Behind the scenes at Miss America, 1984

‘Prince Charles had to do it only once, but Americans have to go through it every year.’ What? Find ‘a lovely, poised, intelligent girl who is also a virgin – or a reasonable facsimile’. That’s how the Observer kicked off its exploration into who would take home the crown of Miss America on 4 November 1984.

The competition was trying to restore its Lysol-clean image following the previous year’s scandal, when winner Vanessa Williams posed for ‘naked lesbian photos’ in Penthouse and was forced to abdicate. Getting back on track required a return to ‘white bread Republicanism’ (35 out of 49 contestants were Reagan supporters) and ‘militant virginity’. Propriety was Victorian. Contestants were banned from smoking, drinking or gambling and had to be chaperoned at all times, though they didn’t seem likely to object. Miss New York opposed pre-marital sex and Mormon Miss Utah declared: ‘I try to live my Christian values seven days a week.’ Their interests were conspicuously wholesome: cancer research, inspecting historic tombstones and ‘international soap collecting’ (Miss Utah again).

With protests outside (‘Vanessa got screwed!’ read one sign), proceedings kicked off with the Star-Spangled Banner, then the rhinestone-spangled the bathing suit round. Talent – ‘required viewing not only for little girls with big dreams, but for cynics and homosexuals’ – sadly lacked the diversity of earlier eras (one previous equestrian trick act ended when the horse ‘dived into the orchestra pit’); the girls mainly sang. ‘Apparently no one told Miss Alsaska that ‘I am What I Am’ is the gay national anthem,’ the writer noted.

Who won? Miss Utah, Sharlene Wells, a decision greeted with ‘consternation, incredulity, discontent’. The venue rustled with comments that she was selected because ‘no one would take nude pictures of someone who looks like that’; sexism and Miss America remained as inseparable as motherhood and apple pie. But job done on the image front: ‘America’s honour is clean, clean, clean with Sharlene Wells. How could it be cleaner? She has 200 bars of international soap.’