The gown and the crown.

Those have always been your favorite parts of the Miss America pageant: one has bling and the other has glitz, which is perfect. Sparkles and glamour mixed with drama and a mega-watt smile plus talent — what’s not to love? Yep, the gown and the crown, in “Looking for Miss America” by Margot Mifflin, make a show of renown.

At 15 years old, Margaret Gorman was a beauty: petite, with long hair and a shy grin that her fans adored. But looks apparently weren’t the only thing Gorman had going for her: after she won “a local beauty contest” on the strength of her attributes, reporters wishing for an interview found her “on her knees in a playground, shooting marbles in the dirt.”

That was in August 1921 and the Miss America organization was off to a charming start. It didn’t always stay that way, though, Margot Mifflin says. For its first few years, the pageant was held only occasionally and it was mostly regional. The title of “Miss America” didn’t even show up until after Gorman’s reign.

Alternately then, the organization disbanded and restarted but by the time Americans were in the grip of the Depression, things were firmly back on track — although, not without a host of problems. Rules, for one thing, were largely unenforced until 1935, when Lenora Slaughter was hired to be the pageant’s director, a position she’d hold for decades.

Slaughter laid down the law, ensuring at various times through the years that Miss America was at least 18 years old, chaste, and modestly dressed; not married, or a mother; and if she was strongly Christian, that was even better. She also had to be white; African Americans couldn’t even try for the crown for most of the 20th century.

Oh, and as for talent — no live animal acts, for good reason; no using the same music as your fellow contestants... and no stripping.

Despite that it takes readers right up to the pageant as it is today, nearly a century after its inception, there’s something truly, wonderfully nostalgic about reading “Looking for Miss America.”

Maybe it’s because Mifflin presents the history of the organization with all its flaws, its blunders, embarrassments, and troubles. Maybe it’s because she dives into stories of contestants — and not just winners — that we didn’t know, or that had more to tell than just a glide down a walkway.

Maybe it’s the surprising number of firsts here: the first “girl” to use “butt tape,” the first Native American contestant, the first lesbian winner, the first “girl” to stand up to sponsors. These are things that keep the book lively and fun.

Or perhaps the appeal of “Looking for Miss America” is that it’s like a long-ago Saturday evening in August with a load of pillows on the living room floor and popcorn while you wait for the pageant to start on TV. If you loved the gown and the crown, you won’t be able to put it down.

Terri Schlichenmeyer can be reached at

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