Miss Brenau Contest Turns 75
Miss renau Contest Turns 75
This Women’s College tradition is not your grandmother’s beauty pageant anymore. But, hey. There’s still a tiara. by Candice Dyer
“Miss Brenau,” in all of her well-groomed incarnations over the past 75 years, could illustrate a timeline of how women’s roles in society have changed, along with their hairstyles and hemlines.
She first bounded on to the campus lawn as an Olympian “goddess” and then became a “beauty queen” and a “pageant winner” before her current reign, in snappy business attire, over what is now termed a “scholarship competition.”
“We’ve taken the traditional, physical beauty component out of the judging qualifications,” says Deborah Thompson, director of the Center for Greek Life and Campus Traditions and coordinator of the pageant. “Not totally out – we want an attractive person to represent the university – but that’s a much broader definition that emphasizes self-confidence, poise, leadership, talent, heart – inner beauty. We’re looking for someone who embodies the ‘Brenau Ideal,’ in other words.”
So contestants are graded according to four equally weighted criteria – essay, talent, interview and onstage presence – with the numbers tallied just before the grand finale and the winner awarded a scholarship of $3,000 for her sophomore year. The event, open to all freshmen, was scheduled for Feb. 1 and 2 during Winter Weekend to entertain prospective students and their families with a lively display of school spirit.
The 2013 theme, in honor of the event’s 75th anniversary, is “Then and Now,” featuring a short, historical presentation about the state of the world in the late 1930s, including the rumblings of World War II and the advent of the March of Dimes, Thompson says. For the essay component, contestants will compare and contrast the strengths of today’s ever-expanding university with those of the small women’s college of the past. “We didn’t want them to write an essay just about their feelings – we wanted them to do a little research and homework,” Thompson says. “A big part of the Miss Brenau experience is touring our landmarks, meeting the university’s president, and learning more, in depth, about Brenau and its rich history, and, in the process, making new friends.”
The first mention of the contest was in 1936, when the campus was distinctly influenced by classical literature and sensibilities. Photos from the era look like a set designed by Isadora Duncan, with toga-clad students strumming lyres and sporting leafy laurels woven into their flapper-ish bobs. The yearbook blurb is worth excerpting here, for its breathless prose:
The memorable night of October 9, 1937, brought forth in full regalia the ‘plurissimus pulchritudinis’ of the Brenau community – most prominent in the Freshman Quarters – Parisian fashions, Grecian head dress – ‘apeissimo’ poise, and hidden beauty! Miracles were wrought in a few short hours – Venuses, Dianas, Junos, Minervas, all arose in a conclave as goddesses – all as a challenge to our famous Greek remnant depicted on our auditorium ceiling. Nay! Even Aeneas, perchance moved his unerring eye from his ever beloved Dido to note the consummate beauty collected on the platform.
There are also mentions of a golden apple, sundry swift-footed “gods,” and “fearless deceits produced by war paint” on “supple Grecians.” The phrase “going Greek” clearly held worlds of untold meaning then. Unfortunately, the archives hold no record of that winner’s name.
By 1940 the contest was sponsored by the Athletic Council, and by 1942, it was held in the Henry Grady Hotel in Atlanta, where 36 “beauties” swanned around the “Mrs. Roosevelt Suite” and the “Paradise Room,” which was billed as the “most beautiful room in the South,” in an event that was “fortuitously timed” to coincide with an influx of Y chromosomes from the Georgia Tech-Florida game, according to The Alchemist, which also noted many “sighs, shouts, and squeals of delight.”
For much of the last century, Brenau was known for its fabled, genteel accessories: “Yes, we wore white gloves and pearls, hats on Sunday, had teas all the time, and couldn’t leave campus without a written invitation from a host,” recalls Judy Huston Rogers, WC ’67, who was Miss Brenau of 1964. “There were ways around that, of course. I used a blanket invitation from my grandmother in Atlanta to leave campus. We all believed that everything would be all right if we had our string of pearls.”
One of her interview questions during the pageant, posed by a panel of ministers and military leaders, was: “Do you have trouble finding dates? Does it bother you that there are no boys around?”
“I told them, no, I didn’t mind,” she says, affecting an innocent tone. “Of course, I had a beau; I was already pinned to a Sigma Chi at Georgia Tech, but I didn’t tell them that. I figured it was best that I seem single.”
Brenau President Josiah Crudup himself placed the crown on her head.
Brenau would not remain isolated from changing times for long, and, gradually, the crown of Miss Brenau grew weightier.
“I think people looked around and thought, ‘The Peach Queen has something to do all year ’round,’ so maybe Miss Brenau should have a larger profile,” Rogers says. “I was lucky to represent Brenau during a very interesting time in history – the 1960s.”
Over the decades Brenau women turned out in their finery, like 1964′s Judy Huston Rogers. And it often lead to bigger and better things for those genteel southern ladies, like dressing up like Scarlett O’Hara for Japanese TV and presiding over a coon hunt.
She did more than just wave at parade crowds; Rogers greeted President Lyndon Johnson’s entourage when he visited the campus and then accompanied him on a leg of his “poverty tour” of Appalachia.
“I gave a bouquet of roses to [the president’s daughter,] Lynda Bird, who then went to have tea at the Zeta house – she was a Zeta. LBJ was sitting there with a whole bunch of dignitaries, including the mayor of Atlanta and Congressman Phil Landrum,” Rogers says, referring to the author of the Economic Opportunity Act, which was a key piece of Johnson’s War on Poverty. “The Secret Service people fingerprinted me. Then I got on the bus with the president, and we rode around and looked at some of the more deprived areas, the decrepit shacks of Gainesville, looking at what he called ‘the poor, neglected people.’ He gave me his spiel on civil rights and social welfare – he was really into those issues, you know.”
“Those are wonderful memories, but I was so young then that I didn’t realize the historic significance of it at the time,” Rogers says. “I reminisce to my grown daughters about it now, and they just say, ‘Oh, Mother, really?’ Honestly, I doubt LBJ and those dignitaries went quite as deep into Appalachia as they claimed, but I guess we’ll never really know, will we?”
Rogers, who lives in Roswell, is still married to her Sigma Chi. She worked as a neurotechnologist at Northside Hospital before retiring.
In the 1980s, contestants still were selected by clubs and residence halls. “That was an honor in itself, but it added to the pressure,” recalls Monique Morris Webb, WC ’87, who represented Phi Mu sorority and won the crown in 1984. The pageant was judged by B-list celebrities. “I think the most famous judge for my year was an actor named Byron Cherry, who replaced the blond-headed guy on the ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’” she says with a laugh. “Miss Brenau was a quintessentially Southern event.”
It involved a sportswear and eveningwear competition.
“I wore a red wool suit, black stilettos and huge ’80s hair,” says Webb, who kept up the Miss Brenau tradition of hiding the crown in her underwear drawer for the rest of the year. “I was shocked that I won, and I think my eyes welled up, but I didn’t bawl. My parents were in the audience, busting a stitch with pride.”
Webb went on to win “Miss Roswell,” “Miss Atlanta,” and “Miss Georgia Holiday,” a curious post with the state which required her to dress as Scarlett O’Hara on Japanese television. “All of my pageant experiences gave me an education about Georgia,” she says, “because I went to every podunk town in the state, going to the rose capital, the camellia festival, riding a bull, presiding over a coon hunt. I had a short run, but I won some scholarships, and then worked for nine years as a teacher.”
In fact, Miss Brenau of 2002, Leah Duncan Bleisath,
WC ’05, tried to affiliate the pageant with Miss America to bolster scholarship opportunities. “That didn’t work out, but my Miss Brenau experience really set the tone and made me want to get more involved and take on more responsibilities,” she says. “I credit it, and the specialness of the place, with turning me into a leader. I don’t think I would’ve been senior class president if I had gone to UGA or somewhere larger.”
Bleisath, who is a life sciences teacher and department chair – and frequent “Teacher of the Month” at Teasley Middle School, recalls wearing a black dress for the eveningwear competition; dancing en pointe while dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz; and forming friendships that endure today.
In 2006, the contest dropped the word “pageant” from its identity. In 2010, the eveningwear component was replaced by “business attire.”
Nyari Chanakira Miss Brenau 2010
“Some girls had worn their prom or quinceanera dresses,” says Thompson. “We realized that many were spending a big part of their budget on gowns, and we didn’t want to exclude anyone for financial reasons. We have tried to make it as open and inclusive as possible for all students. And you don’t have to be able to dance ballet or sing – you can read a children’s storybook. We work with everybody to develop their talent and leadership potential.”
Gone with the times is any lingering image of Miss Brenau as a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara. Recent winners and contestants have included international students and students with disabilities. The contestant field represents a slice of the cross-cultural student body.
A few old-school traditions die hard, though. “We tried replacing the crown with a medal or a pin, but – what can we say? – most students just like that crown and sash. Some things change faster than others.”
Adds Bleisath: “My interview question back then was: ‘If you could visit the Brenau campus during any decade, which would it be?’ I said simply ‘the future’ because I wanted to have three daughters and send them all to Brenau. I now have two daughters, and I’m expecting my third in January. My dream is the same now as it was then.”