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August 30, 2017

Miss America pageant is 'the original reality TV show,' says author

Novel based on real-life story about the Miss America who fled Atlantic City with her escort

Miss America Novel
08302017_Michael_Callahan_Book Photos courtesy/Michael Callahan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Philadelphia resident and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Callahan has fictionalized a real-life event – the newly-crowned Miss America running off with her escort in 1930s Atlantic City – in a new book, "The Night She Won Miss America." He will speak on the history of the pageant and sign copies of his book on Sept. 9 in Atlantic City, just ahead of this year's pageant.

Experiencing Miss America first-hand 30-years ago as a young journalist seated next to the family of the eventual winner set Michael Callahan on the path to writing a novel.

That, and a stroll down the runway in an empty Boardwalk Hall – hands in his pockets lest someone think him “a fancy drag queen” – and the realization when he reached the end of the catwalk of that enormous moment winners must feel.

“It’s the original reality TV show,” he said. “Miss America is one of the most misunderstood American icons. When you peel it back, she’s a history book and charming to me.”

The Philadelphia resident will talk about Miss America history on Saturday, Sept. 9 at Caesars Atlantic City, and sign his new pageant-themed novel, "The Night She Won Miss America."

(The event is free, but you must RSVP by Friday, Sept. 1, to secure a seat.)

Callahan is a product of Temple University’s journalism program and a Philly native who has worked for the Inquirer as an intern as well as "Marie Claire," "Cosmopolitan" and "Town & Country," and other magazines. But he saw print magazines dying – word counts and pay dropping – and switched to corporate writing a year ago, though he remains a contributor to "Vanity Fair" and other publications.

Now his second-shift job is focused on writing novels, a commitment to placing his “ass in the chair” and writing every day.

The novel relies on his grounding in the pageant from his first assignment at the now-defunct "Atlantic City Magazine," for then-editor Ronnie Polaneczky, now a Daily News columnist. It is a fictionalized retelling of a true Miss America scandal from the late 1930s, recast in 1949.

“I was completely swept in,” by Miss America, explained Callahan, who answered a few questions about the pageant through his eyes:

Q: How did Atlantic City and Miss America strike you, as a decidedly a Philly guy, from the Northeast and Temple? It’s always felt to me sort of like the Mummers, but with better hair, actual women – and hopefully no banjos.

A: To me, Atlantic City was a crazy unmade bed in the late 1980s. Donald Trump had just written "The Art of the Deal" and was just becoming a business celebrity. Mike Tyson was boxing. Casinos were opening. There was this expectancy to the place, this sense that things were possible and were happening. It was my first time living away from home. I was 24 and had a studio efficiency in a converted motel in Longport. I couldn't afford heat, so I slept in my peacoat and hat. I had always enjoyed Miss America because I enjoy Americana, and because it had a sort of tinny glamour that befit my background growing up in the Northeast. 

Q: While “The Night She Won Miss America" is a novel, you seem to have researched Miss A extensively. Do you have a favorite bit of history to share? Is it the actual event which inspired your book? 

A: Well, of course, it was the story of Bette Cooper, Miss New Jersey 1937, that inspired the book. I don't think most people know the story, about how she fell in love with her college escort for the week, he told her he couldn't be Miss America's boyfriend, and they rashly took off together in the middle of the night. Of course, in the real story, it was all over the next day. In my version, it turns into a soapy caper. But there are so many great anecdotes about the pageant. One of my favorite stories is how Miss Montana 1949 rode her horse on stage, the horse got spooked, and it plunged into the orchestra pit. 

Q: Without giving away too much of the story, how did you go about fictionalizing a story based on a true event and making it your story?

A: Great fiction starts with a simple question: What if? So that is where I began. What if a Miss America ran off with her escort the night she won, but it WASN'T all over the next day? And what if he was hiding a secret? And what if she got blinded by first love and they ended up in a terrible fix? And, of course, setting is very important. You have Atlantic City, which was just this fantastic carnival town, and New York, and a cliff in Newport, Rhode Island. I just wanted to see how much trouble I could make for them, and how I would get them out. 

Q: Do you have a favorite Miss A? I’m a fan, for instance, of a nurse who was also a Tahitian dancer and has the best name ever, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko. You sat with her family in 1987, the year she won. But I’m also a fan of Vanessa Williams, who is super talented and broke barriers, and got mistreated.

A: Well, obviously we all have a soft spot for Vanessa. I was so thrilled she came back two years ago and everybody hugged it out. I think Heather Whitestone is up there. I have never seen people openly weeping during a talent performance, but they did for her ballet, because she was deaf and couldn't hear the music. I love Debbye Turner, because I think she was just so sassy and fun. And actually one of my favorites is Rebecca Ann King, Miss A 1974. She was the first pro-choice winner, and remember, that was two years after Roe, so that was controversial. You used to be able to see her crowning on YouTube. I never got tired of it. Because she so very clearly did NOT want to win. She wanted to make enough scholarship money for law school. Her face when Bert Parks announces her is priceless.

Q: Why is Miss A so enduring, a living anachronism with legions of fans and supporters?

A: We don't have many things in this nation that are this old and have endured, because the country itself is less than 250 years old. I think there is no doubt Miss America is not as popular as she once was; the TV ratings reflect that. But pageant folk are some of the nicest people I have ever met. They truly believe in civics, the flag, patriotism, goodwill. It's not just talk. You can argue, and people do, that having women wear swimsuits to earn scholarship money is sexist. It's hard to refute that. But yet we all think it's jim dandy for young men to put on pads and try to kill each other on a football field for scholarship money. I just think there is a double standard here. As long as there are the die-hard state pageant folk, there will be Miss America. 

Q: Any tips for viewing at home or live? The crowning is Sunday, Sept. 10 at 9 p.m. and broadcast live on ABC. I’m an absolute fan of the parade, which in on the Boardwalk at 5 p.m., the evening before the pageant.

 A: The parade is mad fun. I haven't been for years. I watch on TV now, but I would urge anyone with an interest in Americana to go at least once to Boardwalk Hall and see it live. You have 50 state delegations screaming their lungs out and there is the hum and buzz in the hall that is just electric. It's a bucket-list thing.