Beauty contests didn’t begin in the Roaring Twenties, but they became popular during that decade. (The actual origins of beauty pageants can probably be found in old European festivals where a symbolic Queen and her court are chosen to reign over the tournament or throughout the holiday. The queen was naturally the prettiest–or wealthiest–girl around!)
The Miss America contest began at the start of the Twenties, in 1921 in Atlantic City. At first, it was a publicity stunt meant to bring attention to the beach in Atlantic City. Not many girls entered. A high school junior won and was named “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” the bathing suit strut being pretty much the only event. The title “Miss America” didn’t exist until the following year.
Beauty pageants flourished across the country. Hollywood’s version was the WAMPAS Baby Stars. Each year, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers selected a dozen promising young starlets–hence the designation “baby stars”–to promote Hollywood and the movies in general. It was a coveted award, because it brought invitations to social events and auditions for plum roles. All the young ladies were beautiful–an average-looking actress, regardless of talent, wasn’t something Hollywood wanted in those years.