“Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-76,” opening on October 23 at the New York Transit Museum, will showcase the Miss Subways pageant beauties who graced subway car advertisements for over thirty years.
Photographer Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer tracked down former contestants, took portraits in their present-day surroundings and recorded their stories.
Gardner first became interested in the campaign after seeing pageant advertising cards displayed on the walls of Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Manhattan – owned by Ellen Hart, a former winner herself. Gardner began a project to create new portraits of the contest winners, “reflecting the reality of their lives some thirty years later,” according to a release.
The pageant ads originally conceived as a way to draw attention to nearby ads for chewing gum, tobacco and other products, and the contest itself soon became a 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. Thelma Porter, the first black Miss Subway, was celebrated on the cover of Crisis Magazine. Winners’ photos and biographies were displayed in trains throughout the city, and the publicity often led to work in radio and television. 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. Posters with six finalists displayed together would be presented for about a month before two winners were finally chosen.
The contest finally ended in 1976, but 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 hang above Gardner’s present-day portraits, with text by Zimmer, culled from interviews with the women.