On Thursday night, in Reno, Nevada, a new Miss USA began her reign. These days, beauty pageants aren’t really about beauty—they’re about female empowerment and confidence, about shedding light on issues like mental health, diversity, and women in STEM. They’re about everything and nothing. That means that while every competition brings a consistently admirable cohort of gorgeous, intelligent and toned career women and communications majors to the stage, the particulars of what they’re being tested on appear to change annually. For example, during the swimsuit portion of the competition this year, the commentators (Vanessa Lachey and Lu Sierra), deliberately did not make judgements based on hotness. Instead, they critiqued how deftly each competitor was able to strip off her sarong, with deductions taken if she was still sporting the fabric strip halfway through her runway walk. Other skills that were tested on Thursday night included the feminine art of smiling benevolently at a man while he attempts to croon Frank Sinatra at your face, and the niche ability to perform a really powerful spoken word rendition of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus.”
The pageant world’s obvious identity crisis arguably gives viewers a reason to keep tuning in. In the past few years, we’ve seen contestants engage in group discussions about sexual harassment and passionate defenses of the bikini round. We’ve seen Steve Harvey dedicate an entire pageant to making jokes about how bad Steve Harvey is at hosting pageants. We’ve even witnessed a non-pageant pageant, where “competitors” campaigned for the crown fully-clothed, often in pantsuits. In the rhinestoned firmament of televised pageantry, Miss USA differentiates itself by not being Gretchen Carlson’s Miss America. Instead of taking a stand on the empowerment spectrum, Miss USA has gone a different route—breaking my brain so that I am physically incapable of formulating a take. Is Miss USA feminist? I honestly couldn’t tell you, because I was too busy watching 51 women attempt synchronized hand choreography while “two-time Grammy winner T-Pain” glided through their ranks performing a medley of auto-tuned hits.
There are two main reasons why I’m not particularly mad about Miss USA: it’s only two hours long, and it’s not hosted by Steve Harvey. Viewers are gently ushered through the proceedings by Nick and Vanessa Lachey, who are totally, completely fine. Instead of being tasked with the emotional labor of suffering through Steve Harvey’s on-air objectification and laughing at his bad jokes, these contestants merely have to smile and nod when Nick Lachey says things like, “You know, I grew up in Ohio.” Vanessa does most of the heavy lifting as they begin to cull the contestants down. For background, we’re treated to some footage from the pre-pageant interviews; a clip of one contestant earnestly telling the judges that “being real” isn’t about “not wearing make-up” or about “being against extensions” leaves me wanting more. Speaking of the judges, they include multiple former pageant winners, the CEO and founder of “PowerwomenTV,” the Mayor of Reno, Nevada and the producer of Disney on Ice. And speaking of Reno, Nevada, the entire competition is interspersed with clips of the Miss USA contestants enjoying all that Reno has to offer, from learning about mines to dancing on a log.
Before a new Miss USA is crowned, we have to check in on what the reigning title holder’s been up to for the past year. Nebraska’s very own Sarah Rose Summers graces the stage to tell the Lacheys about the many, many lessons she’s learned. Now, in the proud tradition of unemployed millennials everywhere, she’s off to New York City to work on her podcast. And it’s time for the swimsuit competition! Runway coach Lu Sierra warns Vanessa Lachey that “the cream will rise” during this portion of the pageant, to Lachey’s visible confusion. Nick Lachey has been demoted to bellowing out the states of each competitor, leaving Vanessa and Lu to commentate.
Because of the aforementioned fear of acknowledging that these women are being judged by how they look in bikinis, Lachey and Sierra end up making a lot of comments about confidence and “working it.” One contestant is described as “strong mentally,” and Miss Hawaii is unfortunately referred to as “our little Island girl.” Two women are applauded for wearing one-pieces riddled with cut-outs, and which are therefore basically bikinis. After a brief interlude at a Johnny Rockets, the contestants visit the Nevada legislature, which is majority female. The ladies are inspired! Next, we’re treated to small video packages highlighting individual contestants. Miss Kansas wants to be the youngest Press Secretary in history, Miss Ohio is pledging not to use Photoshop, and Miss Florida is a “glam tomboy” who loves snake wrangling and “all the aspects” of being a survivalist! There are army brats, non-profit founders, attorneys and activists. Someone says something about singing for mental health, and Vanessa Lachey exclaims, “Yes! I love these packages!” Same! When they’re not standing in low water to promote Reno tourism, the contestants are doing backstage spon con for hair products, which mostly means standing behind the hosts, silently pelted with a never-ending stream of hairspray.
But no amount of hairspray or general preparation could ever be sufficient for what comes next—Nick Lachey singing “The Way You Look Tonight” as a group of Miss USA contestants in evening gowns stalk around the stage in languorous circles. The fashion commentary here is top-notch; a black velvet number with rhinestone detailing and a massive leg slit is described as “timeless” and “inspired by Audrey Hepburn.” At least the contestant who “channeled Blake Lively” while designing her gown was honest (it appears to include a built-in beaded diaper). Nick Lachey continues to sing until this segment is over, transitioning smoothly into a video of the contestants reciting the Statue of Liberty poem, juxtaposed with footage of a woman’s butt in yoga pants as she balances on top of a Reno rock.
As the competition builds, the remaining contestants must answer a question from a fellow, fallen sister. Miss Colorado asks Miss New Mexico to name one issue that she wants presidential hopefuls to address in the 2020 race. Miss Massachusetts asks Miss North Carolina if Me Too and Time’s Up have gone too far, receiving the pageant equivalent of a “fuck no.” (“What Me Too and Times Up are about are making sure that we foster safe and inclusive workplaces in our country—as an attorney that’s exactly what I want to hear and that’s what I want for this country,” she says.) Miss Oklahoma does not believe that incarcerated people should be able to vote, and Miss Nevada gets justifiably overwhelmed when her questioner references a friend who was shot while asking about gun reform. These questions are extremely hard.
Having successfully addressed some of the most pressing issues of our times with seconds-long soundbites, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oklahoma advance to a shockingly blonde-free final three. For their final test, they’ll each have to answer the same question. Taking turns, the contestants are asked to describe their generation in a word, and explain their reasoning. Oklahoma’s word is diverse, because “we are a nation of diverse,” and she is a diverse woman! North Carolina very cleverly shouts out the Nevada state legislature in her answer, which is all about innovation, empowered women, and “continued progress.” New Mexico unfortunately strikes out, with a nervous response about social media and her master’s in accounting—she wants to inspire her growing social media following to get a master’s in accounting? It’s unclear.
After one “final look” at our top three walking the runway, as well as a look at the crown, which is sitting on a pedestal surrounded by hairspray, Sarah Rose Summers returns to the stage to surrender her title. She takes a final, victorious lap, as a woman whom I hope is her mother films from the audience, showing off her Sarah Rose Summers iPhone case. Finally, the lights dim and the Lacheys announce the first runner-up, leaving just New Mexico and North Carolina in the running. North Carolina AKA Cheslie Kryst takes the crown—it’s a relatively anti-climactic win, since she clearly gave the strongest answers during both of the question segments, but very well-deserved. Other past winners and competitors surround Kryst onstage, marking the end of this strange ode to hairspray, Reno, and women’s empowerment.