At 75, Miss Delaware Pageant is More Than a Beauty Contest
Even as necklines have plunged and slits have climbed, the competition has evolved into preparation for anything. Just ask your state senator.
Miss Delaware 1933, Victoria George (Lusardi), poses with other Miss America contestants in Atlantic City.
On August 23, 1933, a terrible Nor’easter blew through Delaware, “worst gale in half a century,” the papers reported. But inside the Black Cat club, 19-year-old Victoria George of Newark ignored the howling wind outside and the crowd of people inside and danced her way into a bit of Delaware history.
George was the first Miss Delaware to represent the state in Atlantic City at the Miss America Pageant.
In June the 75th Miss Delaware will be crowned at Dover Downs. Don’t try to do the math. There are more than 75 years between 1933 and 2016, but there were several years, especially during World War II, when Delaware skipped the competition.
Though the math may be confusing, one thing is not: The event and the world in which George competed are very different from those today.
It took George three days to find out she won. There was no crown, no scholarship, no runway stroll. Reports in newspapers mostly said that she was “one of six attractive sisters.” An article in Atlantic City mentioned her because, “none has hair so dark as ‘Miss Delaware.’”
Mary Lee Mancini (Kleinkauf),
It was all about beauty for the Miss Delawares of the 1930s and ’40s, says Mary Lee Kleinkauf, Miss Delaware 1966 and a member of the Miss Delaware Scholarship Organization board. After all, Miss America started as a way to extend the summer season in Atlantic City by luring people to see bathing beauties on the boardwalk. Contestants arrived in Atlantic City on a train called The Beauty Special. The competition included daily parades on floats that had mermaids and ocean themes.
In a 2002 interview George said she didn’t remember much about the pageantry of her time as Miss Delaware. Besides a few photos and some press clippings, all George had from the competition was a frayed silk sash.
It was a more “theatrical” time for Miss Delaware, says Kleinkauf. Competitors often aspired to go into entertainment. Being in the pageant was a good way to get exposure. Many contestants, like Mona Crawford, Miss Delaware 1943, did go on to careers in modeling, on stage and in film. Prizes included clothing and jewelry, fur coats and sparkly bracelets.
Much changed over the years. Hair and shoulder pads got smaller, heels got higher, swimsuits went from full-coverage one pieces to bikinis, necklines plunged and slits climbed.
It’s the competition’s more substantive changes, though, that are of real note.
Community service became a focus when the platform program was introduced in 1989. Each contestant now champions a cause—her platform. Causes have included stopping domestic violence, helping children in foster care, ending bullying, awareness of hearing impairment, juvenile diabetes and the March of Dimes—even dental hygiene.
The judging system was also revamped in 2001 to take emphasis away from the swimsuit and put it more on interview and talent.
Kama Boland (Levendis), Miss Delaware
“The job isn’t about being in a bathing suit all day,” says Kama Boland Levendis, Miss Delaware 1999. “The job itself is about your personality, about leadership and about instilling confidence in women.”
The biggest change came in 1945, when Miss America offered the first scholarship. Delaware followed soon after. The money in the early years didn’t amount to much, but it started to draw a different kind of woman. A contest that was a stepping stone to the stage became a stepping stone to education, says Kleinkauf. Though many former Miss Delawares refer to the competition as a pageant, Kleinkauf smiles politely at that moniker. “The primary reason we get entrants now is for scholarships.”
Miss Delaware 2015 took home a diamond ring and watch, clothing, a mani-pedi, a personal trainer and teeth whitening as part of her prizes. She also won $10,000 in outright scholarship money to use at any school she wanted. Wesley College gave her $10,000 a year for tuition there, while Delaware State University offered $56,000. Runners-up received anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 in awards. Even non-finalists got $350. All scholarship money was sent to schools, not contestants.
A scholarship was Galen Giaccone’s motivation when she entered her first competition as a senior in high school.
“I grew up a tomboy. I became a girlie girl for the pageant,” says Giaccone, who jokes she was a field hockey player lumbering around among elegant dancers. She is now Dr. Giaccone and is planning to work with a dental practice in Milton in fall. Her pageant winnings helped pay for dental school.
Miss Delaware 2008 Galen Giaccone
The competition was a training ground for many amazing careers. Senators, doctors, lawyers, motivational speakers, leadership trainers, teachers, entrepreneurs—even the global event producer for Disney—credited their presents with their pasts in Miss Delaware.
Thinking on your feet and appearing poised are skills that can be used in many situations. Job interviews, public speaking engagements—no problem after going through the competition.
Preparing for Miss Delaware was like preparing for a giant interview for a one-year dream job, says Kayla Martell, Miss Delaware 2010. Martell went on to become a finalist at Miss America, had countless interviews with national press, and is now a motivational speaker who travels the country to advocate for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.
Margo Ewing Woodacre, Miss Delaware 1969, says Miss Delaware was a training ground for her time as a state senator. She competed in Atlantic City the year women were burning their bras on the boardwalk outside the convention center. There were plenty of microphones and angry arguments thrown her way that week.
Margo Wooding (Woodacre), Miss Delaware 1969, then and today.
“It was a great time for women to step out,” says Woodacre. She was 19 then. “It helped build my confidence.”
Woodacre earned a master's in social work and worked as a coach and leadership development professional. She spent her life fighting for women’s rights in many ways, from writing legislation to create affordable quality daycare so mothers could work, to writing about dealing with an empty nest. Miss Delaware helped pay for school and make her the person she is today, she says. “I truly feel the purpose of my life is helping people.”
Changes in the competition also brought changes in the rules.
In the early days, it was almost anything goes. Crawford, Miss Delaware 1943, attests to that. She was crowned at the age of 14.
“I lied about my age,” says Crawford. Now 87, she still laughs about the fun she had at the competitions. “Who thought I would win? I certainly didn’t.”
From left: Mona Crawford, Miss Delaware 1943; Mona plays piano with Carol Burnett.
The Delaware contest then didn’t require a talent portion, just swimsuit and evening gown. Crawford says her father was very upset that she was parading around in a swimsuit in front of so many men, but he let her go. When Delaware found out her real age, they asked the runner-up if she would go to Atlantic City. She said no.
Mona Crawford was Miss Delaware 1943.
While the Miss America people were not happy with their underage contestant, they allowed her to compete—with the understanding she wouldn’t be able to win anything.
“We all just had a lot of fun together,” Crawford says.
That wouldn’t happen today. In fact, Miss Delaware almost ceased to exist in 2014. The Miss Delaware organization was told it would lose its franchise rights from Miss America over an age discrepancy. Amanda Longacre was stripped of her crown when the Miss America organization learned she would turn 25 years old in October 2014. The rules stated contestants had to be within the ages of 17 and 24 by Dec. 31 of the year they competed.
Former Miss Delawares rallied to the cause, saving the Delaware franchise by organizing a new board and revamping Delaware rules and systems to make sure such a gaff never happened again.
“It was a failure of the organization, a huge lesson learned across the board,” says Levendis, who served on the committee to win back the state license. There are strong controls in place now, she says.
So is it a beauty pageant? Yes. Like it or not, people are judged on their appearance every day, says Laura Moylan, executive director of the Miss Delaware organization and a practicing obstetrician. Along with all the help Miss Delaware coaches give contestants for interviews, they also work with appearance and comportment. How you present yourself is important. Will you be taken seriously or not? she says.
Levendis even defends the swimsuit competition, now titled “fitness,” as relevant. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle of exercise and proper diet requires discipline and time management skills, says Moylan, her doctor hat showing.
“Plus, if you have the confidence to walk out on a stage in front of thousands of people in a swimsuit, there is not a boardroom in the world that will intimidate you,” she says.
Is it a scholarship program? Yes. Miss Delaware and Miss America raise and give away more money in scholarships every year. Martell competed in Miss Delaware four times before being crowned. She took home more than $20,000 from the year she was Miss Delaware alone, not to mention the thousands she raised from the other competitions she took part in to get her there.
Is it relevant? Yes. There are plenty of anecdotal stories and arguments against competitions like Miss Delaware. Critics claim they sexualize children and create body-image issues among teen girls. Yet no significant study shows psychological or emotional damage caused by pageants.
Miss Delaware is, says Kleinkauf, a doctorate in social education.
The program supports education and community involvement. It teaches young women to embrace public speaking, to know who they are and where they stand when asked a question. It gives a voice to women and to so many issues they support. It reinforces healthy living, confidence building, even sisterhood. As long as those things are relevant, then Miss Delaware will be relevant, says Moylan.
If there were a similar program for men, she’d have her boys in it, she says.