The union of Elvis and Miss USA was a marriage made in heaven, according to Memphis tourism and national pageant officials, who say the Graceland-hosted TV competition succeeded in boosting appreciation and awareness of beauty queens and the King of Rock ‘n Roll alike.
But if the ceremony was a success, what about the aftermath? Will the match be reaffirmed with a second honeymoon in Memphis?
Perhaps: Both Miss Universe Organization executives and Elvis Presley Enterprises officials report they are eager for a reunion that could come as early as 2021.
“We’re over the moon,” said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, the company that organizes the annual Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants, the latter two of which were held at Graceland during the past week.
“There are very few places we could have done the event we did, in the midst of a pandemic, and feel as safe and secure as we did,” she said.
“People were blown away that this was something that happened at Graceland,” said Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of Graceland Holdings and majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises. “If you watched on television, it looked like something that was done in a massive showroom in Las Vegas, or in Hollywood.”
The two-hour Miss USA pageant was telecast live on FYI — a cable channel devoted to “lifestyle programming” — on Nov. 9 from the Soundstage at Graceland, a venue located within the three-year-old Elvis Presley’s Memphis campus of exhibit halls and shops that is across the street from the Elvis Presley mansion. The spectacle was the first major television production presented live from the Soundstage.
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Meanwhile, the Miss Teen USA pageant and the preliminary contests that helped the judges winnow down the 51 women in each competition to 16 finalists were held at the Soundstage on Nov. 7 and 6, respectively.
Overall, pageant participants and organizers spent a week at Graceland. They lodged at the hotel, The Guest House at Graceland, and participated in rehearsals and the actual shows at the Soundstage across the street.
In addition to young women dressed in swimsuits and evening gowns, the Miss USA telecast was chockablock with Elvis music, references to Memphis, and footage of contestants and past pageant winners visiting Graceland, Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum and other signature local attractions. (The footage was not nearly as expansive as it would have been without the coronavirus protocols, which also prevented the contestants from making public appearances in Memphis.)
Appropriately, the woman crowned as Miss USA 2020 represented the home state of the Tupelo-born Elvis: She was 22-year-old Miss Mississippi, Asya Branch, who hails from Booneville. The Miss Teen USA winner was 18-year-old Ki’ilani Arruda of Hawaii.
For Memphis and Graceland, the show provided a particularly glamorous spotlight that highlighted the city as an apparently safe and easily accessible — especially for those within driving distance — tourist destination.
For pageant organizers, Graceland provided the type of “bubble” environment necessary for a large entertainment enterprise in the age of COVID-19.
“Honestly, I thought we might not be able to have the event this year, if we couldn’t find a place where we were really comfortable with all the protocols,” Shugart said.
But she said Graceland proved ideal because it was “all self-contained. The fact that the venue was across the street, the way it was built, it all made sense, The stage is a little smaller than normal for us, but we were able to add to it, with the thrust of the runway, and it all worked out.
“This was an event where you had 102 girls come from all over the country, from every state, plus their families and their state (pageant) directors, and we were able to maintain safety.”
Originally scheduled for the spring, the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants were so delayed due to the coronavirus shutdowns that the reigning pageant queens set new records for wearing the crown. Cheslie Kryst of North Carolina had been Miss USA 2019 for 557 days by the time she crowned her successor Monday night.
Shugart — a former television producer who has been head of Miss Universe since 2001 — said Graceland was brought to her attention as a potential site for the pageants by various connections between the organizations.
Meet Asya Branch:Miss USA 2020 at Graceland crowns Miss Mississippi as winner
Notably, Jonathan Seiden, associate general consul for the Miss Universe Organization and an intellectual property lawyer who previously represented Elvis Presley Enterprises, was aware of Weinshanker’s expansion of Graceland into an entertainment complex that was more than a mansion with adjacent souvenir shops.
Originally, the Graceland pageants were set for August (the month that contains “Elvis Week,” in recognition of the Aug. 16 anniversary of Presley’s 1977 death), but coronavirus delays pushed the events back to November. Meanwhile, Kryst and Miss Teen USA 2019, Kaliegh Garris of Connecticut, came to Memphis to shoot tourist-type segments for use during the broadcast. “I wanted to be able, from a television perspective, to sell the story of these attractions,” Shugart said.
Memphis music connection
It was agreed from the start that the King of Rock ‘n Roll would be a presence in the pageants, along with the beauty queens.
“We knew we could use the Elvis songs, we knew it would be good for the show,” Shugart said. “The music is the background of the city.” (The Stax classic “Hold On, I’m Comin'” was heard when Kryst visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.) “And with the civil rights museum and Black Lives Matter, there were so many natural connections. It just seemed to be the perfect year to be in Memphis.”
Shugart said all the contestants toured the civil rights museum, in an outing that she said was intended more for their benefit than to promote the show. A scheduled Mississippi riverboat ride was canceled due to Covid concerns, however. “We weren’t able to go out and about as much as we normally do,” she lamented. “Honestly, there was so much I wanted to show them.”
In any event, Graceland is certainly a more iconic site than most of those that have hosted the pageant. In 2019, the Miss USA contest was held at the Grand Sierra Resort, a casino in Reno, Nevada, while the year before it was in Hirsch Memorial Coliseum in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Weinshanker said hosting a pageant that is televised around the world — Miss USA is popular in such countries as Japan, the Philippines and Venezuela — fits into his “agenda” for Graceland.
“The goal at Graceland is to put Memphis back in people’s minds, for national and international events,” he said, adding that he would like to host Miss Universe here, too. “There are some countries in the world where Miss Universe has Super Bowl ratings.”
He said the Soundstage venue is relatively compact (it holds about 1,700 spectators, although that number was cut in half for the socially distanced pageants), but its stage is large and versatile enough to accommodate large productions, making it ideal for awards shows and other events.
“We look at this as a long-term marketing play,” he said. “We’re trying to bring in events that have never been in Memphis. The benefit is the relationship with Elvis.
“If you’re looking at the television audience, Elvis as a theme is recognizable around the world. When you’re associated with Elvis, you get a higher level of media, so being here elevated the Miss USA pageant. If you google Miss USA this week, almost every story, even the photos, mention Graceland.”
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Even so, quantifying the impact of the pageants for Memphis is a tough assignment.
Beauty pageants are no longer the must-see events they were in decades past, when much of the country tuned in each year to watch host Bert Parks sing “There she is, Miss America” at the end of the pageant that remains Miss USA’s rival and predecessor. (The Miss America pageant was founded in 1921, with Miss USA following in 1952.)
Television ratings for so-called beauty pageants have not been high in recent years, which is why Miss USA moved this year to the A&E Network-owned FYI channel. For much of its history, the pageant — co-owned for a time by Donald Trump — has been on NBC or Fox.
According to ShowBuzz Daily, a website that provides comprehensive television ratings information, about 122,000 viewers watched the Miss USA pageant in the U.S.; in comparison, Monday night’s NFL football game, the evening’s highest-rated television program, attracted 9.8 million viewers. In fact, Miss USA ranked 134 out of the 150 cable telecasts whose ratings were measured Monday night, ShowBuzz reported.
Nevertheless, Shugart said Memphis was a hit with the contestants, their families and others. She said it’s possible the pageant could return in 2021.
“I had a lot of our state directors ask if we would do it again here. Honestly, I would love to come back and have the opportunity to do the program at a time where we don’t have to be in these situations, and we can really get out and explore the city.”
Even in the best of times, however, an event with as many moving parts — not to mention strutting legs and flashing smiles — as the Miss USA pageant has a few minor hitches, unnoticed by the television audience. “We’re always a little bit like a Peabody duck,” Shugart said, picking a metaphor that demonstrates she knows Memphis well, after all. “Calm on the surface but with our feet going a million miles a minute beneath the water.”