Once a Beauty Contest, Miss Subways Is Now a Campy, Voicy Extravaganza

Yes, there is an Ellen behind all this. Once upon a time, Ellen Sturm was a Miss Subways. That was back in 1959 when, as Ellen Hart, her picture adorned every subway car in New York City for two months. She hasn’t forgotten her underground roots, though, and among the programs she features in the eatery is a Miss Subways reunion.

Miss Subways was a New York institution—millions of riders every day saw her picture in the subway cars. The idea was that she was the so-called Girl Next Door. She often was a teen-ager. She was also a secretary, a Broadway hopeful, a college student. For old-time’s sake—as well as for the younger generations that come into the Stardust Diner—Ellen Sturm brings back these ladies.

“This was probably one of those things where the winner had to kiss the MTA president’s cheeks and stuff like that for a photo,” said Derrick Holmes, a digital strategist at the transit advocacy organization Riders Alliance and one of five judges this year for the latest version of the pageant.

Today’s Miss Subways pageant — resurrected by the City Reliquary museum in 2017 —  challenges the male gaze altogether. While Miss Subways of yore pushed conventions of the time as the first racially integrated beauty contest in the country, now it questions traditional definitions of femininity and opens itself to people of all genders and body types. 

Participants in the competition’s new age have included burlesque dancers, drag performers and strippers, as well as comedians, singers and cosplayers expressing their passions for and complaints about the subway. Contestants in the pageant’s new iteration also represent a subway line of their choice. 

“Today’s version of it, it’s more democratic,” said City Reliquary founder and president Dave Herman, noting that the pageant is not officially affiliated with the MTA. “Some people can interpret it as campiness, and sometimes we get contestants up there that are so completely sincere that you drop your guard completely.”



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