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.”
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