It’s bathing suit season. To which I have one visceral reaction: Mother of God! 

Other than Kendall Jenner, any woman who’s spent time in a snug mirrored dressing room at Macy’s or Nordie’s, yanking and straining to pull half a yard of floral Spandex over a blue-white winterized body, knows what I’m talking about when I say YES to the decision this week that the swimsuit competition at the Miss America Pageant is now history. 

I’d rather watch a C-Span documentary on corn rot in rural Iowa than buy a bathing suit. Or wear one, for that matter. I’m a  pareo girl. But back to the topic.

Swimsuits and Miss America have been near synonymous since the contest began in 1921 on the Atlantic City boardwalk as a way to extend the summer season. A recent article in the New York Times stated, “What started as contestants wearing one-piece bathing suits, conservative by today’s standards, became women in revealing bikinis and high heels parading around for a leering television audience.” 


Actually, this is not the first brouhaha about swimsuits in the nearly 100 years since Miss America was crowned. Right here in the Pine Tree State, our “Miss Maine” from 1964, Ellen Warren, stirred her own controversy when she arrived in Atlantic City for the pageant.

Ellen says, “The strict rules about the bathing suit contest were that it had to be one piece with a ‘panel’ across the bottom of the front. I had a beautiful white swimsuit but it didn’t have a front panel.”  (Ellen is in the center of the first row in the photo below -- wearing her controversial suit.)

MissMaine contestants1964.jpg

Lenora Slaughter, Executive Director of the Miss America Pageant at that time and for decades after, took one look at Ellen Warren’s white bathing suit and called in a seamstress. “Your bathing suit needs to be more discreet,” Slaughter told Ellen. Within a day, with panel in place, discretion reigned.

Gretchen Carlson, the first former Miss America to be named chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Miss America Organization, said this week, “We are now open and transparent — no longer a pageant, we are now a competition. We want to celebrate accomplishments and talents when we hand out our scholarships.” Instead of parading across the stage in a bikini, contestants will be asked to demonstrate their passion, intelligence and overall understanding of the job of Miss America.

“Frankly, I’m delighted about this new rule,” Ellen Warren Gerard told me this week. “Now the contest can be more inclusive. Smart women didn’t always do well in the swimsuit competition.”

Ellen, a graduate of Kennebunk High School and Colby-Sawyer College, didn’t win Miss America that year with her rendition of Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” But her astounding voice and musical talents were immediately recognized and tapped.

For the next few years she came back to Atlantic City to sing on the national telecast, several times duet-ing with MC Bert Parks. She also performed around the world with the first Miss America USO Program in 1967. 

She still looks fabulous in a bathing suit!  I’m sticking with my pareo.