Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life

Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life

Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life

Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life


Universities are unlikely venues for grading bodies, beauty, poise, and style. Nonetheless, thousands of college women have sought not only college diplomas but campus beauty titles and tiaras throughout the twentieth century, and the cultural power of beauty pageants continues into the twenty-first.

In Queens of Academe, Karen W. Tice asks how, and why, does higher education remain in the beauty and body business and with what effects on student bodies and identities. Drawing on archival research and interviews as well as hundreds of hours observing college pageants on predominantly black and white campuses, Tice argues the pageants help to illuminate the shifting iterations of class, race, religion, culture, sexuality, and gender braided into campus rituals and student life. Moving beyond a binary of objectification versus empowerment, Tice offers a nuanced analysis of the making of idealized collegiate masculinities and femininities, and the stylization of higher education itself.


In 2002, Georgetown College—a Baptist liberal arts college in Kentucky—held its annual “Belle of the Blue” beauty/scholarship pageant, continuing a tradition that had begun in 1950. Throughout the decades, the format for this pageant had been modified. The practice of sending contestants’ photographs to celebrity male judges had been dispensed with and the swimsuit competition had been dropped altogether. Thanks to these makeovers, Sara Ramsey, chair of the Association of Georgetown Students, stated that the Belle of the Blue now “represents what is best about the Georgetown College” since it evaluated contestants on the basis of “scholarship, talent, and poise.” She observed that the Belle of the Blue was selected in accordance with Georgetown’s mission of “providing an environment for intellectual, spiritual, and social growth, and a commitment to Christian values.”

Then, as now, the Georgetown student association received support from the Office of Student Activities for the Belle of the Blue pageant. The Director of Student Activities told me that helping with the pageant was her favorite part of her job; although, generally, she claimed not to be a big fan of beauty pageants. She explained, however, that “this pageant is different since poise and appearance only count for ten percent of the total score.” Hearing of my interest in the pageant, as well as my plans to write about campus pageantry, she arranged a front row seat for me and we made plans to meet in person at the pageant.

On the night of the pageant, a steady stream of students filled the campus chapel to capacity and I took my seat next to the pageant judges, one of whom was a Catholic priest. His job, like that of the other judges, was to rank the fourteen white student contestants on their “scholarship, interview, talent, poise and appearance, and communication skills.” Surprisingly, the seat for the student affairs director remained empty, but I assumed that she was busy helping back stage.

The pageant opened with a chorus line dance number, “I’m a Star,” performed by all fourteen contestants, who wore tight black pants and short strapless tops. To stoke up applause, the emcee asked the audience, “Aren’t these girls wonderful?” Then the competition for the campus crown began in earnest as each contestant performed her individual routines. A $1,000 scholarship, a title, and a tiara were . . .

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