Autism, Breast Cancer, and the Changing Miss America Pageant

A handful of inspiring contestants brought renewed interest to the 92-year-old competition, which is struggling to reclaim relevance. By Kevin Fallon

David Becker/Getty

Miss New York Mallory Hagan may have been crowned Miss America Saturday night, but in the weeks before the contest, the darlings of this year’s pageant were Miss Montana Alexis Wineman and Miss Washington, D.C. Allyn Rose.

In the months leading up to the annual competition, which aired Saturday night on ABC, Rose and Wineman found themselves subjects of numerous media profiles, and their stories are likely to endure long after the confetti is cleaned up from tonight’s event. Wineman, at 18 the youngest contestant this year, has a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome and is the first ever autistic Miss America competitor. At age 24, Rose has already announced that she plans to undergo a double mastectomy following the pageant to prevent breast cancer, which already claimed the lives of her mother, grandmother, and great aunt.

Scholarship, style, success, and service are touted as the four pillars of what Miss America represents. But as the flurry of extra attention paid to Rose and Wineman prove—Rose even appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show in December—human interest may be becoming just as important to the organization.

As much as there is to be admired about the Miss America contestants’ poise, grace, and intelligence, America can’t help but root for a girl with an inspiring story. That was apparent from early on in the competition Saturday night, when it was announced that Wineman had one the America’s Choice contest, which guaranteed her entry into the semifinals. Viewers were able to vote for their favorite contestant based on videos posted on Miss America’s website. Wineman’s clip promoted her platform: “Normal Is Just a Dryer Setting: Living With Autism.”

When host Brooke Burke asked her right after being named America’s Choice why she thinks she won, Wineman said, through tears, “I hope it was because they found me very relatable.”

Hearing her talk about how competing in pageants helped her come to terms with having autism, it’s easy to understand why voters found Wineman relatable and inspiring. “I don’t feel ashamed anymore,” she said during a Nightline special that aired before the pageant. “I changed from a girl who wouldn’t talk to anybody to a confident, proud-to-be-herself girl.

Yet, reflecting a disconnect between who the American public—Miss America’s constituents, in essence—want their Miss America to be and represent and who the judges find worthy, the judges failed to put Wineman through to the next round, despite her being the public’s favorite. And despite intense interest in her bold decision to have a preventative double mastectomy, Rose didn’t even make it into the semifinals of the competition.

That means that Rose was barely spotlighted during Saturday’s telecast, despite, arguably, representing her platform better than any other contestant. As the Associated Press wrote in its profile, “Win or lose Saturday, Miss America contestant Allyn Rose will have conveyed a message about breast cancer prevention using her primary tool as a beauty queen: her body.”

“If there’s something that I can do to be proactive, it might hurt my body, it might hurt my physical beauty, but I’m going to be alive,” Rose said, speaking about her decision to have her breasts removed. She even said she would have considered having the procedure done during her reign if she won Saturday night: “I might be Miss America, but I’m still going to have surgery. I’m going to take control of my own life, my own health care.”

Of course, the Miss America pageant has had its trailblazers before. In 1994, New Jersey native Heather Whitestone was crowned Miss America. Whitestone lost her hearing when she was 18 months old after a reaction to a diphtheria-tetanus shot. She was the first deaf woman to win the contest and the first Miss America with a disability. Famously, Vanessa Williams was the first black winner, while a smattering of headlines are made each time another minority makes headway in the contest.

But human-interest stories dominated the pageant this year in an unprecedented way. In addition to Rose and Wineman, whose stories are well told by this point, Miss Iowa Mariah Cary struggles with Tourette’s syndrome. Miss Maine Molly Bouchard shed 50 pounds on her way to win her state’s title, wearing a bikini for one of the first times in her life the night of her state’s contest. Anyone reading up on this year’s hopefuls won’t find much written about their issue platforms and special talents, but may have seen charming anecdotes about Miss Wyoming Lexie Madden wrestling pigs for scholarship money or newly crowned Miss America Mallory Hagan still working as a waitress during parts of her reign.

When Wineman was announced the America’s Choice winner, even host Chris Harrison remarked on the abundance of buzzy contestants. “So many inspiring stories this year,” he said. “Miss Montana is just one of them.”

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In the 1970s and 1980s, the Miss America ranked among the top television events of the year, and the victors celebrities with the kind of recognition reserved these days for Kardashians and Bachelorettes. Interest in the event, however, plummeted so low that in 2006 ABC gave up its rights to the telecast, and it moved, for the first time, to cable. CMT aired it in 2007, and, after ratings fell further yet, TLC picked it up the next year. ABC stepped in to rescue the sinking ratings ship again, and is operating in overdrive to promote this year’s broadcast.

Part of Friday night’s episode of Nightline was devoted to the pageant, and another Nightline special, Pageant Confidential: The Road to Miss America, aired for a full hour Saturday night before the big show. Unsurprisingly, both Wineman and Rose were given their own featured segments during Saturday’s special.

Judging by this year’s telecast, Miss America is awkwardly navigating how to balance the tradition of the 92-year-old competition and remaining relevant into the future. Channing Tatum, Honey Boo Boo, and Tim Tebow were all invoked by contestants during their opening introductions; however, as if from a pageant parody, Miss Texas also twirled batons to “Last Dance” by Donna Summer during the talent portion. It turns out neither proving its hipness nor trumpeting tradition is what the pageant needs to spark enthusiasm in it—just good stories.

As the coverage of this year’s contestants prove, there is no shortage of interest in Miss America, and today’s media circus—with so many platforms available for telling stories and social media outlets for spreading them—is perfectly suited to reviving even more life into the brand.

For her part, Hagan was positively winning, mouthing “I’m not wearing waterproof mascara” as the crowd applauded her and tears—and makeup—streamed down her face. And as long as inspiring contestants like Alexis Wineman and Allyn Rose, who are so easy to cheer on and tailor-made for good-will press, continue to find their way into the competition, Miss America will remain as relevant as ever. The contest would also be doing itself a favor to embrace these contestants as warmly as America itself seems to be doing.