winner, crowned in 1945), and a still-ravishing Lee Meriwether. Sharp commentary is provided by Gloria Steinem, Margaret Cho, Tricia Rose, Isaac Mizrahi and ’98 queen Kate Shindle, a committed AIDS activist and one smart cookie.
Chronicling the first TV broadcast (in 1954, with PermaGrinned Bert Parks as host), the feminist protests of 1968 (bra-burning and all), the pro-choice law student crowned in 1974 (she didn’t cry!) and, of course, the infamous “Vanessa the Undressa” scandal in 1984, “Miss America” is beguiling all the way. Imagine a social history of 20th century America in a hot pink swimsuit and you’ve got the idea. The film has talent, brains and – oh yeah – beauty. It is, in a word, gorgeous.

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