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There She Was

The Secret History of Miss America

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A Washington Post style editor’s fascinating and irresistible look back on the Miss America pageant as it approaches its 100th anniversary.

In its heyday, Miss America was viewed nationwide by tens of millions of people each year. It was considered both the first reality TV show and the highest honor a young woman could achieve. From its giddy origins as a summer’s-end tourist draw in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, it blossomed into an institution reaching communities across the country. Today, as its brand fades, many wonder what happened—and how it ever was such a cultural phenomenon.

Now, the hidden world of the iconic competition comes to life in this deeply reported journey through Miss America’s past and present, including intimate interviews with dozens of the women who sought or won the title—and those still beginning their quest in local “Miss” pageants across the country. Amy Argetsinger traces how the dusty institution collided with a women’s liberation movement that sought to abolish it, and how it was reborn thanks to the new energy of baby boomer and Generation X contestants. From Phyllis George to Vanessa Williams to Gretchen Carlson, the pageant became a venue for young women to exercise their ambitions and learn brutal lessons about the culture of fame.

Poignant and revelatory, There She Was charts the evolution of the American woman, from the Miss America catapulted into advocacy after she was exposed as a domestic violence victim, to the one who used the crown to launch a congressional campaign; from a 1930s winner who ran away on the night of her crowning to a current-day rock guitarist trying to find her place in this world. It dissects the scandals and financial turmoil that have repeatedly threatened to kill the pageant—and the unlikely sisterhood of Miss Americas who struggled to keep it alive.

Amy Argetsinger is an editor for The Washington Post’s Style section. A staff writer since 1995, she covered a variety of news beats and went on to write the Reliable Source column for eight years. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and daughter. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyArgetsinger.

  • Publisher: Atria/One Signal Publishers (September 7, 2021)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982123413

"In this wildly entertaining journey into an American institution we see how beauty is quantified and calibrated. Surprisingly, some of the biggest disrupters, the people who want the crown to be about more than superficial beauty, are at the very heart of the country's most celebrated beauty pageant. I couldn't put this book down."
—Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and #1 New York Times bestselling author of The ResidenceFirst Women and, most recently, Team of Five

"Assiduously researched and beautifully written, There She Was explores the pageant's history, its small-town roots and its glamorous allure with engaging reporting, wry humor and affection. In Argetsinger's capable hands, this is ultimately the story of women in this country."
Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prizewinning critic, Washington Post senior critic-at-large, and author of The Battle of Versailles