Miss America pageant’s official photographer captures sashes, smiles

A lot has changed since Bruce Boyajian started shooting photos of the Miss America pageant 36 years ago, including his hormones. You might say his motives for taking the gig at age 23 weren’t quite as squeaky clean as the organization’s image.

“I mean, I was just in it to look at women. And then I got older than the contestants … I mean, now I’m like way older. I could be their father,” says Boyajian, 58. “I’d be proud to be their father.”

With two daughters of his own, and now Miss America’s official photographer of 17 years, he actually sounds sincere. Through the same viewfinder that once saw them as sex symbols, contestants turned to bright, wholesome “kids” over the years.

The titleholders’ hairstyles and hometowns have changed, but the man clicking away behind them hasn’t.

With a career stretching 40 years, Boyajian has worked as an Associated Press freelancer, Philadelphia Bulletin staffer and portrait studio photographer. He has shot breaking news that included two beach plane crashes in two New Jersey cities in one day. He has snapped Donald Trump calling his private plane’s pilot to complain about the turbulence. He has taken photos of Frank Sinatra and President Jimmy Carter.

But none of those jobs could compare with the one that introduced him to “butt glue,” the stuff that keeps swimsuit bottoms in place. His passion for the job spurred him to take a Miss America executive aside 17 years ago and pitch the idea of one photographer representing the organization. An iconic event should own its own images, he asserted.

“It’s not a football game,” says Boyajian, still passionate about his pitch. “It’s Miss America.”

The organization agreed, and the rest is photography, about 10,000 images’ worth each year.

According to last year’s ratings, the Super Bowl pulled in about 100 million more viewers than the Miss America pageant. Boyajian, however, remembers a time when a beautiful woman weeping beneath a halo of sparkles could compete with the big game.

But those were the glory days, when Miss America was still a Jersey girl.

Atlantic City played host to the pageant from 1921 until 2006, when Las Vegas stepped in.

The most notable differences between the two host cities? The Boardwalk, the Boardwalk and the Boardwalk.

That is where each contestant waved from a parade car, dressed in a costume representative of her state, casinos and Ferris wheels flanking the pure Americana scene. It’s also where a pageant photographer could produce some of his best work.

By the time the pageant reached the Strip, it was struggling. ABC had dropped it because America had all but done the same. Things were different.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there were more events throughout the week, more fans, more access, more photos. And, when photographers still worked with film, more surprises.

Women who hail from a world of sashes and smiles don’t exactly provide ample opportunity for the unexpected. In fact, even with the silent feature on the Canon EOS 5D Mark 3 he uses today, Boyajian says his pageant subjects are always aware of the camera.

But a certain publicity event in 1987 produced a classic unexpected moment. Contestants gathered in swimsuits at the Bally’s swimming pool, and a bevy of male photographers followed.

Miss Oregon made two splashes that day, the first when she jumped in the pool and the second when she popped up exposed. Twenty photographers were in attendance. All of them caught the moment with their eyes, none with their cameras.

Except Boyajian. The only guy in the bunch who didn’t see it for himself, had it forever on film, as discovered in the dark room. The Associated Press ran the shot that followed the money shot: The contestant “stuffing herself back in.”

That seems like a lifetime ago, though. While walking into preliminary competitions at the Planet Hollywood Resort showroom Tuesday night, another photographer tells Boyajian his gig is comparable with working for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition or Playboy. A few decades ago, he saw it the same way.

Now, he says, “I just want to take pictures their parents are proud of.”

Boyajian speaks highly of the Miss America Organization and the more than $45 million in scholarship money it awards young women annually.

He still gets the chills when the winner is crowned because, he says, he thinks of what it means for their fathers.

Boyajian now lives with his wife in Richmond, Va., where he shoots advertising and public relations photography. Miss America isn’t the most lucrative of his gigs, but he finds it rewarding all the same.

As for his future, he sees himself retiring from his post as the official Miss America photographer in four years, when he has reached his 40th year clicking crowns. He’s counting on the pageant continuing the uptick in ratings it experienced last year, its second year back at ABC (at one point it averaged 8 million viewers). Boyajian’s big dream is to judge the 100th Miss America pageant in 2021.

It’s a job for which Miss America Organization President and CEO Art McMaster says he’s certainly qualified. As for now, though, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Boyajian in his current position.

“He’s extremely respectful of these young ladies,” McMaster says. “I tell the contestants each year, ‘You need to be comfortable around him because he will be going everywhere you go. He will be backstage, in your hospitality suites, right there in rehearsals. He will be recording history.’ ”

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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