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Miss American Vampire
Beauty pageants are a macabre affair.
As if one kind of beauty is superior to another. A public demonstration of the pursuit of an ideal of perfection, rooted in the eye of the beholder. For the duration of the contest, all time holds still for the ceremoniously crude evaluation of that most ephemeral quality - physical beauty. “Beauty” with all its attendant connotations, reflects the moment captured in time, decided by the values of its social and historical context.
Yet a beauty pageant queen is more than just the symmetries of her face or the way she wears the styles, aesthetics, or virtues of her era. She must possess and exude the qualities of the honor. But under what conditions is the pageant queen judged, and by what rulebook? Does she meet her own expectations, or yours?
In 1970, a nationwide beauty pageant was held in which women, ages 18 to 25, competed for the title of Miss American Vampire. As the name implied, the winner of Miss American Vampire would be an extraordinary woman. But would she be chosen for her aesthetic qualities, her qualities as a Vampire, or her sensibility as a uniquely “American Vampire”?
Across the country, newspaper advertisements for Miss American Vampire announced, “The judging will be based on originality in interpreting the ‘Vampire look,’ as well as charm, poise, stage presence, and videogenic qualities for television.” As with any pageant, the potential Miss American Vampire would be judged not merely for herself, but for her ability to communicate, even wordlessly, as a representational figure. Her presence and performance as an ideological concept was paramount, and no small feat. Perhaps it was best if she didn’t overthink her presentation of self - and yet was that not an inevitable for women in 1970, as inescapable as the advertisements and products which promised new and exciting images of perfection?
While most traditional beauty pageants are public displays of conformity, a rewarding and defining of standards of feminine beauty, Miss American Vampire offered young women the opportunity to be creative in their presentation of self, verging on ghoulish and surpassing camp. The concept of the Vampire is not a fixed one; decades of signifiers and narratives, from Bela Lugosi’s terminally aroused Dracula (1931) to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s haunted Vampyr (1932), had congealed in the public imagination to form a concept of a Vampire that was an invented hybrid of cultures, perspectives, and subjective values. After all, there would be little to no need for “authenticity” in the presentation of the Vampire - unless Vampires truly existed, not merely as depicted in film and literature. For the most part, the very ideal of the Vampire is a fictionalized one, pasted together from various legends, myths, and cultural stereotypes (the cinematic imagining of Transylvania from Dracula onwards had only the slightest basis in reality, creating fear as entertainment through a deliberate “othering” of vaguely rendered traditions and behaviors).
Through this lens, Miss American Vampire of 1970 provided a stage on which traditional and new interpretations of an unfixed identity competed for visibility.
Miss American Vampire of 1970 was sponsored by the television show Dark Shadows, a “Gothic soap opera” which ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971. Indeed, the national winner of Miss American Vampire would be awarded a starring role on the show, then one of the most popular on the air. Dark Shadows combined conventions of the Gothic genre, drawing from the literary traditions of Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, and Ann Radcliffe, and reimagined in the American 1960s - with time-travel departures to 1870 and 1723 (Vampires never die). Dark Shadows opens in the summer of 1966 and is narrated by protagonist Victoria Winters, a young woman who leaves New York City when she accepts a governess position at an isolated family estate in rural Maine. In Episode One, en route by train to Collingswood, the eerie ancestral home, for the first time, Victoria ruminates in an inner monologue, “My journey is beginning. A journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me and link my past with my future.”
How a woman links the past with the future seems an intrinsic, if not obvious, component of the judging standards of Miss American Vampire. The signifiers chosen to evoke the past (or the future) of Vampire history and culture, seen in her choice of dress and self-presentation, is her costume. But it is a costume only if it is not true, or based in historical accuracy. Presenting as a Vampire, it was understood that any potential Miss American Vampire would be borrowing from the collective imagination of what a Vampire is, or should be.
Every beauty pageant celebrates a contemporary, but never quite modern, interpretation of the past. A past that is read on the body and mind of a young woman eager to be the best. Hoping to win, every beauty pageant contestant knowingly or unknowingly submits herself to be interpreted as a text.
Being chosen to represent a collective is, in and of itself, a statement.
To be continued…
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