MTA enthusiasts sipped on Cuomo’s Tears (a cocktail of vodka, pear and soda) and Signal Problem (tequila plus rosé) at the third annual rebooted Miss Subways pageant on October 3rd. The pageant is the rare event that combines activism with the scrappy spirit of the subway system. It’s where the earnestness of longtime subway riders rhapsodizing about their favorite line exists alongside the playful verve of New York’s performance art community. But on a drizzling Thursday night in a loud, cramped, bubbling cauldron of pageantry at Littlefield, a Gowanus performance venue, the tone seemed a bit askew.
One might ask: Why dedicate an entire pageant to transit? A visit to the pageant brings some answers. Between slices of vegan pizza, young audience members peer into early cameras provided by the Museum of Interesting Things and watch what is supposedly the first film recording of subway graffiti. Around 8 p.m., Parker MacLure, last year’s reigning “Miss Subway,” draws the audience to their seats, channelling Cher while singing a joyous yet wry rendition of “Miss Subway of 1952.”
It’s a reminder that the old Miss Subways, which ended in 1976, was a beauty pageant, one in which women competed to have their faces on subway posters. The rebooted pageant may have “miss” in its title, but it is open to subway superstars of all gender identities. Subway cars no longer sport pictures of the winner, however the winner becomes an unofficial public face of MTA riders. Previous title holders, like Lisa Levy, advocated for those riders at public meetings while wearing her Miss Subways sash.
The subway is unique among New York infrastructures in that it is a daily necessity, and commonality, that many locals share despite differences in age and socioeconomic conditions. Riders can bond over the steady stream of delays and renovations and the lack of accessibility at many stations. The Miss Subways pageant is a reflection of the multitudinous ways that New Yorkers interact with transit: you can observe moments of pride, rage, laughter and political anger all at once.
Alex Low, one of the organizers, describes the event as a “rallying cry for the subways” that is “bringing attention to the ongoing funding crisis that’s been going on in the subway and ongoing performance issues on the subway.” The proceeds are split between the The City Reliquary Museum, the producer of Miss Subways, and the Riders Alliance, a non-profit that advocates for subway reform. Low says the event also allows for a little of the old subculture to come to life.
Although the pageant means different things to different people, it seemed that subculture snark might have overwhelmed the activist component this year. The judges are local celebrities like “Reverend” Jen Miller, the founder of the Mr. Lower East Side pageant, the Anti-Slam open mic and a now-defunct museum devoted to the Troll Doll; Roger Clark, a longtime reporter for NY1; Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels; and Michele Carlo, author of Fish out of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks. Lincoln Hallowell, the host, dons a dapper tux and delivers sly jokes at every turn, giving the pageant a variety show flare. All of them, it might be noted, were older than most participants.
First, the contestants perform, trying to impress the judges and audience alike, and then stand before the judges for a Q&A. Contestants include Samara Dunne, who performs a regular character of hers called The Wicked Witch of the Upper East Side; Rob Coover sings sardonic folk songs about subway unpleasantries; Traci Cappiello raps encyclopedic about the subway stations while wearing a crown of MTA tickets; Angela Choi leads audience members through a guided meditation; Marissa Guitierrez-Vicario dresses as a dog in an Ikea bag on the G train; and the band Theophobia commits to a platform of pretending to have never ridden the subway before.
Michele Carlo, a judge, found it “was really interesting and cool to see that weirdo culture is still alive and kicking in New York City, even with all the gentrification and the changes. The Lower East Side scene that I came out of”—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—”no longer exists…that neighborhood has been totally gentrified.”
Beth Haines, the Assistant Director of the City Reliquary Museum, describes Miss Subways as “cathartic,” a way to decompress from the stresses of transit. But it is certainly not quiet. Many audience members come with a favorite station in mind, and will make it known with applause. Some cheer when Rebecca Bailin, a representative from the Riders Alliance, walks on stage during intermission and urges audience members to text #Cuomo’sMTA in protest of recent fare evasion measures.
In a year when Governor Cuomo announced a $5.5 billion subway renovation plan, the L train almost shut down and the MTA strengthened police presence in a controversial plan to curb fare evasion, politics and pageantry intertwined at Miss Subways, but it seemed that theatricality got the upper hand. Some wondered if the emphasis on art and performance — things that make Miss Subways distinct — was diminishing the threads of transit activism undergirding it.
There were a few unexpected tensions. During the Q&A portion, some of the judges asked risqué and potentially embarrassing questions about subway etiquette or what contestants would do in certain uncomfortable situations. Michele Carlo asked Rob Coover, who was wearing a skirt, how Coover would use the “Miss Subways” platform, pointedly emphasizing the word “miss.” Upon hearing that, an audience member shouted “This is 2019!” towards the judges’ table. One judge asked a female contestant which line she liked for intimacy. Manspreading and male arousal came up.
Marissa Guitierrez-Vicario, one of the contestants, was disappointed in the tone of the Q&A. Guitierrez-Vicario, who was drawn to Miss Subways for its striving to challenge “traditional ideas of what a pageant is” says, “I think we have to think critically about the implications of answering questions about homelessness or about sexual misconduct, things like that, that could come up and are, again, meant to be initially portrayed as lighthearted. Being a woman on the subway, being someone who believes in advocating for the rights of the homeless, it was challenging…navigating a space where people want to laugh, but also these are issues that are important to me and I think when we have opportunities to use platforms in a positive way, I think we should use them.” Guitierrez-Vicario says that she exited the stage before the judges finished their questions in protest of questions other contestants had been asked.
When the judges crowned the winner—the band Theophobia—some audience members seemed surprised. A few could be heard booing and appeared visibly stunned. The band, comprised of Dylan Mars Greenberg, and Matt Ellin, with guest Ben Pernick, looked shocked too. They posed for the cameras onstage and held their mouths agape in a faux pageant scream for several minutes. Ellin says that winning was “really strange. We did not think that was going to happen at all,” adding “We thought, it was just a fun thing we were doing because we’re in a band together, and we just thought it’d be a cool way to plug the band a little bit.” When asked what they would do if they were to win, the band said, according to Pernick, that they would “release rabid wolves onto the subway,” to get rid of the rats.
What does it mean for a pageant with ties to activism, when the winner is selected for irony and performance value, while other contestants professed their love for the subways?
For Curtis Sliwa, the band epitomized “the anarchy of the subway system. They were like the 2019 version of the Clash in the New York City subway system.” The judge says the group reminded him of the activist culture of the 1960s in New York, and that he would be interested in seeing them at an MTA board meeting where “Everybody at the meeting would be paying attention trying to figure out what the hell they’re talking about.”
In response to questions about the unexpected winner, Alex Low stressed what is unique about the pageant’s approach to activism. “Policy issues can sometimes be very dry. What Miss Subways has the power to do is to bring items to life – to make it a lot more colorful. I come from an advocacy background. Advocacy is wonderful in all its forms, but sometimes you need someone from a different walk of life, or someone with a little more flare to bring an issue to life in a different way.”