Sep. 7—MYSTIC — One hundred years after the first pageant in what would become the Miss America organization, a motorcade of misses with feet on display traversed the streets of Mystic in Monday's "Show Us Your Shoes" parade.
There are no more swimsuit competitions and physical beauty has been "completely taken out" of the judging criteria for the annual pageant, said Miss America Organization President and CEO Shantel Krebs. But the tradition of contestants donning state-specific costumes and raising one leg from the back of a convertible to show off their footwear have stood the test of time.
The parade wound its way from the Mystic Aquarium to the downtown area to celebrate both the organization's anniversary and the pageant's return after a coronavirus-induced hiatus in 2020. It will be held at Mohegan Sun in December as the first of at least three more annual competitions at the casino.
Costumes ran the sparkly, sequined gamut from Miss Florida's hot pink flamingo-inspired gown to Miss Maryland's Old Bay cape to Miss Massachusetts' smiley face boots, crafted as an homage to the Worcester-based inventor of the happy yellow icon.
According to Krebs, the parade began many decades ago in Miss America's home city, Atlantic City, N.J., when contestants would parade down the Atlantic City boardwalk to shouts of "show us your shoes." She described the parade, an "iconic tradition," a way to celebrate a century of accomplishments.
"We've been at the center of national movements, social movements, trends. Miss America was the first one to award scholarships to women in 1945, with $5,000," Krebs said. "Today we award over $5 million every year in scholarships."
For 2021 Miss Connecticut Sapna Raghavan, those shoes were red stilettos trimmed with newsprint fabric in an ode to journalism. The Ellington resident said she chose the Hartford Courant as her inspiration because it has documented state history for 257 years.
"For the next hundred years, I hope Miss America continues to walk across those pages," she said. "And I hope she's me."
Raghavan, who will be competing against 50 women for the Miss America crown in December, won her first pageant in 2015 as Miss Greater Rockville before being crowned Miss Connecticut Outstanding Teen.
A 2020 business management degree graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., she works from home as a strategic management consultant.
Raghavan said the 100th anniversary of Miss America underscores how far the organization has come. The contestant, who is Indian, said the classical Indian dance she will perform for the talent contest will be the first of its kind for the Miss America pageant.
"A girl like me would never have been Miss America in the past," she said.
This year's parade kicks off the celebration leading up to the Sept. 8 anniversary of Miss America, CEO Krebs said. A gala with music, dancing and entertainment will be held at Mohegan Sun on Tuesday.
Colleen Ward Zawadski, former Miss Connecticut and Raghavan's "parade chaperone," said the parade was her favorite event when she competed in 2015.
"It's just fun for the girls to relax a little bit, get their headspace out of competition and just celebrate where they come from and what state they represent," she said.
Zawadski said her role as a "former" is to help the current contestants through the process.
"They come in, they're not really sure what to do, what to say. So myself and all the other formers are just here to really support the girls in whatever aspect they need," she said.
Raghavan said the two have had a close bond ever since they reigned as the state's Outstanding Teen and Miss Connecticut the same year.
Raghavan paraded through Mystic in a bright blue 1966 Pontiac GTO driven by James Cambria of Norwich. He bought the car at the Barrett-Jackson auction at Mohegan Sun five years ago and said his father convinced him to sign on as a parade chauffeur.
"I thought this would be a hoot. It's kind of fun. Meet a lot of new people — collectors and just people in general who come to look at the lovely ladies," he said.
Along the parade route spectators clapped and cheered as legs were thrust from classic cars in various ways. Some contestants sat in back and propped up a foot on the passenger seat headrest. Some held up a leg with one hand while waving with the other. The most flexible among them used muscle alone to show off their shoes with a high kick.
Marsha and Steven Giardina of Mystic set up chairs at the parade starting point.
"My husband wants to see the ladies," Marsha said with a laugh.
Steven called it "something to do that's unique."
Marsha likened the spectacle to the Budweiser Clydesdales that came to Mystic for the St. Patrick's Day parade.
"You don't get to see this every day," she said. "So why not?"
Eleven-year-old Gwenevere Osbourne of Stonington watched with her siblings and parents.
"I like seeing the pageant ladies in their pretty dresses," she said. "It's really fun to see how pretty they are."
Asked if she had any interest in becoming a beauty queen herself, she hedged her answer.
"I feel like if I got the opportunity, yes," she said. "But it's not the thing I need the most in the world. I think I'd rather focus on my studies than try and do a ton of pageants."