The Beauty Pageants Inspired by the Atomic Bomb - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Miss Atomic Bomb 1957 Lee Merlin (Don English/Las Vegas News Bureau)

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

You see reminders of the bomb’s fad appeal every summer on the beach.

By Charles Pappas

Just a few days after the first mushroom cloud floated over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, the Burbank Burlesque Theatre in Los Angeles invited citizens to come see the svelte Atom Bomb Dancers. Following the Bikini Atoll Marshall Islands test in 1946, Louis Réard, a former automobile engineer, debuted the bikini, named for the site of the tests conducted only a month earlier. Réard advertised his swimsuit as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” 

Nineteen-year-old Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer at the Casino de Paris — “a hotbed of extravagant costumes and topless dancers” — was the only model willing to wear what amounted to 30 inches of material in the bikini’s public debut at the chic Piscine Molitor in Paris. A hotel–swimming pool complex designed to resemble an art deco ocean liner, Piscine Molitor was the place in Paris to see and be seen.

As she posed for photographs, Bernardini held up a matchbox in her left hand, symbolizing how little storage space was needed to roll up and store the minuscule swimsuit she wore. A born salesman, Réard issued ads declaring that no two-piece swimsuit could be considered a true bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”

The bikini may be the most enduring tradition linking atomic power and sex appeal, but it wasn’t the only one. Miranda Corcoran has examined how the atom and eroticism became as intimately attached to each other as peanut butter and jelly. “In the post–World War II period, sex and power, both atomic and otherwise, were intimately linked.” says Corcoran, a lecturer in 21st-century literature at University College Cork, Ireland. “If carefully controlled and kept in the right (i.e., American) hands, atomic energy could build a brighter future. Similarly, female sexuality was viewed as a potentially positive force. If it was controlled and kept within the confines of marriage, it could build strong families and, ultimately, a strong nation. If left unchecked, it could, like atomic power, prove infinitely destructive, corrupting both individuals and society, and leading to the decay of social order.”    

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An A-bomb test visible from Fremont Street in Las Vegas, circa 1955.

Nevada casinos capitalized on the nuclear tests that began in the state in 1951 at the Nevada Proving Grounds (now the Nevada Test Site), the approximately 1,375-square-mile site near the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range in Nye County, roughly 65 miles from Sin City. The first test, nicknamed “Able,” at the proving grounds was followed by approximately 100 more atmospheric nuclear trials at the site. Packing in crowds on their rooftops and in their penthouse suites as primo seats from which to see the bombs’ glowing funnels and radioactive puffballs, the casinos promoted special “atomic cocktails” and “Dawn Bomb Parties.”

Soon beauty pageants were crowning Miss Atomic, Miss Atomic Bomb and Miss A-Bomb. In 1952, El Rancho Vegas, the city’s first resort hotel, hosted a picnic with a supplementary Miss Atomic Blast beauty pageant. The winner was a showgirl named Candyce King, whose subsequent pinups promised she emitted “loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles.” (In an early form of slightly oblivious product placement, the Pennsylvania Mushroom Growers Association presented King with a 10-pound bag of mushrooms.)

After a number of delays in one atomic test in Nevada called Operation Cue, several military personnel traveled to Las Vegas and, through an unrecorded sequence of events, ended up crowning opera star Marguerite Piazza as “Mis-Cue” with a makeshift tiara of a mushroom cloud. Arguably the most famous of these pageant winners, however, was Miss Atomic Bomb 1957, Copa showgirl Lee Merlin, who wore fluffy cotton mushroom clouds attached to the front of her swimsuit while flashing a 1,000-watt smile.

If normal-size showgirls offered a nubile connection between the atomics and sex, imagine the concupiscent prospects presented by Allison Hayes in 1958’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Exposed to the bugaboo radiation via a gigantic alien instead of a bomb blast, Hayes expands to the kind of extreme height favored by macrophiliacs. As her empowerment grows in proportion to her escalating measurements, Hayes and her newfound agency inflict the kind of damage on society that, years later, Phyllis Schlafly warned the Equal Rights Amendment would wreak.  

Just like radioactive fallout, even atomic bombshell pageants and their sylphlike winners had a half-life. When the Limited Test Ban Treaty ended atmospheric nuclear blasts in 1963, when hostile powers restrained themselves from exchanging nuclear-tipped insults and when insects normally kept in check by cans of Raid didn’t expand into pests the size of pickup trucks, the pageants drifted and scattered into the cultural wind, like mushroom clouds themselves. Yet even as the glow from the contests and bikinis faded, their pictures still command attention today, an exuberance of sex and life imbued with the permanence of an eternal flame.    

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