The vast majority of results that follow a Google search for the term ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ relate to a song released by The Killers in 2012. Miss Atomic Bomb was voted by readers of Rolling Stone as the best song of that year, the theme, lyrics and accompanying video were linked to their earlier 2004 hit, Mr Brightside. You might also get results for an upcoming London musical of the same name that’s starring Catherine Tate. What you won’t see from a Google search unless you start looking on the second or third page of results is that ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ was actually the name of a title awarded to the winner of one of the more bizarre beauty pageants you’re ever likely to come across. Beauty pageants are already pretty weird anyway, but this particular contest turns the volume right up to eleven on the wacky scale.
Following Germany’s surrender to Allied forces in May 1945, the United States brought World War II to a complete stop three months later with the dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Four years later, the USSR successfully tested an atomic device of their own making. This event and the tensions that resulted between the United States and the Soviet Union would shape world politics for the next forty years — a ‘Cold War’ in the sense that nuclear conflict was narrowly avoided but a very hot one when you think about all the proxy wars that were waged in its place. The Cold War was to infiltrate and influence American society in a variety of ways until its ‘end’ in 1991.
Pretty heavy stuff so far. But one of the more frivolous, inconsequential and eyebrow-raising examples of the influence that atomic weapons had in the United States were the nuclear-themed beauty pageants and events that were staged in Las Vegas (where else?) in the 1950s. While visitors to the city were enjoying ‘Atomic cocktails’ and gazing out into the Nevada desert for the tell-tale sign of a mushroom cloud, events were also staged that saw models crowned with such titles as ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ or ‘Miss Atomic Blast’. These titles were not afforded to models in the sense that they had to beat off competitors to the crown, but instead were dished out at opportune moments by businesses and tourist boards that were looking for some easy publicity. For instance, the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce chose ‘Atomic City’ as the theme of its annual beauty pageant in 1953, with model Paula Harris winning and adopting the crown of ‘Miss A-Bomb’. There was also ‘Miss Atomic Blast’ in 1952, with a local newspaper describing how the model, Candyce King, was “radiating loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles”. Perhaps the most famous example was Lee A. Merlin, who you can see in the header image of this post and for the cover art for The Killers’ single. She was crowned as ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ in 1957, apparently to coincide with Operation Plumbbob — a highly contreversial series of nuclear tests that were conducted over a 5 month period that year.
What on earth was the point of this? Well, first of all it’s important to note that nuclear-themed beauty pageants were very much a product of Sin City and were not indicative of some sweeping national trend. There doesn’t appear to have been that many of these events, suggesting perhaps that promoters weren’t all that successful in obtaining much-needed publicity. But nevertheless, it was publicity that they were almost certainly craving — atomic weapons and the arms race were big news in the 1950s, and by tapping into the hot topic of the day these businessmen were eager to boost their commercial appeal by whatever means necessary.
Or — excuse me as I dust off my conspiracy-theorist hat, just to make things interesting — was there something more sinister at play? The world had seen the horrific devastation that the bombs had wreaked on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but that did not stop some government officials advocating their use again in China in 1954 and Cuba in 1962. Were the United States eager to desensitize the public to the possible future use of the bomb? I know, I know, of course not — these events were the work of mad businessmen in Vegas eager for some attention. But some military figures really did want to use the atomic option again, and doing so would have been much easier had the public become accustomed to seeing their use in a commercial and completely unimportant light as opposed to the utterly devastating effect that using one would actually have.
The Cold War crept into mainstream American culture in a number of different ways, but there were surely few examples more wacky and weird than the ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ pageant-style events staged in Las Vegas in the 1950s!Spanish version
Gallery 1. Left: The Killers — Miss Atomic Bomb, released in 2012 by Island; top right and header image: Flickr Miss Atomic Bomb, Las Vegas, 1957 Dan Perry CC BY 2.0 All Rights Reserved; bottom right: Wikimedia Commons Mushroom cloud seen from downtown Las Vegas By National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office – This image is available from the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library under ID 787 CC-BY-SA 3.0 All rights reserved. Gallery 2. Left: Wikimedia Commons “Small Boy” nuclear test, July 14, 1962, part of Operation Sunbeam, at the Nevada Test Site National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library under number 760-5-NTS, CC-BY-SA 3.0 All rights reserved; right: Wikimedia Commons Exercise Desert Rock I (Buster-Jangle Dog) By Federal Government of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0 All rights reserved