On Sunday night’s episode of HBO's “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver took aim at the Miss America Pageant, debunking the claim that the pageant provides $45 million in scholarships annually.
“It is the year 2014 and I am a fully clothed man standing in front of a line of women in swimsuits awaiting judgment,” Oliver said, before challenging the figure that pageant officials often tout in claims that Miss America is “the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women.” Those affiliated with the not-for-profit Miss America Organization, including a host at this year's pageant broadcast a few weeks ago, say that the pageant awards $45 million worth of scholarships a year.
But the tax forms do not line up with the pageant’s narrative. When “Last Week Tonight” producers investigated, they discovered that the national pageant’s total cash scholarships in 2012 amounted to only $484,000. And when the show looked at the tax forms from 33 state pageants whose contestants went on to compete at the Miss America Pageant, “we couldn’t even get close to $4 million,” Oliver said.
It turns out the $45 million number that Oliver calls “literally unbelievable” is theoretical: It's the amount they might hypothetically make available but do not pay out. For example, Miss Alabama said the pageant “provided” $2,592,000 to Troy University. If that’s true, quipped Oliver, they must have the prettiest campus around. But when the producers contacted Troy, it turns out that number was the offered scholarship multiplied by 48: the number of competitors who could theoretically accept it even though the actual number who take the scholarship was zero.
A look at the Miss Pennsylvania website demonstrated another way the Miss American Pageant plays with numbers to make it look as if it's awarding more than it does. It claimed it offered the winner scholarships to four colleges -- and counted all four scholarships -- although the winner is only going to attend one university, "because she's not James...Franco," Oliver joked, referring to the actor's enrollment in multiple universities at once.
Even with those inflated numbers, Oliver notes that the Miss America Pageant is still the biggest scholarship program for young women in the U.S. – providing more money than the Society of Women Engineers or the Jeanette Rankin Women's Scholarship Foundation, which awards $2 million in scholarships to more than 750 annually. He describes this as “unsettling” considering that to be eligible for the Miss America Pageant scholarship, you need to be unmarried, with a “mint-condition uterus” (you cannot be pregnant or ever have been pregnant), and you need knowledge of “buttocks adhesive technology” to keep your bathing suit in place.
Oliver ended the segment by mocking the scholarship claims with a parody pageant of his own: The Miss Last Week Tonight Pageant. "I’m proud to say we are the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women, because tonight," he said, "400 million one-dollar scholarships will be made available to the winner, of which she may choose just one."