Memphis Commercial Appeal
Miss USA contestants are 'TCB' at Graceland this week — masks and all
In 1984, when the Miss Teen USA pageant was held, in its second year, at the Memphis Cook Convention Center, the 16-year-old competitor representing Arkansas told The Commercial Appeal that she liked to trap wild pigs.
"Then we hog-tie 'em," she said. "Then we put 'em in a pen until they get real fat. Then we, I guess what you call, slaughter 'em."
Times have changed. When the Miss Teen USA contest returns this weekend to Memphis, along with its "older sister" pageant, Miss USA, the 17-year-old representing Arkansas will be Anna Claire Hay, of Siloam Springs, a chemistry major who launched an "inclusion and equality initiative" at school and "started her own nonprofit to promote elder care when she was nine," according to the impressive biography posted on the event's website.
Meanwhile, Miss Mississippi USA, Asya Branch, attended a meeting about prison reform with President Trump, while Miss Tennessee USA, Justice Enlow, founded "a nonprofit women’s organization dedicated to expanding the modern definition of feminism."
Whatever their origins, the competitors in the 2020 editions of the nationally televised Miss USA and live-streamed Miss Teen USA contests, set to take place at the Soundstage at Graceland, are more likely to be high-achievers than hog-tiers.
In conversation as well as appearance, they are poised and professional beyond their years, even if the coronavirus-inhibiting masks they are wearing while in town tend to obscure their youthfulness, as well as the megawatt smiles that they will flash from the Soundstage for a socially distanced crowd of about 500 pageant officials, family members and other ticket-holders. (The latter category includes members of what Enlow calls the "pageant fan community," who "fly in from all over the world" — especially from the Philippines and Thailand — "for any big pageant like this.")
By Monday evening, the young women — 51 contestants per pageant, representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia — were in Memphis, where The Guest House at Graceland (the hotel next door to Elvis' mansion) had been organized as a sort of isolating "bubble" for them, along the lines of the COVID-19-blocking "bubble" arranged for the NBA playoffs and other sports competitions.
Said Enlow: "I've been very, very cautious about who I've been around. None of us wants to test positive for COVID and not be able to compete." (Any contestant who tests positive will be scratched from the pageant.
Upon arrival, each contestant was tested for the novel coronavirus, and then quarantined for an evening, before taking part in rehearsals, fittings, a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum, a riverboat ride and other camera-ready pageant activities.
By Tuesday, The Guest House at Graceland was buzzing with the masked presence of various pageanters. Instead of the usual fans in Elvis T-shirts, the lobby and outdoor courtyard were occupied by camera crews and young women in sashes ("Miss California," "Miss Arizona"), silken dressing gowns and high heels; in place of "TCB" bumper stickers, cars in the parking lot were emblazoned with such declarations as: "Proud Parent of Miss West Virginia USA 2020."
Once co-owned by Donald Trump, the Miss Universe "universe" of pageants attempts to have its cheesecake and eat it, too. Unlike its older rival, Miss America, which bills itself as a "scholarship" event and has eliminated its swimsuit competition, Miss USA and its sister events have not attempted to distance themselves from their "beauty pageant" origins. By Tuesday afternoon, the organization's press page was loaded with photos of the young women in Memphis, posing in bikinis and evening gowns.
Macy Christianson, Miss North Dakota USA 2020, attends registration and fittings upon arriving to The Guest House at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, on Monday, Nov. 2. The Miss USA contestants are filming, rehearsing and preparing to compete for the Miss USA crown at iconic Graceland.
Nonetheless, the pageants promote themselves as expressions of empowerment for women. According to its website, Miss Universe is "a global, inclusive organization that celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them to realize their goals through experiences that build self- confidence and create opportunities for success."
"One of my passions is what I call 'redefining modern feminism,'" said Enlow, 26. She said taking part in pageants was an "expression of gender" for her, and as such was as worthy of respect as other such expressions.
"Even though I choose to walk on a stage in a swimsuit, I think I can be respected for being beautiful and for having a wonderful mind," she said. "In the process of preparing for a title, you become a person who is worthy of the title."
Justice Enlow, Miss Tennessee USA 2020, attends registration and fittings upon arriving to The Guest House at Graceland in Memphis on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and a former Miss Greater Inland Empire who competed for Miss California USA (she came in 15th out of 130 contestants), Enlow — like many of her colleagues — has taken part in pageants in both the Miss USA and Miss America systems. She won Miss Tennessee USA last year after she moved in with an aunt near Nashville.
Unlike the Miss America system, the Miss USA process does not require competitors to emerge from a "farm league" system of lesser pageants. Enlow won the right to compete for Miss Tennessee after what was she called "the world's longest job interview," with pageant officials who assessed her appearance and credentials.
This interview/audition system enables competitors to choose their own title for state competitions. The first Black contestant representing Mississippi in the Miss USA event, 22-year-old Asya (pronounced "Asia") Branch of Booneville competed as "Miss Northeast Mississippi, because 'Miss Booneville' doesn't really roll off the tongue," she said. She brought an impressive résumé to her interview that included competing as Miss Mississippi in the 2018 Miss America pageant.
Her titles already have earned her a certain level of celebrity, she said. A University of Mississippi marketing major, she has performed the national anthem at Ole Miss games, and once watched the Rebels play football with two other special guests at the game, actor Morgan Freeman and civil rights activist James Meredith.
Competing for a cause
More important, she said, she's using her influence to promote the cause of "justice system" reform, inspired by the case of her father, who served 10 years in prison on burglary on armed robbery charges, which made him absent from Branch's life as she grew from childhood to young adulthood.
Branch says her father's sentence was due more to the state's strict mandatory sentencing laws than to the severity of his crimes. Whatever the circumstances, her activism earned her a seat at a November 2018, "White House Roundtable" meeting on prison reform in Gulfport, Mississippi, that was attended by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Mississippi's U.S. Senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, among others. "I think my personal experience is unique," she said. "I definitely felt heard, which was nice, but I definitely was shaking in my boots."
Those boots won't do as much shaking or stepping in Memphis this week as they would if this were a "normal" year, however. Due to pandemic protocols, the contestants will not have the busy schedule of personal promotional appearances and sponsor meet-and-greets that typically accompany pageants. They can't go easily into public spaces, because "there are always so many people wanting to take our pictures and hug us," Branch said.
Victoria Piekut, Miss Pennsylvania USA 2020, attends registration and fittings upon arriving to The Guest House at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, on Monday, Nov. 2. The Miss USA contestants are filming, rehearsing and preparing to compete for the Miss USA crown at iconic Graceland.
Even so, the pageants represent "a great opportunity to showcase Memphis" because they attract "a pretty broad audience that stretches around the world and is talked about around the world," according to Memphis Tourism president Kevin Kane.
Kane said the pageants will deliver what he called "destination narratives," touting Memphis as a place to visit for its food, music, civil rights museum, riverfront, and so on. "You won't see the girls standing out on Beale Street like you normally would, but what you are going to see is Memphis."
Graceland officials had been hoping to lure a major pageant to Elvis' home for some time, but the pandemic accelerated the Elvis Presley Enterprises-Miss Universe Organization partnership. In the era of the coronavirus, Graceland suddenly became an ideal choice, because "the place is almost like your own built-in movie set, with hotel attached," Kane said.
"Outside of a casino or Disneyland," he said, "there's only a handful of places that have it all — the lodging, the exhibit hall, the venue, the technical crew, the set, so to speak, with Graceland as a backdrop. It's a very compatible event for Graceland, with the global popularity of the pageant matched with the global popularity of Elvis."
Also, Memphis has Bundt cakes, or at least more Bundt cakes than can be found in Booneville. Said Branch: "I told my family, when this is over, I want a pumpkin Bundt cake from Nothing Bundt Cakes."