Category: Media & Culture / October 23, 2012 12:30 PM EDT
They may not have become as famous as "Miss America," but in New York City "Miss Subways" were local legends. A new exhibit celebrates the competition and looks at the women that became the faces of New York City's underground system.
The beauty queens had their faces plastered all over subway cars.
"It's a part of New York history that shouldn't be forgotten," she said. "Not just because I was part of it, but because of what it represented. I mean look at the years that it spanned ... People were very proud of their city and this was a way of showing appreciation I think."
The competition ran from 1941 to 1976 and each month a winner was chosen by subway riders. And while the contest began as a way to get people to notice other advertisements on trains, it quickly became a staple of culture.
Rowaldsen and some of the other Miss Subways have gone underground at the New York City Transit Museum to see the exhibit and remember what times were like during their modeling days.
Photographer Fiona Gardner is behind the exhibition. She spent the last five years tracking down the women in the posters and traveled across the U.S. to photograph 41 Miss Subways. The result is a new book titled "Meet Miss Subways: New York's Beauty Queens 1941-1976," that features the images on display at the exhibit.
"It really represented the diversity of New York City," explained Gardner about why she was so captivated by the competition.
"You had pretty much every ethnic group in New York of those years present in the Miss Subways contest. It was also truly the girl next door, the girl who rode the subway."
The contest featured working class women and had its first African-American winner in 1948 and the first Asian-American in 1949. It was not until 1984 that Miss America crowned its first African American - Vanessa Williams.
Gardner said it is the realistic representation of life in New York that she thinks makes the beauty contest an important piece of history.
"A lot of them had multiple careers actually and had to juggle things like how do you have a family and work outside the home? Those are all things that all of us women in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, women in America are all dealing with. I think sometimes we think of those things as really contemporary choices but I think it's actually something that has been going on for a lot longer and I think Miss Subways gives a lot of insight into those questions that all of us experience today."
Gardner learned about the competition after seeing posters on the walls of Ellen's Stardust Diner in New York City. Owner Ellen Hart Sturm was Miss Subways in 1959, when she was 17-years-old.
Sturm said the competition changed her life.
"I was a little bit insecure. I thought that maybe I wouldn't make it. But I took a chance and sent my picture in and it impacted my whole life. I have reunions with Miss Subways from 1982 until currently and I sang the national anthem at Ranger and Nicks games, I sang when the fire house moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn."
After 35 years the competition came to an end as graffiti started to blanket trains on the subway system. But Sturm suggests it may be time to once again give riders something to think about on their commute.
"I would like to see it come back and add a little glamour to the subways and we could have a Mister Subways as well," Sturm said.
The exhibition will be on display from Oct. 23-March 25th.