The first Miss California pageant, dubbed the Miss California Bathing Beauty Contest, was held in 1924 in Santa Cruz on the Boardwalk.
The popular Miss America Pageant had started in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1921, and local businessmen and politicians wanted to boost tourism and revenue by making Santa Cruz seem more like Atlantic City. In fact, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk was originally designed to invoke the seaside resort-towns along the Jersey shoreline.
Early Pageant Festivities
18-year old Fay Lanphier from Oakland became the first Miss California, beating out Santa Cruz’s own Mary Black. In front of thousands of admirers, she was crowded on the bandstand on the beach, and after danced with flappers at the Miss California Ball held at Cocoanut Grove. Later though, Lanphier was publicly criticized by William Randolph Hearst as being a “phony” since she didn’t know how to swim, begging the question of how she could be California’s “bathing beauty.” Despite this, Lanphier went on to become Miss America in 1925.
The pageant was a huge affair, involving the entire city of Santa Cruz. In the following years, thousands flocked to watch the three-mile long parade that occurred each year. Floats were specially designed for the pageant, fireworks were set off, and stunt planes wrote messages in the sky above the beach.
In 1945, the Miss California Pageant began officially awarding scholarships, changing the emphasis from a “beauty pageant” to that of a “scholarship program.” In 1966 the competition moved indoors and was held in the Santa Cruz civic auditorium.
Ann Simonton’s “Myth California” Protests
The Miss California Pageant has had a long history of loud and colorful protests, namely arguments about the pageant’s objectification of women. In the early days, in the 1920s, protesters balked against women wearing too much makeup and showing too much skin, arguing that the spectacle was indecent and immoral. In the 1960’s through the present day, protesters have complained about the lack of diversity and the negative effects on female body image.
Ann Simonton, founder of Media Watch and a former Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover model was one of the more outspoken protesters of the Miss California pageant. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, she and fellow protester Nikki Craft launched “Myth California” counter-pageants where the “Praying Mantis Brigade” of protesters paraded around outside the civic auditorium in Santa Cruz wearing their own dresses and sashes and throwing raw meat onto the stage. Sashes identified the counter-pageant contestants with names such as “Miss Behavin” and “Miss Understood” and the protesters painted red lipstick on their faces like war paint.
Simonton’s own outfits often included dresses made of bologna and hot dogs and bathing suits made of steak, pointing to the pageant’s treatment of the contestants like “pieces of meat.” In 1985, Simonton was arrested and served 15 days in jail after protesters threw a bucket of blood representing “the blood of raped women” on the auditorium steps. The protesters argued that the objectification of women perpetrates violence against them, and pointed out that the pageant turns women into “objects to be consumed” and dehumanized them.
Legacy Of The Competition
In 1985, the Miss California Pageant moved the franchise to San Diego, partly because of the protests. Miss California officials have continued to assert that the pageant is a scholarship program which focuses on career development, community service, and education. Since 1994, the pageant has been held in Fresno.
Despite the pageant official’s attempts to define the contest as a scholarship program, a handful of protests about the effect on body image continue to erupt each year, though not nearly as colorful or with such spirit as the early protests in Santa Cruz.