Beauty contests flourished in my day. Young women — myself included — clamored to enter them and, we hoped, walk away with a crown. Some contests were largely publicity stunts, this being the late 1950s and early ’60s.
I confess to having been a runner-up for “Miss Photoflash” as well as the Twin Cities Press photographers’ queen. I also carried the title of “Miss Mayflower,” for Mayflower Van Lines.
Contests that were authentic had set qualifications for entrants — and comportment rules for winners. Many were sponsored by cities hosting annual festivals, such as Stillwater’s Lumberjack Days or the Hopkins Raspberry Festival.
Not surprisingly, we queen wannabes dreamed of reigning over the Big Ones — the Minneapolis Aquatennial or the St. Paul Winter Carnival — with their lavish parades and many exciting side events.
The title of Miss Minnesota, the springboard for Miss America, was especially coveted.
What prompted women of my era to enter beauty contests? For me, the contests carried a kind of Hollywood fairy-tale quality of glamour and romance that was so much a part of our culture then.
Some women entered on a lark. Others were serious about winning and achieving fame and reaping the perks that came with it.
But for a small-town girl like me, it was simply a desire to wear a beautiful gown and ride in a parade. To have my picture in the newspaper. To be noticed, I guess. To get over my shyness. Maybe gain a little prestige.
And prestige was the name of the game. If you were a queen then, you were somebody. You represented your community during its festival, which was an important civic event for its leaders and greatly anticipated by its residents.
Queens also often spent the next year in the spotlight, making celebrity appearances in other towns throughout the state.
Today many of these festivals, including the Aquatennial and Winter Carnival, don’t seem quite so glamorous or popular. Back in the day, they were vibrant, and their color and pageantry enhanced our ordinary lives. And a glamorous queen in full regalia led the show.
Women then took great pride in their appearance. Our trendsetters were the many beautifully dressed and coiffed movie stars of the day — led by Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and real-life royalty, Grace Kelly.
Elegant Jacqueline Kennedy, wearing haute couture fashions, heightened this image in the early 1960s, when she became First Lady.
“Not only was it fun, it was a privilege to be chosen queen,” Pam Albinson said of her 1962 reign as Minneapolis Aquatennial Queen of the Lakes.
Having previously won the title of “Miss Anoka,” which qualified her to enter the Aquatennial contest, Albinson added, “The sense of local pride was as incredible as the honor of being queen.”
Why else did we do it?
There was an unofficial bonus, too: Marriage was paramount in those days. And queen contestants were required to be single. Having a bit of celebrity guaranteed popularity with men!
So, that’s why we did it! And, also, maybe for a taste … just a little taste … of power.
Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.