Sarah Palin, Miss Alaska and the Vice Presidency

In the months leading up to November's election, John McCain will be campaigning with two former beauty queens at his side: his wife, Cindy, who was the Junior Rodeo Queen of Arizona in 1968, and his newly tapped vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who won her local pageant and was the runner-up for Miss Alaska in 1984. So what do pageants and politics have in common? Bonnie Faulk, the executive director of the Miss Alaska Scholarship Pageant, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig about how the pageant world prepares young women for politics; which politicians could stand for some pageantry coaching; and why looking at fit bodies needn't be about pleasure.

NEWSWEEK: Is it at all a surprise to you that a former Miss Alaska runner-up might end up in the White House?
Bonnie Faulk:
Absolutely not. These girls come through these pageants and are so well-spoken by the time they've completed the competition, it's not surprising at all. Being poised and being able to be natural and comfortable, and speak in front of a podium, and in front of the press, is something that we really push with the Miss America organization.

Do you see a lot of contestants with political aspirations?
At this young stage in their life, I don't know if we have a lot of political aspirations. At this stage, their goal is college and degrees.

Would some of Palin's hobbies, like hunting and snowmobiling, be deemed unladylike by pageant standards?
Not at all! Being very versatile is an asset. We've taken tomboy young ladies and turned them into feminine, wonderful, high-quality girls that can walk out on the stage and compete with the best of them.

But femininity is still something you want to strive for?
Oh, yeah. Grace, poise, femininity, style.

Palin won the Miss Congeniality title in 1984. If you take away the whole murder plot, would you say the movie "Miss Congeniality" portrays the general beauty pageant culture accurately?
I don't think so. No. It's very hokey.

Which politicians out there do you think could benefit from some pageant coaching?
You know, I love George Bush, but he just doesn't speak that well. He's a Texan, and it's OK that he doesn't speak that well. But we could all gain a little bit from pageants and speaking abilities, I think.

How do you think Hillary Clinton would have done in a pageant?
Oh, gee, you're asking the wrong person. I don't know. I'm not a Hillary Clinton fan. She's an amazing woman in her own right. What she has experienced in her personal relationship as Bill Clinton was president of the United States-hats off to her for going through such a difficult time. I don't know if I could have been that graceful. As far as Miss America, I don't know how she would take to the pageant world.

What can you tell about someone by her talent? Palin played the flute as hers. Is there some general character for flute players as compared with dancers, for example?
Well, your talent is just God-given. Whatever talent God has given you is what you need. Maybe the selection of the musical piece or the dance number-that probably would reflect on their personality. A very bubbly, vivacious young girl might go for a jazzy piano number rather than something more somber.

The Guardian wrote last week that "presidential conventions are a lot like beauty pageants," drawing attention to the general spectacle and focus on attire and décor. Do you think the parallel holds?
I think it's maybe a fair parallel. I don't know about behavior at the conventions. I know with the pageant world, your appearance is very important. You should always be appropriate for whatever occasion you're going to, and we do teach the girls that. Going to dinner, to a press [event], we're not going to show up in cut-offs or blue jeans. We're going to show up in our business attire. Evening wear is evening wear; we're not going to show up with something inappropriate and be half-naked, for crying out loud. We personify a very wholesome, well-rounded attitude with our girls, and their appearance and how they dress is directly related.

When she talked about her pageant experience in an interview with Vogue, Palin said, "They made us line up in bathing suits and turn our backs so the male judges could look at our butts. I couldn't believe it!" Do women actually get judged on their butts?
Swimsuit is a part of the contest. I don't know what her personal experience was. What we try to relay with the girls and the judges is healthiness and fitness. America right now has a problem with obesity in the younger generation. We also have a problem with anorexic young people, too, being insecure in their own bodies. We're promoting healthiness. Being fit and toned is altogether different than a body that people are looking at for just pleasure.

There are a lot of comments floating around online now from people who say they don't want to vote for someone who participated in beauty pageants because they're demeaning to women, which is a fairly common critique of pageantry. Obviously, in their ideal form, pageants are about more than just looks, and they reward women needing scholarship money. But do you think there is truth to claims that they're demeaning?
There are probably pageants out there that I probably would not want to be associated with. Speaking of the Miss America organization, I am so empowered and impressed by this organization. This is the oldest pageant. It's been around for 80-some years. They have maintained values and standards of the all-around role model young woman that we put out there every year. They are all about community service and scholarship, and promoting a good-looking, well-balanced, in-shape young woman that is talented, intelligent and can go out and speak in front of the press and pass those possibilities on to other young women. It's incredible. The pageant world gets a lot of bad publicity, but they also get good publicity. The Miss America organization provides more scholarship [money] to young women than any other organization in the entire world, and that really says something.

Is Palin viewed as a role model to the girls in the pageant world now?
Oh, yeah. Sarah Palin did a video and endorsed our program for our pageant in July. ... She endorsed the program and spoke to the young women and encouraged them, and said, "Look where I am today; you could be the future governor."