For over thirty years, photos and biographies of New York women were displayed in subway cars as part of the “Meet Miss Subways” advertising campaign and beauty pageant. Young women of mostly middle and working class backgrounds were selected, not just for their looks, but for their hopes and aspirations. Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-76, opening on October 23rd at the New York Transit Museum, will look beyond the pretty faces and pageant sashes to expose a fascinating and invaluable record of the changes and challenges which have shaped New York women.
Photographer Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer tracked down former contestants, taking portraits in their new surroundings and recording their stories. Gardner first became interested in the campaign after seeing the many pageant advertising cards displayed on the walls of Ellen’s Stardust Diner, owned by Ellen Hart, a former winner herself. Ms. Gardner began a long-term project to create new portraits of the contest winners, reflecting the reality of their lives some thirty years later. Gardner and Zimmer are working on a book to be released this winter . The project is sponsored by Artspire, a program of the New York Foundation for the Arts. Generous support was provided by Foto Care.
Originally conceived as a way to draw attention to nearby ads, Winners’ photos and biographies were displayed in trains throughout the city. The publicity often led to work in radio and television, and the contest became a compelling platform for civil rights debates in the city. In the 1940s, African-American advocacy groups pressured John Robert Powers, the modeling agent in charge of selecting winners, to integrate the contest, finally succeeding near the end of the decade. Thelma Porter, the first black Miss Subways, was celebrated on the cover of Crisis Magazine. In 1949, Helen Lee became the first Asian-American winner.
In 1963, contest selection opened up and the public voted for their favorite candidates via postcard. With this change, prospective Miss Subways aggressively marketed themselves to their communities and beyond. In the 1970s, the growing feminist movement and New York’s broadening fiscal crisis led to a decline in interest in the contest, which ended in 1976. In 2004, the MTA briefly revived a “Ms. Subways” contest in honor of the 100th anniversary of the subways.
At the Transit Museum exhibit, original pageant cards will wrap around the room at ceiling level, as they would have been seen by straphangers years ago. Modern portraits by Fiona Gardner will hang below. The Rush Arts Gallery describes her prints in this way: “Her photographs’ dramatic lighting references the glamour of pageantry, while the settings—homes and places of work—are the everyday spaces of the women’s lives.” In addition to the vivid portraits, visitors will be able to hear audio clips of interviews with ten women on antique phones placed around the room. The exhibition text, culled from countless interviews with Miss Subways winners and written by Amy Zimmer, touches on both personal revelations as well as larger social changes which impacted the lives of women everywhere.
On Thursday, November 29th, City Lore’s Steve Zeitlin will speak with Fiona Gardner and a former contestant about the significance of the Miss Subways pageant as a form of urban folklore. The event is free and will take place at 6 pm inside the Transit Museum. City Lore documents, presents, and advocates for grassroots cultures to ensure their living legacy in stories, histories, places, and traditions.
On November 11th and December 9th at 3pm, the Museum will host free events investigating the history of subway advertising as displayed in the Museum’s car collection and Meet Miss Subways exhibition.