I have to admit that, before today, my knowledge of the respective Miss America and Miss USA competitions went about as far as Miss Congeniality (which happens to focus on the very fictional Miss United States pageant). I may or may not have realized that the pageants were even two separate entities — but as the 95th annual Miss America pageant draws ever closer, I figured it was time to do a little research. And, in fact, the two famous competitions are quite different. So how are Miss America and Miss USA different?
I mean, first off, Miss USA is partially owned by Donald Trump. Part-owner's embarrassing shenanigans aside, however, there are still quite a lot of distinctions between the two pageants, spanning every aspect from competition criteria (one of the pageants has a talent competition, while the other doesn't), to age limits (I'm officially too old to be Miss America, guys), to prizes (Miss America is rather famously a scholarship competition, while part of the prize of Miss USA is the opportunity to compete for the Miss Universe title). Let's dig a little bit deeper, shall we?
Miss America has been around since 1921 — it grew out of a 1920 event charmingly named "The Fall Frolic," designed by Atlantic City businessmen to draw in tourism past Labor Day. In the year that followed, newspapers (hoping to increase circulation) got in on the action by creating photographic popularity contests, with the prize being a trip to the second Fall Frolic — and thus, Miss America was born.
Miss USA, on the other hand, actually started as something as a coup from the Miss America pageant — it was founded in 1951, after Miss America title-holder Yolande Betbeze refused to pose in a swimsuit in the newspaper. Catalina Swimsuits, a major backer of the Miss America pageant, withdrew sponsorship in outrage, eventually forming the Miss USA competition (where contestants were, of course, required to wear Catalina swimwear).
Miss America is rather famously (and infamously, if you look to John Oliver) a scholarship competition and, as such, the winner walks away with a $50,000 scholarship. The Top 16 semifinalists are also awarded quite generously, and this year, there's a total of $303,000 available for the winning. And how does Miss USA fare? Well, she wins a fairly extensive prize package, the crowning glory of which is entry into the Miss Universe pageant (Miss Rhode Island, Olivia Culpo, took home the Miss Universe title back in 2012).
Did you know that Miss USA doesn't have a talent portion? For Miss America, on the other hand, talent makes up 35 percent of the composite score (the rest comes down to evening wear, private and public interview, and swimsuit — of course). That said, anti-fans of Kira Kazantsev's rather underwhelming Pitch Perfect–inspired rendition of "Happy" might have trouble subscribing to the fact that the talent portion is ostensibly the most heavily weighted of the five categories.
Vanessa Williams may have been stripped of her Miss America title following a nude photo scandal, but she still made history as the first-ever African-American winner of the competition — and she's returning to the 2016 competition as head judge.
Miss USA, on the other hand, boasts Halle Berry as a past competitor (the former Miss Ohio USA was first runner-up back in 1986).
So what do you think? They're actually more different than you might expect, right? Oh, and most importantly, will you be tuning in on Sunday night? I mean, come on, we've got the talent portion (and Vanessa Williams) to look forward to — and we can only get that as a part of Miss America.