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The Forgotten Scandal Behind the First Ever Miss America Pageant

It involves a disqualified contestant and a 16-year-old winner.

These days, interest in the Miss America pageant is fading away, but 100 years ago, the competition was just getting started. The very first Miss America pageant was held in 1921, and it wasn't even called Miss America yet. Instead, a group of nine young women from various cities in the proximity of Atlantic City, New Jersey were invited to take part in a "Inter-City Beauty Contest" during a beach festival. But while that sounds innocent enough, the first pageant included a conflict involving the two frontrunners that ended with one of them being disqualified from the main competition and the other becoming forever known as the first Miss America.

The scandal is detailed in the new book There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America by Amy Argetsingera version of the story was published by The Washington Post. Read on to find out what exactly went down.

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The frontrunners were Virginia Lee and Margaret Gorman.

Margaret Gorman in the first Miss America pageant in 1921
Fotosearch/Getty Images

Out of the nine contestants in the first Miss America, the two frontrunners were Virginia Lee of New York City and Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C. Like many of the pageant hopefuls, 16-year-old Gorman had been chosen via a contest in her local newspaper. Twenty-year-old Lee, on the other hand, was chosen for the competition by a group of illustrators she had modeled for.

"The decision of the judges, to be given to-morrow night, is known to lie between Virginia Lee . . . and Margaret Gorman," wrote the New York Tribune after the competition, according to Argetsinger's article.

Lee was disqualified before the final decision was announced.

Miss America competitors in 1921
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Prior to the winner of the pageant being announced, Lee was disqualified, because she was deemed a "professional" rather than an "amateur" like the other contestants. As Argetsinger notes, the decision wasn't fully explained in the newspapers of the time, but a few potential reasons have been identified.

"Presumably it had something to do with her film career: She already had a dozen credits to her name," Argetsinger writes. But, because this first competition didn't have explicit rules about a professional career not being allowed, "this first season had seemingly thrown the doors open to any woman."

Second, there was a conflict of interest in that Lee was close with the chief judge of the competition, the illustrator Howard Chandler Christy.

And, lastly, Lee was married, which could have potentially been an issue. However, as the Post points out, "[being married] was not technically against the rules at that first pageant."

Gorman became the first Miss America.

Margaret Gorman wearing her Miss America sash in 1922
Bettmann / Getty Images

With Lee out of the running, Gorman became the first winner and took home the Golden Mermaid trophy. As Argetsinger explains, Gorman, who dressed modestly and had long Victorian style hair, may have been seen as a reminder of a past era during a time when women were gaining more rights and freedom and flapper style was taking off. "[F]rom day one," the article explains, "the pageant staked out its template: Girls above women. Amateur rather than professional. Old-school virtues over modern flair."

Lee ended up winning a secondary category at the competition that was specifically for professionals.

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Lee still maintained that she had won, decades after the pageant.

Contestants in the 2007 Miss America pageant
Everett Collection / Shutterstock

According to The Washington Post article, Lee said of the competition during a 1993 interview, "They came back and said, 'Oh, Virginia, you won but we can't give it to you.' That's all they would ever tell me. I won it hands down."

As for Gorman, she competed again the following year, and because there was a new Miss D.C., she became known as Miss America, which established the name of the competition. But, later in life, Gorman didn't have a fond view of her pageant days. "Life has been extremely, I say extremely, kind," she said in 1980, according to her 1995 Los Angeles Times obituary. But of being Miss America, she added, "I never cared to be Miss America. It wasn't my idea. I am so bored by it all. I really want to forget the whole thing."

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Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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