In 2011, I wrote a story for New Jersey Monthly about the Downbeach community post-Miss America. Before decamping to Las Vegas, Miss America had been more like a local’s event that just so happened to be shown on national television than a country-wide competition. Pageant officials, employees, chaperones – almost the entire workforce that put the show on lived at the Jersey Shore. The pageant, which then was held in September, was one of those things that marked the change of seasons for locals. Anyone who said it was just a bathing suit competition was met with well oiled lines about how the pageant was much more than that its scholarships make a difference in the lives of its contestants (which I can’t say is wrong. Last year, they gave out $45 million in scholarships)
When she left, a lot of people were hurt and betrayed. Some blamed the casinos for disrupting a local tradition. Others hoped she’d come back.
They got their wish. Last night when I heard the news last night that Miss America was coming back to town, I knew a lot of people would be happy.
But I was also shocked. There was no love lost between the Miss American Organization and Atlantic City tourism officials. The excuses as to why no one from the Miss America Organization could talk to me for that New Jersey Monthly story grew to Monty Python levels of absurdity, and I could certainly see why tourism officials hadn’t been broken hearted over Miss America leaving. Even as the popularity of the pageant waned, and ABC dropped their television contract in 2005, the organization demanded more money to put on a show on Labor Day weekend, when the shore would be packed anyway.
So when they asked for more than $1 million to stay, the city let her go, renamed Miss America Way Convention Boulevard, and moved on.
Given the bad blood between the two groups, yes, the announcement was a surprise. Today’s press conference making things official offered little details: no numbers of how much money tourism groups and the casinos are kicking in, no indication if Miss America asked to come back, not even a date though officials have said it will be in September and aired on ABC.
The press conference also included buckets of rhetoric about how this is going to help save Atlantic City. Sorry, folks, I’m going to agree with Chuck Darrow of the Philadelphia Daily News: this is not going to save Atlantic City, nor will it be a game changer
No, only sweeping changes that will benefit both the tourism and residential areas of Atlantic City will do that, not an 92-year-old beauty pageant.
Still, I don’t mind the pageant coming back, even if it seems old fashioned. I just paid $300 for two 1950s Miss America composites that had belonged to a former pageant judge, so I get the appeal in the same way that I listen to the Beach Boys when driving down the shore.
But the city can’t rest its hopes on the well defined shoulders of these young ladies. It’s not their job to revitalize Atlantic City. It’ll take a lot more work for that to happen.