By Alana Hu
A bathing suit competition for Union women?
The present-day “Miss Union” competition is positively demure compared to “Miss Union University,” a discontinued pageant that for 40 years featured bathing suit, talent, evening dress and interview categories as a preliminary to the state’s “Miss Tennessee” pageant.
The SGA-sponsored “Miss Union University,” acting as the supporting organization and awarding scholarships to the titleholder and four runners-up.
Similar to pageants today, sponsors placed advertisements in pageant programs to support those competing for the title.
While SGA acted as the supporting organization, students directed and organized the pageant. According to Union’s “Lest We Forget” yearbooks, the pageant began in the early 1950s and ended in 1994.
“As director, I planned the program order and was in charge of rehearsals and securing an emcee,” said Sandra Skinner Longworth, graduate of the class of 1987.
While a handpicked student usually had the director’s role, other associated positions and a crew were responsible for hosting each year’s pageant.
Along with the director, a producer, set designer, set crew, “pageant singers,” ticket sales coordinator and other roles existed, said Robyn Hari, former participant and “Miss Congeniality” winner of 1984.
Each year, the “Miss Union University” pageant featured a different theme, and various music majors participated as pageant singers.
“Back in the day, most colleges and universities had pageants, [probably] so that they were represented in the Miss Tennessee pageant,” said Susan Grisham, former Miss Union University of 1973.
While any female Union student could participate in the “Miss Union University” pageant, guidelines by the Miss Tennessee organization and Miss America Association were in place that all pageants had to follow.
Guidelines were based on age, residency requirements and other factors.
“The contestants were a great mix of girls on campus,” Grisham said. “Any club, sorority or organization could sponsor a girl in the pageant and had to pay a fee to have their group represented.”
Grisham was sponsored by the Physical Education Club.
Contestants for the “Miss Union University” title were judged on criteria used by the Miss America Association: Interview, formal wear, talent and swimsuit.
However, a restriction in place for the swimsuit competition required contestants to wear a one-piece swimsuit.
“The judges for the competition were not associated with Union,” Grisham said. “I recall outside judges being used that were from other states and cities. Many of them were people that were experienced with pageants.”
While the pageant was hosted at Jackson Junior High School the year that Grisham participated and won the “Miss Union University” title of 1973, it relocated to the then-new Carl Perkins Civic Center the next year.
The university eventually held the pageants in Union’s chapel before being discontinued.
“While I was not here when the pageants were still being produced, I believe they were discontinued as a result of lack of interest from students,” said Kimberly Thornbury, senior vice president for student services and dean of students.
Winners received recognition of their achievement in the annual yearbooks and received monetary awards and trophies.
“The winner was automatically a contestant in the Miss Tennessee pageant,” Grisham said.
Photos from previous pageants can be found in the archives at Emma Waters Summar Library.