At the end of last month, on the same weekend, fans witnessed the coronation of two new queens. The first was ice princess Ashley Wagner, crowned the U.S. figure skating champion for the third time; the second was Miss Universe Paulina Vega from Colombia. The insights of two insiders who recently penned books on the glittery subcultures of pageantry and figure skating help us understand why these competitions endure among a committed group of fans despite flagging general popularity.
Dick Button is one of the most successful figure skaters of all time, winning two Olympic gold medals and five U.S. national championships. With a decades-long career as a sports broadcaster and two Harvard degrees, he's about as insider as you can get when it comes to figure skating. In his self-published Push Dick's Button: A Conversation on Skating from a Good Part of the Last Century -- and a Little Tomfoolery , Button details why he thinks the current scoring system (that favors tricks) and judging process (that remains anonymous) is ruining figure skating for both skaters and skating fans.
Within the world of American pageantry, Kate Shindle is well on her way to legendary status, a la Dick Button. In her book Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain -- which is part memoir, part history, and part diatribe -- Miss America 1998, Broadway star, and Northwestern University graduate Shindle lays out what she thinks is wrong with the pageant that made her famous (at least for a year).
The activities that Shindle and Button both love and loathe have more in common than rhinestones and discipline. As the authors detail in their books figure skating and pageantry are at a relative low point in popularity, especially compared to their previous highs of television ratings and press coverage. They also have suffered because of the subjective judging in both disciplines, particularly when it comes to scandals among competitors and judges. Finally, both have been adversely impacted by reality shows that ultimately detract from competitors and draw viewers to other shows.
And yet, as Shindle writes, "Even in the late 1990s, after Miss America has been pronounced dead, extinct, irrelevant more times than anyone can probably count, I am newsworthy." The long-standing success of American figure skating and of the Miss America Pageant ensure that despite the detractors, despite the punchlines of jokes, these activities endure. One of the biggest strengths of both Being Miss America and Push Dick's Buttons are the historical analyses of Miss America and Olympic figure skating, the rules for both being ever more codified and quantified since World War II. Both Shindle's and Button's respect for those who came before them illustrate to those currently involved in each activity the importance of understanding history and how and why things evolved to their contemporary forms.
In the end it is those who are figure skaters or pageant contestants, or any long-standing fans with a vested interest, who will most appreciate each of these books (Shindle in particular admits that Being Miss America was written for those with an already serious interest in Miss America). Button admirers will ignore the length of the book, which could have used a bit more editing help, and revel in his folksy, gossip-y tone. Miss America mavens will especially enjoy Shindle's memoir chapters with personal experiences and insights, which are more behind-the-scenes, even though other parts of the book that also share behind-the-scenes information are not fully sourced or cited (like references to emails that aren't quoted directly, or conversations that occurred in the judges' rooms that are meant to be kept confidential).
Button's current take on figure skating is summarized here: "Too many young skaters in the U.S. do not want to compete. Yes, the sport is vibrant in synchronized skating, which is an invigorating, very pleasant activity for young skaters who learn to skate in unison. Most likely they won't learn to do many quadruples. Are we doing enough to incubate artistry, personality, and pizzazz in the figure skating stars of tomorrow? It is these star competitors who inspire more young skaters."
Button and Shindle both understand the importance of transformative queens who draw more participants and fans to both endeavors -- and I'm sure both would agree that the recent coronations of Wagner and Vega aren't it. But both also explain that the institutions that organize pageants and figure skating need to have effective leadership as well. Their insider perspectives suggest changes are necessary at the highest levels.
Who knows, maybe someday soon they will be the transformational leaders American pageantry and figure skating need?