CULTURE SCHLOCK – By Darren Garnick
September 6, 2007
By the time you read this, there probably will be another poor sap
who’ll say something stupid – well, beyond stupid – and who’ll face
the same merciless fate as Miss Teen South Carolina.
Lauren Caitlin Upton was still the YouTube laughingstock last week,
attracting more than nine million hits for her incoherent response to
a question about America’s geography education woes.
The 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant was asked to explain why an
estimated 20 percent of Americans can’t find the USA on a world map.
She attributed the problem to a shortage of maps – and stammered on
with a series of run-on sentences peppered with arbitrary references
to South Africa, the “Asian countries,” “U.S. Americans” and “the
It was one of those killer soundbites that transcripts can’t do justice.
The key was seeing her with her hands on her hips in a confident pose.
She might have known her answer was subpar, but she was going to sell
Ms. Upton did sound like the Airhead of the Century, and the fact that
she finished as third runner-up did Donald Trump’s Miss Teen USA
pageant no favors. Ugly people, who make up an estimated 90-95
percent of the population, already viewed pageant contestants as
bleached-out bimbos. To them, South Carolina’s entrant “proved” their
preconceptions were facts, not prejudice.
Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel skewered the 18-year-old in
his monologue, urging his teenage viewers to study hard in school so
they don’t wind up like her. Comedian Mo Rocca, the bespectacled
trendy nerd from those VH1 “I Love the 80s” specials, held an Internet
contest for people to rescramble her words into sentences that made
sense. He attracted 750 entries, including several haikus.
On the Today show, Matt Lauer and Ann Curry were gentle to her, giving
her an opportunity to do some damage control in a friendly setting.
Curry brought patronizing journalism to new heights, reminding Upton
she was “only 18,” as if she had also screwed up a pageant math
problem. The Today host then gave her guest a high five for having the
courage to go on national television.
“You know what I say?” Curry chirped. “Good girl! Good girl, you!”
Seriously, that’s what Ann Curry said. And there are no YouTube
discussion boards or journalism chat rooms mocking her pathetic
attempts to infuse girl power into her interview.
As a side note, I personally cannot look at Curry’s overly-pruned
eyebrows. Just how fearful are women that they’ll be confused with
Mike Dukakis that they thin out their brows to cartoonish proportions?
But back to Upton, whose brows look fantastic. She should not be
demonized for not having the public speaking skills of Tony Blair.
Miss Teen USA is a beauty pageant, not a civic affairs seminar.
Surely, there are bright and beautiful pageant contestants. We have
no idea how Miss Teen Congeniality (Mississippi) or Miss Teen
Photogenic (Maryland) answered their final exams, because intelligent
responses without stammering are boring.
The hard truth is that many Americans are not so eloquent, probably a
much higher percentage than the 20 percent with no access to maps.
But nowhere near as high as the 95 percent of women who hate their
It’s easy to poke fun at Miss South Carolina. By comparison, she
makes most of us seem like Einstein – until we meet someone who makes
us seem like Miss South Carolina.
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column runs every Thursday in
Encore. Feedback is welcomed at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com.
BONUS SIDEBAR: “The Beauty of Media Training”
How Miss Teen South Carolina answered her pageant question the first
time around compared to her second chance on NBC’s Today show:
Q: Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?
To the Miss Teen USA judges: “I personally believe that U.S. Americans
are unable to do so because, um, some people out there in our nation
don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such
as, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq and everywhere like such as,
and I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the
U.S. should help the U.S., uh, should help South Africa and should
help Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our
future for our.”
On the Today show: “Personally, my friends and I, we know exactly
where the United States is on a map. I don’t know anyone else who
doesn’t. If the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more
emphasis on geography in our education so people will learn how to
read maps better.”