They Drink, They Make Out, They Flash: They're Called Role Models

Dec. 22, 2006 — -- For an industry that's built on the concept of beauty, things have gotten pretty ugly.

First, Miss USA co-owner Donald Trump chastised Tara Conner, the wayward Miss USA who was partying hard and allegedly doing cocaine in New York City clubs. Then, Mothers Against Drunk Driving dumped Conner's roommate and purported make-out partner, Miss Teen USA Katie Blair, following reports of her underage drinking.

And on Thursday, Trump axed Miss Nevada Katie Rees after pictures of her in compromising positions -- some without her shirt, let alone her crown and sash -- spread across the Internet.

Pageant heads and pageant winners have long held that gracious and elegant beauty queens are the creme de la creme and should be held up as an exemplar of virtue. But considering the recent antics of a few of them, what kind of role models -- realistically -- do beauty queens make?

Former Miss USA Saddened by Scandals

According to reality-TV star and former Miss USA Shanna Moakler, winning a crown turns a pretty face into a role model for young women.

"Absolutely, I was looked at as a role model," Moakler said. "There does come a responsibility with having the title."

Moakler was named Miss USA in 1995. Though she was only 19 years old -- younger than Conner, who just turned 21 -- she "took that crown and that title seriously," and she's not happy that Conner has sullied Miss USA's reputation.

"I think it's really sad because there are a thousand women out there who would've taken the crown much more seriously and treated it with some respect," Moakler said.

"I think it's fine to go out and have a couple drinks like a college student but when you're making out with Miss Teen USA -- that's just complete disrespect to what thousands and thousands of women compete for," she said.

While Moakler supports Trump's decision to give Conner another chance to redeem herself, she's afraid that the recent scandals involving beauty queens will be bad for an American tradition she loves.

"I look at pageants as a really wonderful thing to women. I think it helps a lot of women. It gives them opportunity. It helps them better themselves. But when you make the crown look like what Tara Conner did, you take away from all those strides. Pageants get such a bad rap as it is and now everyone looks at them like they're a joke," she said.

Perpetuating an 'Archaic' Stereotype

Pageant organizations maintain that they seek out exceptional young women through competitions.

As the faces for various causes, beauty pageant queens -- or "scholarship program" winners, as they're called in the Miss America system -- have a long tradition as spokeswomen.

Miss America says winners should also be role models for young women.

"We proudly consider Miss America a positive role model and spokesperson for the Miss America Organization," a spokeswoman for the Miss America Organization said in a written statement. She declined to comment on the Miss USA debacle.

But Bob Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, says that the beauty-queen-as-role-model ideal is so outdated, it's absurd.

"The whole notion is terribly archaic," Thompson said, citing that the idea of girls aspiring to the beauty queen standard was incredibly conservative even in the 1950s, when it was relevant.

"There were a lot of things that were jaw-droppingly silly about this whole Donald Trump-Miss USA ordeal. Among the funniest things was the idea that the reason this is such a big deal [is] because Miss USA is supposed to be a role model," he said. "I know very few people who say 'I want my daughter to be like Miss USA or Miss America.'"

Still, what parents want may be a moot point. To young girls, perception is everything.

A recent study conducted by Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering young women, found that in the last six years, expectations about physical perfection, dressing "right," and being thin had increased simultaneously.

"Even today, society values beauty in girls over intelligence and talent," a ninth-grade girl told Girls Inc.

A fifth-grader said, "MTV, movies, and movie stars and singers are making bad behavior look good. … A girl has to act like the girls that you see on TV or movies to be popular."

A Possible Turning Point for Pageants

Perhaps it's too early to dismiss beauty pageant queens as potential role models, or their bad behavior as a bad influence on young girls.

Moakler hopes the recent scandals will encourage competition judges to crown candidates who will be able to live up to the role model ideal, even if it is archaic.

"I think [Conner's incident] emphasized the fact that there are responsibilities that should come with the title. … I think next time they'll probably crown an older girl, or they'll set a higher example for what they're looking for," she said.

"A lot of the girls who do pageants like the show, they like dressing up, they like being on stage -- they don't realize there are real responsibilities that come with the title," she said.

For those who have given up on beauty pageant queens being anything more than pretty faces with to-die-for bodies, Moakler hopes they'll follow the example set by her former boss.

"I like that Trump gave [Conner] a second chance," she said. "It shows that people should get second chances."