When people hear that I was Miss America, their first question is almost always the same.
"What was that like?"
The sentence doesn't always come out the same way, of course. Those who are awed by it—who grew up knowing Miss America as annual destination television on the second Saturday in September—almost always emphasize the last word. "What was that like?" they ask, their eyes gleaming with wistfulness and excitement and a little bit of envy. To them, you are royalty in disguise, whether you're at a black-tie event or in the locker room at your gym. The very idea that you may have been masquerading as a normal civilian is baffling; to them, Miss America is something that should be worn on one's sleeve. It is the ultimate of ultimate achievements.
And then there's the other camp. The camp that makes a predictable set of assumptions about you as soon as they hear that phrase. Miss America. Before you even open your mouth, they've pegged you as some kind of inferior being—vain, airheaded, or worse; the kind of smart girl who has become a sellout and traded on her looks instead of working her way up the ladder like everyone else. And in that case, the emphasis changes and is accompanied by a knowing little sneer: "What was that like?"
There is a third group. It is very, very small. It's made up of a few people who have been around the pageant for a long time, a handful of journalists (Frank Deford comes to mind), one or two very smart publicists, about half of the former Miss Americas, and a few dozen of their closest friends and family members. And then, occasionally, if you spend enough time as an ex–Miss America, you run into extra, random members of this third group.
These are the ones who just ask you the question with no dramatic emphasis on any particular word. When they lean in and ask, "What was that like?" it's because they really want to know. Because they recognize that along with being one of the nation's oldest not-for-profit institutions, Miss America is among our most complex. They have watched, sometimes peripherally, as this tradition has white-knuckled its way down the cultural ladder, rung by rung by painful rung. They may have a certain amount of reverence for the crown, but not so much that they can't see it with clear and pragmatic eyes. And they are curious as to how it must feel to be a thinking person living inside the mythology of Miss America.
It is the third group—those I have met and, especially, those I have not—for whom I primarily write this book.
Flappers and Scholars and Crowns, Oh My!
It doesn't hit me for almost a month after I win that I am, in fact, Miss America.
When I was a kid, I was a pretty good student. A little prone to procrastination, perhaps, but good nonetheless. Apparently I grew up with undiagnosed ADHD, which might explain why I had problems focusing on things—homework, cleaning my dresser drawers—unless I was faced with pressing and non-negotiable deadlines. But damn, could I write a great essay the night before it was due.
Like all kids, though, I didn't always do things right. Occasionally, a punitive writing exercise found its way onto my to-do list, the kind intended to drill your priorities into your head by way of your aching fingers. The kind that makes kids shudder with boredom before they even pick up the pen. More than anything, it takes an exercise like this to get me to digest that I've actually won the crown.
I am in a hotel room, like I suddenly always am. This one is in Washington, DC, mere weeks after the acquisition of my sparkly new hat. And just as I did years ago in school, I have an assignment. This time I have to write "Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998." Six hundred times. On eight-by-ten glossy color pictures of my own head.
Signing autographs, as it happens, is already my least favorite part of the gig. This particular batch, on this particular day, is for the people back home. My adopted home, that is, near the Chicago suburbs where I've just finished my junior year at Northwestern University. Every year, the new Miss America has a homecoming in the state she's represented at the big event. The director of the Miss Illinois Pageant (of whom I've spent the past three months completely terrified, but who will eventually become a best friend/big sister/surrogate mom) has by far the smartest marketing mind I've ever come across. She actually gets the city of Oakbrook Terrace, a largely corporate suburb looking to heighten its visibility, to pony up something like $100,000 a year for the honor of hosting the Miss Illinois Pageant. It's brilliant—much of the country is struggling to hang on to sponsors and donors and scholarships, and Fran has cracked the code of how to pitch the whole damn thing in a cash-generating way.
The downside for me, at the moment, is that everyone who has rallied or provided support for the state pageant is foaming at the mouth with excitement that Miss Illinois has brought home the national crown. And what do they want? An autographed picture. For the really big contributors, these will be made into plaques, and I will personally be on hand to present them. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. For Cynthia, the trainer who spent dozens of unpaid hours whipping my ass into shape and schooling me on the virtues of slow-cooked oatmeal. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. For Karen, who taught me the fine cosmetic line between "stage face" and "drag queen." Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. For Linda, who traveled all over the state with me and tried not to laugh while I agonized over what fraction of a PowerBar would give me just enough energy to get through my second workout of the day. For Curtis, who orchestrated my music for the talent competition, and Dominic, who staged it. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. For Robin, who donated and/or created thousands of dollars' worth of wardrobe for just about every phase of competition. For the mayor of Oakbrook Terrace. For the people who own the Drury Lane Theatre. For Costa's Greek Restaurant, which provides food for Miss Illinois Week. For the president of Northwestern University. For Kurt, my voice teacher. For Joel, who made a valiant (and nearly successful) effort to teach me how to put my hair up with little pieces carelessly tendrilling their way out. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. For Chuck, the Chicago Bulls executive who snagged me a pair of Michael Jordan's championship-series sneakers to wear in the Miss America Boardwalk Parade, where the fans scream "Show us your shoes!" and every contestant wants hers to be the coolest. To the Miss Illinois judges, who told me on the night they selected me that they thought I might "sneak in there" in Atlantic City. To Carol and Ken and Jackie and Marjorie and Sandy and Chip and Kelli and . . . I start to lose track of all the people who practiced interview skills with me, encouraged me, helped me to pack my thirteen suitcases, in which every single item had to be labeled "Illinois," at—characteristically—the very, very last minute. If I were to look at the video of the night I won the pageant, I would see myself joyfully waving to them as I spot them in the Convention Hall audience. Yeah, yeah. Waving is easy. Especially when you can't quite feel your body. Signing six hundred pictures is work. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998.
The first time I hear these words, of course—the actual moment when I win the crown—I can't fathom ever getting tired of them. Miss America. I have powered through two weeks of appearances, competitions, interviews, and the like with the other fifty representatives (1997 is the year that Washington, D.C., has returned to the lineup), and been part of each group that advances to the next level on the final Saturday night. I stand in the middle of the top five as we all clutch hands. Unlike the rest of the evening, though, this part of the affair is the time you don't want to hear your name called. Miss California is called as fourth runner-up. (Don't say Illinois!) Miss Arizona is third runner-up. (Don't say Illinois!) Miss Mississippi gets second runner-up. And then it's just me and Miss North Carolina, a stunning blonde who looks like a contemporary Grace Kelly and has brought the house down with her talent performance. But right before they announce her name as first runner-up, I just know. Later, pageant officials will tell me that the final ballot wasn't even close, and that the point spread between me and the rest of the top five was the biggest in recent memory. Later, I will find out that my interview—the first competition of the week—was strong enough to carry me through the rest of the proceedings, and that the celebrity judges, who watch videos of the top ten interviews on Saturday afternoon and then judge the finals, had to take an unscheduled break because one member of the panel was so emotional after my closing statement about the AIDS quilt. Later, there will be reasons that make logical, numerical sense.
But in this moment, the moment just before they make the announcement, there's an awareness that simply washes over me like a tidal wave. Becoming Miss America will change the whole course of my life for a very long time, if not forever. And I believe that when a change of this magnitude is barreling toward you, the universe gives you a heads-up. Suddenly, I'm no longer hoping that they'll call Miss North Carolina as first runner-up. I'm certain of it.
The next bit can't be described as anything but surreal. There's a voice in my head—my own voice, in a tone I would use to recite a grocery list—calmly walking me through the necessary steps. Bend your knees so Tara can pin the crown on. Take the scepter. Oh, there's the stage manager, at the end of the runway, waving her white-gloved hands to catch your attention. Walk toward her. Duh, you've been watching this thing all your life, you know about the part with the runway! On camera, of course, it doesn't look anything like this; I just look like a girl who's really excited that she's the new Miss America. But living it is an out-of-body experience. And then I'm off, to a press conference and a photo shoot and to speak to the other contestants and their families, to a sponsor party with a mile-long line of strangers congratulating me. Through the Claridge lobby, packed to the rafters with familiar and unfamiliar faces, cheering. Up to my new hotel suite, to visit with family, then pile, fully dressed, into the (empty) hot tub with my school friends, and eventually, sleep for a couple of hours. And then awake again, prancing awkwardly in the ocean for photographers, changing into my interview suit for another press conference, condensing my belongings into a couple of suitcases, then climbing into a stretch limo and speeding up the Garden State Parkway to Manhattan.
To say that my life has changed drastically is both an understatement and an overstatement. The overstatement part is simple. I sort of just feel like the same old drama-geek me; I just have different stuff to do now. But the understatement—whoa. I have flown first class for the first time ever—right now, in 1997, Miss America never flies coach. I have no problem with this. I hate that discriminatory little curtain they pull between the sections of the plane, but I like the free warm nuts and hot towels enough to get over it.
I feel like I've been on almost every TV show people watch. Today, Good Morning America, The Tonight Show, Regis and Kathie Lee, and a brand-new show called The View. I have listened as the media and the public—mostly on television and various op-ed pages—analyze nearly everything about my recent win. I have visited designer showrooms, where clothes were practically shoveled at me; I have slept in hotel suites with (can you believe it?) multiple bathrooms. I've been invited to sing the National Anthem at Northwestern's Homecoming game, and for the Bulls' championship ring ceremony. I have gone on a date with possibly the most gorgeous guy I've ever met, who would never have looked at me twice before Miss America . . . and I have also gotten flowers from my first boyfriend, who once broke up with me by just not really calling anymore. I have launched my platform issue—the public service project every contestant is required to develop—with a speech on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington, DC.
In the meantime, my mom has gamely moved all of my college-appropriate stuff (everything from holey sweatpants to the tattered running shoes that carried me around campus this past summer) out of my little apartment in Evanston and back home to New Jersey. I won't be spending more than a handful of nights in any one place between now and next year's pageant, so there's really no sense in keeping an apartment at school. In my absence, my quirky engineering grad student roommate will be using the empty living room to practice for her ballroom dancing competitions, because I guess it makes more sense than just getting another couch. I haven't seen my friends for weeks—and even then, only the ones who were intrepid enough to make the 1,000-mile drive from Chicago to Atlantic City to watch the competition in person. I know that people all over campus have gotten calls from tabloids digging for dirt, and some have been offered money to tell some scandalous secrets about me—the press, it seems, is forever crossing its ink-stained fingers for another Vanessa Williams. One of my friends told off the caller in spectacular fashion; another buried the only photograph with the ability to cause mild controversy. Thank you, Daniel and Kevin.
I'm on pace to travel 20,000 miles every month, crisscrossing the nation in an almost random pattern to speak to students, lobby legislators, raise money for nonprofits, and generally spread the message that AIDS is bad, we know how to stay safe from it, and given the infection stats both domestically and abroad, we'd better hustle.
The downside of this particular life moment is something I haven't anticipated: the likelihood that those I meet, those who observe me from afar—and, most troubling, those I already know—will feel compelled to decide who I am on the basis of a few facts and the trivia they access on the rapidly evolving Internet. One minute I'm a gawky, show tune–loving, dean's list student at a top university. I treated Miss America like I would any other goal; in the face of impossible odds, I am ferociously competitive and laser-focused. Of course I get my act together and go to Atlantic City planning to win. Then someone puts a crown on my head, and all bets were off.
Suddenly, people make wild assumptions based on very little information. Suddenly, I will never again just be Kate Shindle; I will always carry the mantle—and, as it turns out, the baggage that comes with it—of Miss America's complicated history. And brains versus looks. And, you know, most of the nation's ideas about womanhood and femininity and stuff. A few weeks from now, on my short Christmas break, there will be a well-intentioned but somewhat awkward reception at my South Jersey elementary school, where neighbors, family friends, teachers, and anyone else who happens to be nearby will line up for autographs and photos with me. Even some of those people will start to see me as an institution rather than a person they've known since kindergarten or earlier. But later that week, I'll watch Northwestern play in the Citrus Bowl (in which we get schooled by Tennessee) and sit slack-jawed as I see, for the first time, what Peyton Manning can do with a football. And in Knoxville in a few months, I'll drop hints to the limo driver—and anyone else who will listen—until I get to sit in Phil Fulmer's office and talk to Manning about school, and football, and his little brother, at Ole Miss. So it's a bit hypocritical to complain about one aspect of this new identity while simultaneously learning how to leverage it.
I have been called courageous, a trailblazer, the first socially relevant Miss America ever, fat, thin, beautiful, handsome, ugly, talented, untalented, inspiring, infuriating, deserving, undeserving. The media have parked for days outside my parents' house, rung the doorbell and phone relentlessly, gone through the trash cans. At some point in the near future, Howard Stern will apparently call me a whore, although I will only hear about it secondhand. When you make AIDS your cause, people project all kinds of things on you. In reality, I am the furthest thing from a whore, to a degree that's almost embarrassing. But I don't want that to get out, because I'm pretty sure the high school students I'm going to face this year will listen more attentively to my safer-sex message if I don't run all over the country disclosing that I am, in fact, about as pure as the driven snow. It's a conundrum: travel the country telling people to use condoms, while I myself have never had cause to make some of the choices I advocate.
Even in the late 1990s, after Miss America has been pronounced dead, extinct, irrelevant more times than anyone can probably count, I am newsworthy. Children climb over each other at assemblies to touch me. Or the crown. I can't always tell which.
I've read that Princess Diana—who at this point in history has been dead about six weeks—had trouble reconciling who she was as a human with the royal image she had to live up to. I'm starting to get it.
Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998.