Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the October 4, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Miss America’s Makeover
Jennifer Makris Hill coaches winners as the ideal shifts from
lovely Aphrodites to sharp Athenas.
by Bart Jackson
Pop Quiz: What is the greatest source of women’s
funding in the world? A.) The U.S. Army? No. B.) Michael Douglas’
short list for fiancees? Warmer, but still no. The correct answer
is C.) The Miss America Pageant. By the time the tiara is lowered
on the queen’s lavish coif and "Here She Comes" flows with
the mascara through the Atlantic City Convention hall on Saturday,
October 14, nearly $30 million in scholarship aid will have been
to these gorgeous and clever lasses.
In fact, today’s Miss America Scholarship Foundation funds not only
the elite circle of winners at each level and category, but a host
of non-competing worthies as well. There’s only one catch: all
monies must be spent on scholarship. Tuition, yes; housing, yes;
alas, no. Any surplus funds, after all the school bills are paid,
must be turned back to the Miss America Organization.
More than any other factor, this has changed the type of woman —
and the intensity of competition seen in Miss America’s last decade.
In l993 Jennifer Makris stood trembling before these new style
in womanhood’s world series. "They were all dream girls,"
Makris recalls, "beautiful of course, but Ivy League. . . going
to law or med school, or seeking scholarships for Juilliard
Jennifer (now Jennifer Makris-Hill) had pictured herself on the runway
ever since age 12, when her cousin Julie Phillips donned the Miss
crown. As a Rider College freshman she decided to toss her all toward
the tiara. Venturing for the first time west of Pennsylvania, she
flew to Houston where her cousin was training a crop of Miss America
hopefuls. "I took one look at these amazing girls and got so
that I turned right around and flew home," she says.
These initial trepidations proved groundless. Makris soon screwed
her courage to the sticking place, returned, and accepted her cousin’s
coaching. In 1994 she entered the Essex County regional competition
(one of the contests that used to be open to non-residents), and won
handily with the judges commenting, "You’re the next Miss
The following May, she captured the Miss New Jersey crown. Then in
September, in the Atlantic City Convention Hall, 21-year-old Jennifer
Makris swept aside two decades of the Garden State’s hard luck
and entered the winners’ circle as second runner up in the Miss
Three years later Makris entered the Miss USA Pageant, placing sixth
overall. "I was really shocked on that one," laughs Makris.
"Donald Trump’s thing is a real beauty pageant, much different
from Miss America. All the girls are tall, leggy, with the average
height 5-feet-11 — and I’m barely 5-feet-6."
Today Jennifer Makris-Hill of East Windsor needs no further crowns
to boost her beauty pageant coaching business
(www.makrisconsulting.com). Her roster of winning students runs almost
as her waiting list. Under her tutelage, Kim Yee paraded from Miss
Edmonton, to Miss Canada, to the top five circle in Miss Universe.
Her student Sylvia Gon captured Miss Connecticut and made the top
10 at Miss America. Makris-Hill is currently on maternity leave and
has no clients competing next week, but she could very well have five
of her clients get through the semifinals to vie against each other
in the national Miss USA contest.
The daughter of a south Jersey physician and a school nurse, Makris
had started at Rider College on an acting scholarship but, after the
pageant, switched her major to business and speech and moved to an
apartment in Plainsboro. There she met her future husband, Ken Hill;
he works at Bristol Investments at 100 Canal Pointe. She is expecting
her second son in December. Now she not only works with pageant
but also with business women needing to improve their speech and
Coaching was thrust upon Miss New Jersey almost immediately after
hitting the top-five circle in Atlantic City. Girls began phoning.
How did she give those sharp responses to the onstage interviews —
sculpted, but not rehearsed? How could they get top points like that?
Within a year, Makris had signed a full client list, guiding serious
contenders through every aspect of the pageant competition.
"All of these girls make an incredible commitment," notes
Hill. "They labor totally, right up to the end. When that crown
is awarded and you see all the girls break down and cry, it is mostly
relief that the ordeal is over."
Few of the starry-eyed maids sitting before Hill in their initial
interview foresee that they will be training as intensely as a
athlete. The competition will be elite and Olympian. They must accept
a total disruption and refocusing of their lives, even while they
are in the midst of their college careers. Hill insists each girl
must commit for herself alone and yet get enormous familial support.
Pageants, after all, may demand as much sacrifice as a decathlon,
but they take a lot more cash. First comes the coaching fees. Hill’s
billing rates would startle most lawyers, but the best costs. A week
of her training costs $5,000, a day goes for $1,000.
Then comes the specialized trainers who are scattered all over the
country. Hill remembers her own preparation as endless weekend road
trips: up to Rhode Island to Scott Gray’s Cinderella’s Bridal Salon
for wardrobe; out to Kansas City for vocal coaching, making musical
tracks and choreography; nutritionists, hair and makeup experts, all
expensive and distant. And oh mercy, the price of those evening gowns.
"That’s why," says Hill, "I always insist on the parents
accompanying the girl on the initial interview. It’s a lot of money,
and each Miss America contender is already a college student."
After the parents prove their wherewithal, the girl must prove her
determination. Hill has never dismissed a client because of
Instead, she casually asks, as will pageant judges later, "Why
do you want to be Miss America?"
Responding with "I’ve always loved adulation," "Mom has
groomed me for this," or "just kind of a lark, really,"
will win you a smile and swift dismissal. The right answer leads you
under Jennifer’s wing and into a battery of undreamt of disciplines.
Hill refers to herself as a performance enhancement expert, rather
than coach. "A pageant is unlike sport," she insists.
no tangible performance. You are judged on a perception of your person
— you already are as good as you can be. I can only give you the
confidence and tips to present that self better."
Perhaps. But your beautiful essence is going to undergo a lot of
before it flexes in front of the judges. First comes the Mind and
the Mouth. Ulrica Udani, who was contending for Miss Teen USA, was
initially shocked. "Ms. Hill gave me written homework!"
Each girl begins a daily journal, entailing written assignments.
yourself in three words." ("Perky" is a very bad bet.)
"How could you enhance New Jersey if you wore her crown?"
Then comes the issue analysis. Gore or Bush — who has the better
health care plans, education package? What’s your stance on the Clean
Air Act? Mideast negotiations, Soft money? "Most girls don’t
the breadth of current issues the judges will ask in the private
sessions," says Hill. "You not only have to know the issues,
but have a whole raft of cogent, conversational answers at the
Even though Miss USA lacks Miss America’s talent competition, both
boast exhausting private and public interviews.
Speaking is Coach Hill’s forte. So I take the plunge,
and ask her to test me on one of the judges’ typical questions.
sensing a lighted fuse, she asks with lovely, smiling innocence,
you a liberal or conservative, and why?" Hill has hit it. I
explode in diatribe — a clever, witty, incisive rant. She listens,
unmoving, then responds.
First the praise. She loved the content. "However . . ." a
host of gentle suggestions dissect my vocal expressiveness, my still
body, my thrusting hands, eyes, face, carriage. "And you are of
course, ah, longwinded. I might have done it this way. . ." No
one, she implies sweetly, will be lowering any crowns on this unruly
pate. I want to try again. On the way home, I keep inventing new
to her question. She gets you to do that.
In addition, every contestant entering Miss America competition must
come with a "Platform Issue." Makris Hill, wisely in 1994,
chose child abuse. After gaining her New Jersey crown, she worked
with the Kanka family to push through the controversial Megan’s law.
Many of today’s contestants are already politically lobbying for their
cause. For most, it becomes a lifelong campaign.
Hill stands foursquare against the old "Suzanne Sugarbaker"
school (Sugarbaker was Delta Burke’s character in the "Designing
Women" television series), which advises giving the judges
they want. "You can’t fool these people," she insists. "It
must come from your heart." On the pragmatic side, nevertheless,
certain battles are foolish platform choices: gun control or abortion
is guaranteed to split the panel. Wanting to "Be the perfect
is abhorrently "1950s" and "saving all furry animals"
is too Playboy. Platform issues must be meaty.
In l949 Carol Frazer, Miss Montana, rode her palomino
on stage. The animal slipped, reared precariously over the judges,
and nearly fell. One lass brought out her 12 trained pigeons, which
instantly flew the coop and decorated the Convention Hall audience.
One of the several fire baton twirling experts set fire to the stage
curtain. For safety’s sake, the judges finally put their foot down.
Yes, they declared, you can show your archery skill and shoot balloons
out of your father’s hand; and yes, you can drag out the trampoline
and bounce your stuff; but no, Miss Nevada, you cannot bring your
thoroughbred, home-raised cow onstage to perform. More recently for
the talent showings, a weapons ban has gone into effect.
Hill encourages her pupils to select from the normal show biz range.
After all, since 1970, all but two Miss America talent competition
winners have employed vocal, musical instrument, or dance renditions.
Many use the Miss America spotlight to launch their performing
After the vocal or dance coach has sharpened the talent, Hill helps
mold it into an enticing performance package. This usually entails
a few trips to Kansas City, where Jennifer’s old mentor, Bill Wolffe,
polishes the act and makes sound tracks.
By now the bills are really rolling in. Some parents will take three
jobs to launch their daughter through the Hill regime. From more
than one beleaguered father comes the query, "Who needs this
stuff and what good is it for my girl?"
Hill responds from experience. "I cannot imagine any better
or swifter formula for personal growth than the pageant. It teaches
you poise, calm, and gives you the guts to represent the entire state.
You are forced to develop and devote yourself to a social ideal (the
platform issue) and work at it ever after. You learn how to speak
easily with presidents and celebrities. You gain stress management
skills, and through it all you make oceans of really fast friends.
I can think of nothing better."
If pageants hold such growth potential, what about prancing little
Jon Benet Ramsey? "When I hear her name," replies Makris-Hill,
"my immediate reaction is `child abuse.’ I refuse to coach any
pageant contestant under age 16. The pre-teen stuff can be very
the baby contests, total ripoffs."
In 1921 flat-chested flapper Margret Gorman, standing
5-feet-1, claimed the first Miss America crown with the lithe
of 30-25-32. By 1953, Miss America Neva Langely stood so abundantly
blessed that she was forced to defend against accusations of
padding." (Later, inspections squashed these complaints.) But
the ideals change. Somewhere in the l970s women decided that they
could earn their good figures and the aerobics rush began.
Today’s pageant hopefuls must be and look fit with bodies somewhere
between the scrawny models of the fashion industry and the
of Playboy centerfolds. And they all train like athletes.
Jennifer’s own competition training consisted of a very specific,
daily weight training. Now for her girls, windsprints and a
diet are as important as hair and make-up tips.
As Hill talks bodies, all around me I hear the rumble of snarling
feminists. And the cry of "Degradation!" indeed has come from
every unsuspected crevice. In l988 as the Miss California crown was
descending, contestant Michelle Anderson reached into her ample bosom
and unfurled a home made banner announcing "Pageants Hurt All
Women." Since 1974 women have been protesting on the boardwalk
that Miss America is not a world series of womanhood, but yet another
degrading plot by men, those drooling dastards.
Hill roundly rebuts these feminist claims. "Physical beauty
is not degrading," the former Miss New Jersey insists. "Miss
America is no longer just a contest about who looks good in a
The contestants you meet hold serious professional aims. There are
more women seeking to be astronauts than models." She then adds
reflectively, "I think a lot of ladies just don’t want to see
talent and poise combined in a very beautiful woman."
In fact, the driving force behind Miss America, since
its inception, has been dollars, not thighs. Back in 1921, a group
of merchants along the Atlantic City Boardwalk met to find some method
of extending the holiday beach crowds past Labor Day.
They hit upon "The Atlantic Pageant," an autumn gala
among other events, a bathing beauty contest. Each of the eight
had been culled from as many as 1,500 contestants in their home
So when the airplanes roared overhead dropping confetti and Neptune
rose from the shoreside waves carried aloft by sea monsters to crown
16-year-old Gorman, she had already proved herself a national
She was, as labor leader Samuel Gompers stated, a "true
of the type of womanhood America needs."
Today the contest remains an ideal vehicle for burnishing corporate
images, and hundreds of firms like Keebler, Chevrolet, and Du Pont
award scholarships. Clairol supplies the hairdressers. Local outfits
such as grocery stores pony up $1,000 grants. The Quality of Life
Program lavishes more than $65,000 in annual aid to young outstanding
women volunteers. Its sponsor? Fruit of the Loom.
All the while our Miss America hopeful is pumping up her arms, honing
down her speeches, and practicing her talent to distraction, Hill
sends her on outings to the special hair dresser, make-up artist,
and perhaps a choreographer to learn those skills. Then it’s up to
Rhode Island where the evening gown gets designed and custom fitted.
At last contest time approaches. Hill helps the competitor fill
out the exhaustive forms. "Are you now or have you ever been
Married? In jail?" The final tips are impressed: smear Vaseline
on your teeth so your dry lips won’t stick; slather glue on your
so your bathing suit will stick and not ride up. Never be demure or
"ladylike" when you speak, be impassioned — physically
and vocally. On and on it goes.
Winning the first level in a northeastern state like New Jersey nets
a few photos, a lot of smiles, and not much else. In a
state like Texas, however, local scholarship monies and perks flood
in your lap. Boosters of all sorts get behind the "most beautiful
girl in our county."
If you are still in the running, it’s back to work, aiming for the
state contest in May — 10 days of new friends, excitement and
competition. Many now expand their sessions with Coach Hill to three
times a week.
For those few who claim the state crown or even stand in the top-five
winners’ circle, stardom begins instantly. A gaggle of "important
press people" seek their time. Swiftly following come the letters:
marriage proposals and scores of less flattering propositions. Playboy
comes to call. After the final Miss America contest they try again.
"I have nothing against someone’s posing nude, it just wasn’t
my style," remarks Hill simply.
Miss New Jersey’s stardom comes complete with all the trappings —
stalkers, bodyguards, and FBI troubleshooters. And of course the
After averaging five calls a week, Jennifer Makris Hill decided to
down William Morris Agency, nix Stephen King after reading for his
latest movie, try her hand at a screen test and a few soaps, and
go on with Regis & Kathy Lee and accept Hillary’s invitation to lunch
at the White House. But by now, for Makris Hill, the whole world of
seemed to pale.
"As Miss New Jersey, you already have all that glamour," she
notes. "People are putting you on a pedestal, singing your
but it all comes with an incredible price tag. Frankly, I can’t
paying that price lifelong unless you are really insecure."
"Oh, and naturally there’s the money," Hill waves
"Lots and lots of money." She received $40,000 in
alone. Furs, oceans of makeup, dresses, cell phones all flow in.
and other deals also swamp the young state queen. The Miss America
Organization assigns each state winner a financial agent, some sharp
expert like "Uncle" Nat Zauber to advise and sort the berries
from the thorns.
Zauber, a veteran of the Miss America organization, also helps arrange
the profitable speaking engagements. "And right there lies the
difference," says Hill. "When Miss America speaks, every
dollar of the fee goes to her." Miss USA gets a flat $40,000 for
her reigning year and every speaking fee goes back to The Donald.
Miss New Jersey’s reign begins in May and runs a hectic year. But
come September, all the state winners make the pilgrimage to Atlantic
City for the Big One — the Miss America Pageant. For this
ordeal the 50 young champions make more friends, meet more important
folks, dance and rehearse harder, and pause less than they ever will
again. Like combat, the whirlwind competition is so intense that the
uninitiated just cannot understand. Friendships become lifelong. At
this point, Coach Hill stands back and "lets it all go to
No coaches are allowed backstage.
For the fortunate Miss America and her Winners’ Circle, there comes
more money, fame, press interviews, and adulation. The other lovely
and talented ladies return to fill out their Miss State reigns.
I’m quite happy for these advantaged women. And as mere luscious
yield the Winners Circle to more sharp-witted Athenas, goddesses of
Wisdom who are still knockouts, even this male (and thus chauvinist
pig) is gratified. Yet I am moved to wonder, do we really need a
pageant industry to boost the confidence of these already gifted few?
What do we get out of all this corporate image polishing and the
As a 16-year-old, a bunch of my buddies and I did indeed drool and
loudly lust over the Miss Universe beauties on the TV screen. Miss
Israel got my vote, and won. I’ve forgotten her face, but to this
day I recall the spellbinding speech she made on the meaning of
Maybe I’m just a pig with long ears, or maybe the Miss America Pageant
can feed us all a little youthful idealism that we certainly sorely
need to hear. If so, the girls are giving more than they ever get.
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