Guest post by intern Abby Geluso
We all know the Miss America pageant, right? The one the nation watches with rapt attention as fifty-two young women strut across the stage, dazzling the crowd with their smiles, sequins, and charm. For most of the country, that’s all there is to the pageant…and to the women. For too long that was all I saw. Until one day, when I happened upon a photograph of a former Miss America which inspired me to reconsider.
I realized that few people see what happens behind the scenes, after the glaring lights are turned off, the make-up stripped, and the heels discarded. In reality, the women who cross the stage are anything but just beautiful faces. And it’s their lives after the pageant, what the cameras don’t see, that make them true Miss Americas.
Miss America BeBe Shopp in Grand Rapids, 1949
This photograph of BeBe Shopp appeared in the Grand Rapids Herald in April 1949. She is in the midst of a year-long, nation-wide tour following her crowning as the 1948 Miss America. She smiles demurely at herself in a mirror, draped in a fur, not showing an ounce of fatigue. In the article, BeBe was quoted, “How do I stay so pleasant leading such a hectic life? Well, you just tell yourself that it’ll all be over in a year.”
Fame that followed the pageant was fleeting, and Bebe looked forward to life after the tour, when she could once again focus on why she entered the contest, “I want to study the vibraharp and singing – popular ballads – with the scholarship I won.”
The renowned Miss America pageant shows only a snippet of the contestants. Each woman involved, whether or not she wins, has her own aspirations and plans for after the contest, when she will use the experiences she has gained to educate and advance herself.
Miss Michigan turned Miss America
While BeBe is not originally from Michigan, our state has had the honor of claiming five Miss America’s throughout pageant history:
Patricia Donnelly, 1939 (Detroit): Spent years working with her husband as a traveling editor of the Hearst Newspapers. Later, she focused her interests on St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and animal welfare.
Nancy Fleming, 1961 (Montague): Earned her Master’s degree in Gardening from the University of California, and remains involved in a gardener’s scholarship program for second graders. She has also taken action to advocate for universal health care, freedom of reproductive choice for all women, and the repeal of laws banning same sex marriage and adoption rights.
Pamela Eldred, 1970 (West Bloomfield): Pamela is active in charities such as March of Dimes, Easter Seals, and the Michigan Cancer Foundation. She earned her degree in speech and drama from Mercy College of Detroit, before deciding to settle down in Michigan and become a registered cosmetologist.
Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, 1988 (Monroe): The first to use her speaking tour as a platform to raise awareness for nursing and hospice organizations. Following her success, the pageant made platforms a standard for all future winners. Rafko is still active in charities, including: American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Make a Wish Foundation, United Way, and March of Dimes.
Kristen Haglund, 2008 (Farmington Hills): Raised awareness for eating disorders on her speaking tour. The Kristen Haglund Foundation works to provide scholarships to those suffering with the disorder, so they can receive life-saving treatment, often not covered by insurance companies. In 2013, she earned her B.A. in political science from Emory University.
Miss America in the Archives…
I found the photograph of the 1948 Miss America, Bebe Shopp in the extensive Robinson Studios collection, as I was scanning images to be placed online. This photograph intrigued me. I was inspired to learn more about the woman and what led her to Grand Rapids.
I wish I had the opportunity to investigate the stories behind every photograph. I think about what I learned on this occasion, and remember that there is a bright and exquisite story behind each picture, each person, and I hope that our work in the archives enables others to reach beyond the images, too.