Jersey Shore Wannabes, Bathing Beauties, and Cold-Cut Dresses: The Miss California Pageant’s History in Santa Cruz

Miss California Pageant Santa Cruz Boardwalk

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

Miss California 192418-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.

Myth California Ann SimontonAnn 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.

About Elizabeth Coleman

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney-turned-writer born and raised in the Santa Cruz mountains. Her mom reads her blog,

  • DT says:

    I knew the cops

  • kristi danielsen says:

    Miss Fresno was my grandmother. Her name was Prudence Mae Spear. She was Miss Fresno in 1928. She lived to 94 years old. She married Albert Roland Smith. Moved to Los Gatos where she birthed 4 children. Robert, Shirlie, Gwen and Carolyn. Carolyn Fern Smith was my mother. I remember going to the Boardwalk in the early 1970’s with my cousin Lori to see if wee could get the pictire that was sold on Newspapers on the Bourdwalk. Anyways, I am trying to find more info on this. thanks,
    Kristi Danielsen

  • Bill Karutz says:

    My understanding is that Mary Black was elected by city officials to be the hostess to the contestants from 60 California cities for the 1924 Pageant. She was given the title of Miss Santa Cruz, and did not run for the title of Miss California.

    Faye Lanphier as Miss Alameda first was a contestant in Oakland, and lost. She entered this contest beating out the winner in Oakland, who placed 8th. Her title was changed to Miss Santa Cruz when she ran in the Pageant held in Atlantic City. The following year she represented the state as Miss California in the Pageant held in Atlantic City.

  • Jodi says:

    I was there when Ann Simonton and her gang tried to disrupt the pageant. They usually smelled of B.O. and cussed like sailors.Where is Ann Simonton now? The pageant still exists. Does she? Inquiring minds.

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