The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 19, 2013

MICHELE BENDER | It was hit or miss

Michele Mikesic Bender
For The Tribune-Democrat

— Did you know they still crown a “Miss America” every year?

Mallory Hagens, a 22-year-old blonde from New York, became the 92nd winner Jan. 12 in Las Vegas.

My mom loved the Miss America hoopla, which originated in Atlantic City. All Philadelphians believe AC is their personal beachfront playground.

Starting in 1921, groups of beautiful young women selected by their home states converged on AC every Labor Day weekend. The event attracted hordes of tourists who traveled to enjoy the glamorous spectacle, and tourism cash was welcomed.

Mom followed the competitions like we follow the Penguins. Bess Myerson, Miss 1945, had a “Vanna White-like” job on an afternoon game show. Mom could probably name every prize Bess ever handed out.

Mom had a dream. She wanted me to become a Miss America. Her plan, however, had flaws. She and my dad had spawned an offspring with minimal talent, questionable coordination, a total lack of pageant-worthy skills and absolutely no ambition!

I endured dancing school, both ballet and (gag) tap. Groundhogs moved with more grace and agility. I made three piano teachers nearly suicidal.

I “hoovered” as a vocalist, too. The choral director at junior high asked me to “Milli-Vanilli” (lip-sync) it. Other “marketable” competition skills like baton twirling and juggling were ruled out, too.

In the ’50s and ’60s, contests flourished. We had Prom Queen in the spring, Miss AAABA in the summer, and homecomings and Snow Balls to finish.

But pageants fell on hard times. The public berated them for objectifying and exploiting women. In 1979, the fools in charge fired Bert Parks, and eliminated the theme song, the self-destructive equivalent of moving Jay Leno to 10 p.m. (Oh, wait … they did that, too, didn’t they?)

Some contestants found themselves embroiled in scandals. That didn’t help either.

Young ladies competing today work hard, embrace education, polish their talents, and reflect  favorably on their families and communities. I’m tremendously proud of a member of my extended family who sets a fine example. (Go, Maddy!)

At 18, I dated a guy who was an Army reservist. He told me they were looking for contestants to vie for “Miss Armed Forces.” They needed a Miss Infantry, Miss Artillery, Miss Camouflage, Miss Aviation … you get it.

“What would I have to do?”

“Aw, they just say ‘tell us about yourself,’ ” he replied.

I pictured myself speaking. “I enjoy talking to statues in museums, I like to carve presidents out of bars of soap, and in my spare time, I knit mittens for orphans.”

I could DO THIS!

Look out, Honey Boo Boo!

Then, my soldier dropped by with a photo of last year’s contestant. She was waving from a convertible bearing a sign that read “MISS TANK BATTALION.’’

Mom almost needed sedation.

I declined the title.

I would have been a Miss Fit anyway.

Michele Mikesic Bender is a Johnstown resident and a member of  The Tribune-Democrat’s Readership Advisory Committee.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.