Over its 357-year history, Harvard University has had the distinction of producing seven U.S. presidents. But this year, America's oldest and most prestigious learning institution could see yet another title claimed by one of its distinguished alums: Miss America.
When 51 beauties from across the nation take to the stage in Atlantic City on Sept. 20, not one, but two of them - Nancy Redd, Miss Virginia, and Laurie Gray, Miss Rhode Island - will carry with them Harvard diplomas, possibly making their Miss America interviews seem like a day at the beach.
It's an intriguing moment for the Miss America organization, which bills itself as the "World's Leading Scholarship Provider for Young Women," yet has drawn the scorn of feminist groups, who have staged protests at the pageant since 1968. These foes call the competition, which began as a bathing-suit contest on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., a "meat market."
Even to many of the 20 million viewers who tune in annually, pageant contestants are often seen as bimbos who use toothy grins and sequins, along with plenty of mascara and masking tape, to make up for what they lack in brain power. This despite the fact that the reigning Miss America, Erika Harold, has been admitted to Harvard Law School.
The intellectual achievements of Redd and Gray, both 2003 graduates of Harvard College, are indisputable. Gray plans to attend medical school in the fall and is an accomplished classical violinist. Redd, a native of Martinsville, Va., earned her degree in women's studies. She won $250,000 on the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire and told Harvard Magazine she "wouldn't mind being Miss America or becoming president of the 4H organization," a cause close to her heart.
George Bauer, the Miss America Organization's CEO, says he's hardly surprised to see two Harvard grads competing for the crown this year.
"This exemplifies the intelligence of the young women that the Miss America Organization attracts to the program," Bauer said. "Education is one of the elements that distinguish these women of achievement.
"Many of the young women who compete in the Miss America system graduate from our nation's most prestigious universities," he adds. "They continue on to post-graduate studies and become doctors, lawyers, engineers, business leaders and role models."
At least one former cynic on the Harvard campus has rethought his attitude toward pageant contestants.
"I will never write off the Miss America pageant as just some beauty contest ever again," says Harvard student body president Rohit Chopra. "I know Nancy and Laurie are certainly not the stereotypical pageant girls ... they were easily some of the more accomplished women on campus."
In addition to graduating magna cum laude, Gray kept busy as a violinist and concertmaster of the Harvard Bach Society Orchestra. Her pageant platform, promoting music education, is a cause dear to her heart. At Harvard, she worked with an organization called Harmony, which provides free music training to underprivileged youths.
She believes that the visibility of the pageant title could give her message greater weight. And, in fact, over the past few weeks, Gray and Redd have been featured on Good Morning America and MSNBC.
"We like to say that our crowns are 'megaphones,'" says Gray. "Because I am Miss Rhode Island, I have had many opportunities to speak with political figures, civic leaders and the media to spread the word about my platform. These are opportunities not all 17- to 24-year-olds have."
Redd, who was honored as one of Glamour magazine's "Top Ten College Women," in its October 2002 issue, says she is "all about breaking stereotypes." A self-described feminist, she sees the pageant more as an opportunity to advance her career and continue her support of 4-H clubs than as one to strut her stuff in a bikini or a glitzy evening gown. As both a pageant queen and a Harvard grad, she sees herself as a positive role model for young girls.
"You see Condoleeza Rice and Tyra Banks, but you don't see a combination of them," Redd says. "I think you can fight for the ability to be both."
The odds are long
With its new Ivy League pedigree, the Miss America Organization has come a long way since 1921, when 16-year-old Margaret Gorman was first labeled "The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America."
While Redd and Gray will be facing some pretty difficult odds in September - a Miss Virginia has won the national title only twice, and no Miss Rhode Island has ever been crowned Miss America - these two women say they have little to be anxious about.
According to Gray, even if she doesn't win the crown, her "preparations for the Miss America pageant - practicing public speaking and discussing current events with people - should help in other areas of life."
And should neither woman hear "There She Is, Miss America" sung in her honor, at least they'll have those Harvard degrees to fall back on.