No beauty pageant this year, but Grand Prix still lags behind #MeToo

A long-standing Grand Prix tradition will come to a quiet close this year: The beauty pageant associated with the 45-year-old race—in which the so-called “podium girls” are picked—will not happen.

I asked about the pageant during a recent planning meeting with race officials while looking over the itinerary of Thunder Thursday—the high-flying event at The Pike on the eve of race weekend. In addition to motorcycle stuntmen hurtling through the air, it typically included the heckles and whistles of (mostly) men as 20 pageant finalists donned frozen smiles, tiny bikinis and 6-inch heels as they posed for flashing cameras and a panel of judges.

During my time as editor of another local publication, I grimaced each April, knowing that photos of the contest were certain to claim the prize for the most web hits of the year, a fact that was offered as proof that my protests about covering the event were wrongheaded.

This year I had planned to take a bold stand in my new role at the Post: I would refuse to cover the tawdry affair. Then, in the meeting, Jim Michaelin, CEO of the race, threw a wrench into my rage’s gearbox.

“We’re not doing it,” he said.

Surprised, I asked why.

“It’s very laborious,” he said casually. “It’s a lot of work to put on.”

I waited for more words. There had to be a more nuanced explanation in the era of #MeToo and the “silence breakers”—a year of historic wins for female Congressional candidates, a year when Christine Blasey Ford walked into a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room; a year, in fact, when even the storied Miss America pageant axed its bathing suit competition and other sporting events are doing away with these sleazy gimmicks.

Even the masculine world of auto racing had a female hero in Danica Patrick, the only woman to win an IndyCar race.

There were more words: Michaelian added that it was wrong that of the 20 finalists, only three were selected to participate in the weekend festivities and collect prize money, leaving, presumably, 17 weeping losers: “Women don’t like competition,” he said.

No? He should watch my badass stepdaughter heave a javelin through the air at her college track meets. Is it unreasonable that she prefers the competitive aspect of an actual sport to bouncing down a runway in front of boozy men with their eyes popping out?

Still, I let it go and listened to Michaelian’s talking points about this year’s Grand Prix, about its new sponsor, the event being a “postcard for Long Beach,” the Super Trucks and the Motegi drift challenge. But I had to call later in the week for further clarification. It was bugging me; eating at me.

Michaelian elaborated on the cause of the pageant’s cancellation: It hadn’t attracted a sponsor this year. Tecate beer had paid for the event most recently, but Tecate is no longer associated with the race; plus, adding to the financial hurdle was the fact that the pageant was also subsidized by the Grand Prix Association.

OK, so, money. I get that. Anything else?

“The activities didn’t stir quite the reaction that we had before,” he continued. “The interest level had diminished.”

OK! Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Most importantly,” he said, “socially and culturally it was a concept that had become outdated. We asked ourselves, is this really something we want to keep doing? The consensus was that it had run its course.”

Finally.

But, he added, the women will still be a fixture at this year’s race. Rather than being chosen by judges, they’ll be selected by a modeling agency.

Surprised, I asked why.

“It’s tradition,” the CEO said.

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.
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