When the Miss California Beauty Pageant debuted in San Diego three years ago, local politicos and hometown rah-rahs regaled the contest with the same kind of adulation a high school football team might heap on its homecoming queen.
"I think I speak for all of San Diego when I say that this ceremony signifies the desire of more than 1 million San Diegans to take an active role in this contest," then-Acting Mayor Ed Struiksma told onlookers as he surveyed the 41 beauties gathered on the Community Concourse downtown.
The fanfare might have been slightly premature.
Since that June day in 1986, the Miss California Beauty Pageant has been the object of continued protests by feminists and the scene of battles among contestants that escalated from private to public quarrels last year, much to the dismay of state pageant officials who relocated the contest to San Diego from Santa Cruz with hopes of halting some of the controversy.
Last year, the 66-year-old beauty contest suffered its most public embarrassment when contestant Michelle Anderson revealed she had infiltrated the event to see--and tell--exactly what goes on behind its curtains and in its dressing rooms.
She learned that some contestants use duct tape to secure their swimsuits to their behinds, others are urged to wear girdles, and a handful are warned not to be "too assertive."
"Too assertive," in the eyes of pageant director Robert W. Arnhym, included Anderson's refusal to salute the American flag during a rehearsal for the three-hour gala last June.
When contestants take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the San Diego Civic Theatre, you can bet protesters will surface again, much to Arnhym's chagrin.
"There are an enormous number of very beautiful women who are adamantly against the pageant," said Ann Simonton, a former Sports Illustrated cover girl who in 1984 began organizing women to protest the Miss California Pageant.
So staunchly does the former model believe that beauty contests hurt all women that she has shaved her head, spilled pig blood on the concourse steps, and draped bologna on her body to symbolize that pageants are meat markets.
Simonton believes beauty pageants dehumanize women by portraying them as stereotypical sex objects who display their talents, figures and finesse in a way that pleases not themselves, but men.
Men started the Miss America Pageant, parent organization to Miss California and other state beauty pageants, and men still run it. It was founded as the Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest in 1921 by a group of businessmen in the seaside community. Over the years, pageant organizers decided they wanted to attract college women to the contest, so they started offering scholarships to contestants.
The scholarship angle doesn't carry much weight with Simonton, who still considers it a beauty contest. Pageants not only teach women that they must adhere to a male-dictated stereotype of femininity, she argued, but they teach men that it's OK to ogle women, have little or no respect for their intelligence and even take advantage of them sexually.
"It takes our integrity and humanity away from us," said Simonton, who lives in Santa Cruz. "We want to give women dignity, respect and their humanity back. We want to celebrate their diversity. As long as there are going to be cattle shows which encourage a woman to sell her wares, we'll be there to offer an alternative . . . " through protests.
What Simonton considers an alternative, Bob Arnhym considers a nuisance. And that's when he's being polite.
"They're really only using us for their stage because they can't attract their own audience," Arnhym said of Simonton and her entourage of protesters, who travel to San Diego annually now that the pageant has moved from their hometown. "They attract the media by using our drawing power."
A longtime civic booster, Arnhym persuaded Miss California Pageant officials to move the contest to San Diego, not only to help boost the city's visibility, but to help stop the controversy contestants and pageant-goers faced each year in Santa Cruz.
Involved with the Miss California Pageant since 1958, Arnhym remembers one year in the early 1980s when he could barely shove his way through the crush of protesters outside the Santa Cruz community theater. Many of the anti-pageant groupies shouted obscenities as audience members tried to push their way through the door.
'Give Me an Excuse'
"I could just feel the veins standing out on my neck," he said. "I wanted somebody to touch me, just to give me an excuse (to hit them). I wanted to exercise my rights, just as they were exercising theirs. Why could I not simply attend? What right did they have to make walking into that theater a potentially hazardous experience for me?"
Arnhym and pageant officials fault the media for focusing on the yearly protests rather than on the wonderful opportunities contestants receive, such as earning college scholarships of up to $10,000. Or the chance during their reign to represent their city or county at various civic and business functions. (Simonton complained that most of those functions are attended only by men.)
Twenty years ago, Sharon Terrill of San Diego performed at many of those events as Miss California 1968. A student at Cal State Long Beach majoring in communications, Terrill earned the title after first becoming Miss City of Torrance. She used her $3,000 in scholarship money to help earn a master's degree.
"I would not be in the job I'm in now if it were not for the pageant," said the San Diegan, who holds an executive position in public and community relations with Pacific Bell. "For one brief year, I was glamorous. People wanted my autograph. Those memories of being special live with you the rest of your life."
Terrill considers herself a feminist and believes the pageant supports women because it provides money for them to pursue their education. She derides beauty contests such as Miss USA, which offer winners only money.
"Those other pageants truly are meat markets," she said.
Countered Simonton: "Why do they think only thin, young Barbie doll-looking women are worthy of a scholarship?"
Arnhym, who serves as master of ceremonies, makes a point of stressing changes in the pageant. The swimsuit competition, he said, now counts for only 15% of a contestant's overall point total, as does the evening gown competition. Talent still constitutes 40%, but the interview segment has been emphasized to where it accounts for 30%, twice what it once did. All the changes are aimed at attracting the best Miss California to be found--that "bright, young coed" Arnhym and his pageant helpers are looking for.
"The Miss America Pageant is not immune from growth," Arnhym said. "I have always said that our biggest job in the 20th Century is to hurl ourselves into the 20th Century, during the 20th Century."
Despite last year's debacle with Michelle Anderson, who is writing a book about her experiences tentatively titled, "Becoming Barbie: The Making of an Underground Beauty," Miss California contest entries tripled this year, Arnhym said.
Despite all the hoopla, both good and bad, the fact remains that many San Diegans are unaware the pageant takes place here, nor do they take as much time to cheer it as Arnhym would like.
Still, it's two hours of prime television time for San Diego in California's nine major markets, from Chico to Santa Barbara, San Francisco to Fresno. Arnhym takes every opportunity to talk about his favorite city. That fact, protests and all, makes Arnhym smile.
"Our critics probably keep us on our toes and that's healthy," he said. "That's very healthy. It keeps us moving forward. And it does cause us to evaluate our own relevance."