Friday, October 9, 2020

Hilary Levey Friedman Interview - Here She Is

Photo Credit: Bethany O Photography

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD, is the author of Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America and Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She is part of the Department of Education at Brown University, where she teaches courses on topics like afterschool activities, sports, and qualitative methods. She is also a Fellow at the Taubman Center for American Politics and Society.

Prof. Levey Friedman is currently President of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women (RI NOW). She is also a member of the Public Policy Committee of the United Way of Rhode Island and the Platform and Issues Committee of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. Additionally she volunteers as an active Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). She is a civic leader as well, having served as Chair of the East Greenwich Democratic Town Committee, as an Affordable Housing Commissioner in the town of East Greenwich, RI, and as a Board of Trustee at Temple Torat Yisrael.

Prof. Levey Friedman grew up in the suburbs of Detroit where she graduated from Marian High School. As an undergraduate at Harvard she discovered sociology, graduating magna cum laude with highest honors in 2002 and writing her honors thesis on child beauty pageants. She then earned an MPhil from the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences as a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where her dissertation was about fashion and national identity. Following her time in England Prof. Levey Friedman matriculated at Princeton University, from which she earned a PhD in Sociology in 2009 as both a Spencer Dissertation Fellow and as a Harold W. Dodds fellow. During graduate school her research focused on competitive after-school activities (chess, dance, Kumon enrichment classes, and soccer). Prof. Levey Friedman completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University quantitatively studying youth sports injuries, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The mother of a first grader and a third grader, she spends whatever spare time she has reading (anything and everything!) and watching a variety of (reality) television shows and documentaries.


What inspired you to write Here She Is?
I have never competed in a pageant, but my mom was Miss America 1970. Not only that, Miss America 2018 was my student at Brown University. I’m a professor and I’m very active in the organized feminist movement, and my insider/outsider perspective on beauty pageants and American womanhood is unique. I just felt like this was a story the universe was telling me I had to tell!

Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way?
When I was in my first semester in college I discovered sociology. One of the first assigned books I read was Ain’t No Makin’ It by Jay MacLeod. I’d never read a book like it—it showed people, helped me learn about their lives, all while explaining how the world works. A book like that, that makes you think and tells about people’s long-term trajectories while situating them in social context and institutions, is part of the reason I wanted to become a social scientist. In Here She Is, while a different subject, I can see elements from Ain’t No Makin’ It, especially in Chapter 5, which is about child beauty pageant participants. MacLeod actually started writing his book as an undergrad, and it was the subject of his senior honors thesis, and that’s the same for me! I was able to track down many of the families I talked to almost two decades earlier for this book, which is pretty unusual.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
My eldest son just started third grade. His first assignment is to bring in a book he loves. He told me that he plans to bring in Here She Is. I can’t lie, I actually teared up.

Can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about Here She Is?
Here She Is uses beauty pageants to tell the story of American feminism. It starts in 1848 in Seneca Falls and P.T. Barnum’s early beauty contests for women and children and goes up to the present day with Donald Trump, former owner of Miss USA/Universe, and President of the United States. It’s a mix of history (I was able to access some unusual primary sources), sociology (lots of interviews with contestants), and memoir (a bit of what it’s like growing up the daughter of a Miss America). I also get to talk some of my favorite reality shows—RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Bachelor, and more—so I can almost guarantee you will learn about some fact or connection you didn’t know about before.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Testify in front of your elected officials (local or state are the most accessible) about an issue you really care about.

  • 1. “Beauty pageants trace the arc of American feminism. Pageants may appear to be an unexpected instrument for this, due to feminist critiques of them. In reality, the history of pageants mirrors the many monumental changes related to a woman’s place in society, while still showing how far we have to go in our expectations of and for women and girls.”
  • 2. “This is not a how-to book about becoming a pageant queen. It also is not about the nitty-gritty of what happens backstage at any particular pageant in a given year. This is a different take on beauty pageants than you may have seen before, providing a new way to think about women’s herstory.”
  • 3. “It is uncomfortable to recognize that shortly after women get the right to vote, a national ritual develops—a ‘pageant’ no less—that basically said ‘the pursuit of beauty ought to be a woman’s primary goal.’”
  • 4. “Until September 7, 1968, pageantry and feminism had been marching along together in US society on a parallel course. But on this night the two paths intersected as women’s liberationists, erroneously and derogatorily dubbed “bra burners,” used the immensely popular platform of the Miss America Pageant to help spark a movement that would affect more than half the population.”
  • 5. “The coverage of the (JonBenĂ©t) Ramsey murder occurred during a time when Miss America was in decline, reality television was in ascent, and Take Back the Night events (focused on ending domestic and sexual violence in all forms) were becoming more common.”
  • 6. “While the Miss America Pageant—and other pageants like Miss USA and Miss Universe—have been decried as out of touch, misogynistic, and retrograde, The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise has swooped in not only to lay claim to these same criticisms but also to claim a larger market share.”
  • 7. “Though comparing drag pageants to Miss pageants seems obvious, there are also a remarkable number of similarities between child pageants and drag. Both are at heart about the art of female illusion, as the little girls are dressing up to look like women—a form of exaggerated femininity that relies on makeup and costumes to complete the transformation.”
  • 8. “By virtue of representing a locality, a state, or a nation on a large stage, pageants provide an opportunity for women to learn what it is like to be in a symbolic but representative role and speak for others. This symbolic representation can translate into one with legislative import and political power. Far from being inconsequential, participating in beauty pageants can almost uniquely help women access a public path to power.”
  • 9. “Miss America has changed its identity and competition as the roles of women have changed in the United States. The way the competition looks today is very different from how it looked when it began one hundred years ago. While this makes it harder to describe Miss America’s purpose, it does accurately represent the muddled expectations regarding American femininity over time.”
  • 10. “Girls and women should not feel like they need a crown to be happy, but it is not wrong if a crown is one of the things that might make someone happy.”
What is your most treasured memory?
Well besides my sons’ births, the moment I ripped open my college acceptance letter in the middle of my street. I literally tore the envelope in half, and I still have it. I know that’s when the trajectory of my life changed.

What event in your life would make a good movie?
It has nothing to do with writing (well, not directly), but when I tell the story of how I told my now-husband how I felt about him I describe it as “like a scene from the movies.” I was in a taxi late on a Friday night, after a martini (or two), and we were on the phone, chatting as friends. I recall the world slowing down around me as I confessed, “Don’t you know you are the one I compare everyone else to…”

On another note, a documentary about the group of women who grew up as daughters of Miss Americas should be optioned, just sayin’!

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer?
For Here She Is I got a blurb from a writer I greatly, greatly admire: Peggy Orenstein. When I opened that email (heart pounding, sweaty palms)—at the start of the pandemic—I actually got teary from happiness to read her words of support. I joked with my partner that perhaps I should get the words, “Totally original, utterly compelling, wholly entertaining” somewhere on my body (I love that applied to this book, and ideally to my life)!

A fresh exploration of American feminist history told through the lens of the beauty pageant world.

Many predicted that pageants would disappear by the 21st century. Yet they are thriving. America's most enduring contest, Miss America, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020. Why do they persist? In Here She Is, Hilary Levey Friedman reveals the surprising ways pageants have been an empowering feminist tradition. She traces the role of pageants in many of the feminist movement's signature achievements, including bringing women into the public sphere, helping them become leaders in business and politics, providing increased educational opportunities, and giving them a voice in the age of #MeToo.

Using her unique perspective as a NOW state president, daughter to Miss America 1970, sometimes pageant judge, and scholar, Friedman explores how pageants became so deeply embedded in American life from their origins as a P.T. Barnum spectacle at the birth of the suffrage movement, through Miss Universe's bathing beauties to the talent- and achievement-based competitions of today. She looks at how pageantry has morphed into culture everywhere from The Bachelor and RuPaul's Drag Race to cheer and specialized contests like those for children, Indigenous women, and contestants with disabilities. Friedman also acknowledges the damaging and unrealistic expectations pageants place on women in society and discusses the controversies, including Miss America's ableist and racist history, Trump's ownership of the Miss Universe Organization, and the death of child pageant-winner JonBent Ramsey.

Presenting a more complex narrative than what's been previously portrayed, Here She Is shows that as American women continue to evolve, so too will beauty pageants.

You can purchase Here She Is at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you HILARY LEVEY FRIEDMAN for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the 
Beauty Pageant in America by Hilary Levey Friedman.


  1. When I was very young I got a horrible prank call.

  2. "What was a time in your life when you were really scared?" Hmm. Probably multiple times today!