personal advice ● pageant class
By Dana Rosengard, Ph.D.
PRETTY PENNY: Penny Pearlman (C), author of “Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss
Americas,” poses with four of the Suffolk University Seminar for Freshmen students in
November, 2012, after leading a discussion about competition psychology and how pageants
can prepare young women for successful lives. Together, they look like a pageant Top 5!
Through a very special class,
Suffolk University students
have been able to learn ﬁrsthand about the history,
importance and impact of America’s most inﬂuential
beauty and scholarship pageants
C hances are most people reading this magazine—
if not all of them—and therefore this article, are
quite familiar with the differences between the
two major miss-level pageants in the United
States. You know that Miss America began back
in the 1920s in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as part of a plan
by local businessmen and hoteliers to sneak an extra week
of fun and frivolity on their ocean shores. Originally just a
bathing beauty revue, talent was added in 1935, scholar-
ships were awarded beginning in 1945, the community
service platform requirement came along in 1989, and Miss
America became an annual television event, a social icon
and the largest private source of scholarship dollars exclu-
sively for women in the world.
In 1952, Catalina Swimsuit pulled away from Miss
America and started Miss USA and Miss Universe in the
same year. Held at ﬁrst and for years in Long Beach, Cali-
fornia, the program quickly became another opportunity for
young, pretty women with nerve and dreams. Miss USA
moved its television event around the country and sent its
crowned queen to the Miss Universe pageant that broadcast
the live-via-satellite ﬁnal competition around the world.
But again this fall, for the third year in a row, I will wel-
come a group of two-dozen or so college freshmen into a
course who seem to know none of this. They don’t know
the difference between programs or philosophies. They
don’t know trophies from tiaras. They think the entire pag-
eant world runs like some bad TLC “reality” show. And this
is relevant because each has signed up for “SF1118—The
Role of Competitive Beauty in a Modern Society”. Yes, I
teach a pageant class at a major university.
The Role of Competitive Beauty is part of the Seminar
for Freshmen (SF) program at Suffolk University, a mid-
sized private school on Boston’s Beacon Hill, where I am a
member of the Department of Communication and Jour-
nalism faculty. The SF program offers a variety of unusual-
ly themed courses that are each full-semester, 4-credit,
intellectually challenging and writing intensive experiences
for our incoming students. A required course for the fresh-
men, faculty from departments and disciplines campus-
wide apply to lead an SF section based on an area of
expertise or interest.
I have been involved in the Miss USA organization at
the state level since 1986, ﬁrst involved as a volunteer while
working as a television reporter in Greenville, Mississippi.
I went on to co-produce and emcee that show for more
than a decade; work that I continued across the country as
I chased my professional goals. I have been a Miss Ameri-
ca Organization volunteer since 1991, ﬁrst involved as a
judge at a Miss New Hampshire local pageant.
I went on to emcee the New Hampshire state competi-
tion for a few years and continue to co-produce and emcee
locals in that state. I also judge on the local and state level
across the country. I am a pageant fan.
And so I proposed my seminar for freshmen section and
was selected to have it offered among the nearly 40 sections
from which our new students choose. And presto—my
class was ﬁlled to capacity both fall semesters it has been
offered. Two things about both groups of students—ﬁrst,
they were all women; and second, not one knew hardly a
thing about pageants beyond having occasionally watched
them on TV or having been a couch-potato to Toddlers &