Beginning in the 1940s, one of the most exciting beauty pageants in New York City happened underground. For nearly thirty years, local women competed to be Miss Subways, one of 200 women whose photograph and aspirations were featured on nearly 9,000 posters throughout the transit system. When she first heard about this unusual contest, photographer Fiona Gardner immediately wondered: who were these women? What did they become?
Gardner’s curiosity resulted in Meet Miss Subways, a book documenting her journey as she tracked down and photographed as many former Miss Subways as she could find. The book features photographs and the first-person narratives of 41 former Miss Subways, as well as the remarkable stories Gardner discovered in the process of finding each woman.
The original Miss Subways were chosen from a modeling agency, but as the contest grew in popularity, boyfriends, mothers, fathers, cousins and friends flooded the Subways Advertising Committee offices with suggestions. By 1968, subway riders were invited to mail in a vote for one of ten finalists whose pictures were posted on a subway placard each season. “People really campaigned to be Miss Subways,” explains Gardner. “[One] Miss Subways, her mother worked as a cashier at a grocery store, and she got a huge stack of postcards and stuck it next to her cash register. Every person who came through the check out line, she would give them postcards and tell them to vote for her daughter.”
Gardner’s research uncovered many fascinating stories. “There were these radio show hosts called the Clawson Triplets who supposedly became Miss Subways, but it sounded like an urban legend to me,” says Gardner. Through her Facebook fan page, a grandchild of the triplets contacted Gardner. “It turns out they weren’t actually triplets — one of them was an older sister and the other two were twins, but their father constructed their identity as triplets for show business.”
Another standout tale for Gardner was the rags-to-riches story of the oldest Miss Subways she photographed. “She came from Sweden and didn’t have anything when she came to New York,” explains Gardner. “She ended up marrying an oil tycoon in Venezuala, where she had a mansion with 81 Arabian stallions.” Gardner found the woman in Palm Beach, Florida. “She used to have tea with Greta Garbo and the King and Queen of Sweden,” said Gardner. “The Swedish community in New York at the time was very small, so that’s how they knew each other.”
Gardner’s book is coming out in September, but she created a Kickstarter page to defray the production cost. The book release will be held at the Stardust Dinner, a Manhattan mainstay owned by a former Miss Subways. While Gardner waits to achieve full funding, she’s reveling in discovering a piece of New York history. “For these women, it was like 15 minutes of fame. It was like being on a reality show today,” explains Gardner. The contest ended in 1976, right when the women’s lib movement took off. Gardner found that most of the women went on to have successful careers in a range of fields: everything from personal trainers to attorneys and even CIA agents.
Miss Subways was the first integrated beauty contest in America, featuring local Chinese and African American women long before any other pageant. “Miss America reflected a certain type of blond, blue-eyed, all-American girl, but Miss Subways was always the every-girl,” remarks Gardner. “When you think about that, that’s kind of radical.”