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Miss America vs. Miss USA: What’s the Difference Between the Pageants

It's easy to see why the casual observer might mix up the country's two biggest beauty pageants. For starters, both contests involve pretty American women strutting their hair-sprayed stuff across stages in sashes to vie for a glittery crown. Here's a more in-depth look at the similarities and differences between the two long-running competitions.

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Miss America vs. Miss USA: The missions

Both Miss America and Miss USA emphasize good looks and figures. But both also promote themselves as a place for young women to better themselves, earn scholarships (although furthering education is much more a Miss America thing), make lasting friendships, become leaders, give back to their communities, and beyond through charitable partnerships. Both pageants now feature contenders from all 50 states plus a representative from the District of Columbia.

Art - various Margaret GORMAN 1905-1995, winner of the first Miss America pageant in 1921 at Atlantic City, New Jersey
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Who’s older?

Miss America takes this category as it traces its roots back to 1920s when newspapers started crowning Inter-City Beauties and sending them to Atlantic City to compete in a variety of competitions including the Bather’s Revue. The 1921 favorite Margaret “Miss Washington D.C” Gorman returned to defend her title, which had been renamed Miss America the following year, according to MissAmerica.org. Miss USA has been held annually since 1952. A former sponsor of Miss America, Catalina, was motivated to pull their support and create their own contest after 1950 winner Yolanda Betbeze refused to pose for publicity pictures in their swimwear. These 17 vintage photos show what Miss Universe used to look like.

Miss Universe Pageant, Show, Bangkok, Thailand - 17 Dec 2018
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Path to the big show

Both national pageants require entrants to participate and win local and state competitions before they move on to the national stage. For Miss America, the national show is the end of the line and the winner then travels around the country for her “year of service” according to the pageant’s official site. But if you take the top spot at Miss USA, you are sent to represent America at that year’s Miss Universe pageant where you take on the top contenders from around the world.

Miss America Lawsuit, Atlantic City, USA - 06 Sep 2018
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Age requirements

When it comes to the age requirements of Miss America vs. Miss USA, the latter is more flexible. Miss Universe contestants must be between 18 and 28 while in competition, while the Miss America Organization limits its ladies to being between 17 and 25.

Leona Gage 1964, USA Leona Gage, 26, who reigned as Miss USA for a day in 1957 until it was discovered that she was married, is shown in 1964

Wives and moms need not apply

They aren’t called “Miss” by accident. The preferred honorific stems from the rules for both organizations, which stipulate that contestants cannot be married, pregnant, or mothers, according to Vice. Even those who have given birth, parented a child, or had a marriage annulled in the past are forbidden from participating. Miss USA’s rules even require the titleholder to remain unmarried throughout her reign. Not meeting these requirements have led to a few winners being dethroned over the years. For example, Refinery29 reports that Leona Gage was stripped of her title in less than 24 hours in 1957 after it was discovered that she’d committed the personal no-no trifecta. She was once divorced, twice married and the mother of two. At that point, it probably didn’t matter that she’d also lied about her age. That’s not the only award show scandal out there, check out these 17 Oscar, Emmy, and other award show scandals you probably forgot about.

Miss America, Atlantic City, USA - 10 Sep 2017

Splashy swimwear?

As part of its attempt to rebrand as the more feminist-forward Miss America 2.0, the organization, which you’ll remember started as a bathing beauty contest to encourage tourism in the New Jersey beach town, eliminated the swimsuit portion of the beauty battle in 2018. There was even a cutesy hashtag (#byebyebikini) to celebrate the leadership getting woke to the wardrobe controversy. The rebrand also revamped the evening gown section; now, Miss America hopefuls are encouraged to choose any eveningwear that “expresses their personal style and self-confidence.”

Miss USA, on the other hand, has no problem with swimwear and also still has the women walk the stage in more traditional evening gowns as well.

Miss America, Atlantic City, USA - 09 Sep 2018
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Miss America’s Got Talent

The older pageant also places more emphasis on tangible skills. The talent portion of a contestant’s performance is crucial when it comes to voting on a victor at Miss America—it makes up 35 percent of their overall score—versus Miss USA, which doesn’t take talent into consideration when crowning their beauty queen. Miss America now also puts each candidate through a “live interactive session with the judges,” according to Bustle. Both have interview segments, which have led in the past to controversial answers like Miss USA finalist Carrie Prejean’s stance against same-sex marriage in 2009.

Miss America, Atlantic City, USA - 09 Sep 2018
Noah K Murray/AP/Shutterstock

Miss America vs. Miss USA: The prizes

When comparing Miss America vs. Miss USA, what the winner takes homes is probably the biggest distinction between the two shows. The winner of the Miss America pageant collects a $50,000 scholarship. The Miss America Organization’s Public Relations Coordinator Chelsea Mineur told Bustle in 2017 that no one goes home empty-handed. Every contestant receives a scholarship, ranging from $3,000 for last place finishers to $25,000 for the first runner-up. Miss America will travel around the country, which is covered by the company, making appearances, doing speaking engagements, performing charity work, and serving as the National Ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Miss Universe Pageant, Rehearsals, Bangkok, Thailand - 15 Dec 2018
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The prize for Miss USA

Miss USA’s prize package is a little more substantial according to Bustle and the crown, sash, and big bouquet are just the beginning. In 2018, Miss USA received a year-long salary and her living expenses are covered by the organization. She also gets representation at the entertainment agency WME/IMG. She travels around the country and the world to make promotional appearances. She is dressed by the official Miss Universe stylist for those appearances and has her wardrobe covered for her stint. Miss USA is required to immediately relocate to New York, where she is given a luxury apartment to use rent-free during her entire reign.

CPAC Conference, National Harbor, USA - 02 Mar 2019

All The President’s Women

Miss USA/Miss Universe is a for-profit company versus Miss America, which is not. For nearly two decades, the Miss Universe Organization was run and owned by none other than the current president, Donald Trump. According to the New York Times, NBC and Univision refused to air the competition after Trump made racist comments about illegal immigrants during his presidential campaign and eventually that forced Trump to sell the pageant in 2015 to WME-IMG. Former contenders came out of the woodwork while he was running for office, according to Rolling Stone, alleging that Trump had walked into in-use changing rooms at both Miss USA and Miss Teen USA competitions, a move he bragged about on-air to Howard Stern. He was also accused of calling contestants racist names and making fun of them for gaining weight.

The leadership at Miss America wasn’t free of faults either. According to USA Today, emails with sexist and vulgar remarks about past contestants and champions from the CEO and top executives were leaked in 2017 amid the #MeToo movement and inevitably forced them to resign. A female-led board of trustees took over, Miss America 1989 Gretchen Carlson became the new chairwoman, the rebrand was put in motion, and they started referring to it as a “competition” instead of a “pageant.”


Famous alumni

Both contests have been the starting point for future stars. Miss America has spawned many newscasters including Carlson and Debbye Turner Bell, who took the title in 1990, and actresses including Lee “Catwoman” Meriwether (1955) and Mary Ann Mobley (1959). When actress Vanessa Williams nabbed the crown in 1983, she was the first African-American to win.

Miss USA has produced a fair share of celebrities as well. Halle Berry competed as Miss Ohio USA in 1986. Model/actress Ali Landry won multiple pageants including Miss USA in 1996. Oliva Culpo, Miss USA 2012 was the first American to become Miss Universe since the late ’90s when she won in 2012. And on the most recent installment of The Bachelor, not one but two ladies looking for love had represented their states at Miss USA 2018—Miss North Carolina Caelynn Miller-Keyes and Miss Alabama Hannah Brown. Neither ended up with the final rose but Brown will step into the dating driver’s seat as the next Bachelorette.

Miss America, Atlantic City, USA - 10 Sep 2017

Miss America vs. Miss USA: The ratings

The viewing public is losing interest in both annual events. Variety reported that the 2017 Miss USA telecast was down in the ratings for the second straight year; Nielson data revealed that 2.9 million people tuned in for the 2017 broadcast while 4 million had watched in 2016. And that was down a similar percentage to when it had last aired on NBC in 2014. In 2018, Miss America wasn’t faring much better as it hit its lowest-ever ratings. TVByTheNumbers reported that ABC’s telecast clocked in at a 0.7 share, which was down four-tenths from 1.1 in 2017. That translated to 4.3 million viewers, a 23 percent drop from the previous broadcast and exactly half of the 8.6 million viewers they pulled in 2013 according to the Press of Atlantic City. Now, check out these empowering stories of amazing women throughout history.

Carrie Bell
Carrie Bell brings more than 20 years of experience writing about entertainment, pop culture, travel and lifestyle topics for national magazines, newspapers and websites to RD.com, where her coverage runs the gamut from road trip guides to Star Wars locations you can visit in real life, best crime shows to infamous awards show scandals. She has a journalism degree, two spoiled cats, a wicked snow globe collection and a desire to visit all 50 U.S. states by age 50 (she just hit No. 41).