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The Miss Arkansas Pageant, which takes place yearly in Hot Springs (Garland County), officially began in 1939, though two competitions before that year set the stage for the pageant. The pageant is Arkansas’s preliminary for the Miss America Pageant, which began in 1921. Forty-five smaller pageants lead up to the crowning of Miss Arkansas. The competition is managed by a non-profit organization and co-sponsored by the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Foundation, Inc., the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, and the City of Hot Springs.
Bob Wheeler, long associated with the pageant, is credited with beginning the competition in 1933. The first winner of the pageant was Vivian Ferguson. However, she was later disqualified for being married, and the competition was halted until 1938, when the winner was Lorene Bailey. The next year, for the first time, the winner of the pageant was sent to compete in the Miss America pageant, thus marking the official beginning of the Miss Arkansas competition as recognized by most journalists and historians. Although winners were chosen each year since 1938, the second Miss Arkansas to compete for the national title was Doris Love in 1943.
Dorathy Allen, later state senator from Monroe County, was the chaperone for Mineola Graham of Brinkley (Monroe County), crowned Miss Arkansas of 1944 and therefore becoming a contestant for Miss America in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that autumn. Allen compared the professional organization of the national contest to the amateur production of Arkansas and resolved to improve Arkansas’s pageant, giving the annual winners a better opportunity to compete on the national stage. At that time, the pageant was sponsored by the East Arkansas Young Businessmen’s Club and took place in various football and baseball stadiums in communities including Helena (Phillips County), Forrest City (St. Francis County), Newport (Jackson County), and Paragould (Greene County). The 1945 event, the first directed by Allen, was held at the football field in Brinkley. In 1958, the pageant was held at the Oaklawn Park Racetrack in Hot Springs (Garland County), where it remained each year until 1965, when it was held indoors at the newly built Hot Springs Convention Center. In its last years at the racetrack, the pageant drew up to 9,000 paying observers, but the seating of the convention center limited the number of guests to 4,600.
Arkansas has provided two winners of the national title: Donna Axum of El Dorado (Union County) in 1963 and Elizabeth Ward of Russellville (Pope County) in 1981. In 1980, Arkansas had its first African-American Miss Arkansas, Lencola Sullivan of Morrilton (Conway County); she became a runner-up at the Miss America competition, in which she was also the first African-American contestant to place in the top five.
Rhonda Oglesby, Miss Arkansas in 1965, created consternation when she quietly moved to California a few weeks after winning the title. Public expressions of concern eventually led her to return briefly to Arkansas and formally resign her crown. She went on to enjoy a moderately successful career as an actress and songwriter.
The contest has several components. During the pageant, the young women model swimsuits and evening gowns and perform in a talent competition; they are also interviewed by judges. One of the judges revealed in a newspaper interview in 1990 that the decision was based fifteen percent on swimsuit modeling, fifteen percent on evening gown modeling, and seventy percent on talent and interview skills. He also said the competition stresses poise and composure under pressure. Separate awards with different sponsors reward winners in each aspect of the contest, although the largest prize is given to the overall winner. As of 2008, more than $70,000 in scholarship awards were available to contestants.
After being crowned, each Miss Arkansas has a hectic schedule of public appearances. These consist of speaking at schools around the state, attending state sporting events, and visiting as many local or regional pageants as possible. Following this year of public service, many winners seek careers in modeling or in acting. Beth Anne Rankin, Miss Arkansas of 1994, became a motivational speaker, singer, and pianist. Donna Axum, Miss Arkansas and Miss America in 1963, has written several books and serves on boards such as the National Committee for the Performing Arts. Elizabeth Ward, Miss Arkansas and Miss America of 1981, modeled in the nude for Playboy magazine in 1992 and later became a successful actress.
Beth Anne Rankin
Elizabeth Ward (replaced by Micki Peters Konecny)
Rhonda Oglesby (replaced by Nita VanHook)
Donna Axum (replaced by Pam Jackson)
Van Louis McDaniel
Ferol Amelia Dumas
For additional information:Dean, Jerry. “Growing Glory: 50 Years of Miss Arkansas Pageants.” Arkansas Gazette. July 9, 1990, pp. 1E, 3E.
“Early Pageant Was No Preparation For National Event.” Arkansas Gazette. September 21, 1986, p. 1B.
Koon, David. “Crown Me.” Arkansas Times, November 15, 2007, pp. 14-16. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/crown-me/Content?oid=865633 (accessed October 29, 2014).
Miss Arkansas Pageant. http://www.missarkansas.org/ (accessed October 29, 2014).
“Miss Arkansas Pageant Will Be Last Outdoors, 22d Contest Since 1939.” Arkansas Gazette, July 14, 1963, p. 14A.
Portis, Charles. “‘Miss Arkansas’: This Annual Competition Is a Major Project—And Here’s How It Works.” Arkansas Gazette, July 17, 1960, p. 1E.
Megan CartySearcy, Arkansas
Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 7/13/2015
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