South Carolinians frequently boast that South Carolina women are more beautiful than any others. That claim has been bolstered four times: in 1954 Miriam Stevenson of Winnsboro became Miss Universe; in 1957 Marian McKnight of Manning was Miss America; in 1980 Shawn Weatherly of Sumter was named Miss Universe; and in 1993 Kimberly Aiken of Columbia (the first African American Miss South Carolina) became Miss America. National and international titles aside, however, South Carolina has beauty pageants to celebrate almost every possible age, special interest, location, and agricultural product.
The most famous of these is the Miss South Carolina pageant. The Miss America pageant began in 1921, but for years South Carolina was represented in Atlantic City by contestants from individual cities. The first official Miss South Carolina pageant was held in 1937. The popular success of the Miss America contest and its state franchises led to an upsurge of beauty pageants. Imitations of the Miss America format resulted in Miss South Carolina–World and Miss South Carolina–USA contests by the early 1950s, and local promotional pageants flourished.
Among the more well known of these local contests are the Miss Sun Fun and Miss Bikini Wahine pageants, held during Myrtle Beach’s Sun Fun Festival, which attract contestants from across the state and spectators from across the country. Other festival beauty pageants around the state have produced such winners as Miss Bright Leaf Tobacco, the Maid of Cotton, the Peach Queen, the Watermelon Queen, the Collard Queen, and the Iris Princess. The numbers vary, but there are usually between two and three hundred local festivals every year in South Carolina, and most of them have beauty pageants.
During the long years of segregation, beauty pageants were as race-separated as water fountains and waiting rooms were. Left out of the standard beauty contests, African American women created such competitions as Miss Black South Carolina and Miss Black Palmetto. Although the Miss South Carolina pageant had its first black contestant in 1980, some of these black-only beauty pageants continue.
Age is no barrier to being in a beauty pageant. The usual age range for standard pageants is eighteen to twenty-four, but Columbia’s Miss Flame pageant, for instance, has categories for contestants as young as four months, and many other pageants have prizes at the “Wee Miss” and “Tiny Tot” levels. In addition to teen categories in many of the other contests, there are numerous pageants especially for teenage girls, such as Miss South Carolina Teen All-American and South Carolina Junior Miss. At the other end of the pageant cycle, competitions include Mrs. South Carolina and Ms. Senior.
Although many thought that beauty pageants would die out in a postfeminist world, this did not happen. Instead, pageants have been touted as being about qualities other than appearance or talent, such as personality, achievement, intellect, and volunteer work.
Broom, Margaret Shea. The Portrait of Palmetto Perfection. Easley, S.C.: Martin Printing, 1993.
Burwell, Barbara Peterson, and Polly Peterson Bowles. Becoming a Beauty Queen. New York: Prentice Hall, 1987.
Ittner-McManus, Renee. “Cuteness Rules for Little Beauty Queens, Primp- ing Comes before Potty Training.” Columbia State, September 23, 2000, p. D1.
Owens, Linda. “Miss S.C. Contestants React to Pageant Rule.” Columbia State, July 7, 1980, p. B1.