Historic ‘Miss Subway’ beauty contest coming to Coney Island

A poster for the original "Miss Subway" competition.
A poster for the original “Miss Subway” competition.
WikiMedia Commons

Miss Subway, City Reliquary Museum’s historic beauty contest, is returning from their COVID-induced induced hiatus with a show at Coney Island USA on April 28.

Dave Herman, founder of the museum and nonprofit, is encouraging contestants from across the city to present a talent that showcases why they are a good representative for NYC subways.

“This is just a way for us to sort of glorify the city’s transit infrastructure and the diverse group of people that use the subway system,” Herman said. 

Scenes from the 2019 Miss Subway competition.
Scenes from the 2019 Miss Subway competition.Photo courtesy of Phil Buehler

The event pays homage to the traditional Miss Subway beauty competitions that ran in New York from 1941 to 1976, while also challenging the traditional ideas of beauty. In 2009, Herman and his team first brought the idea of a subway themed pageant back in conjunction with an exhibit they were doing on the historic beauty competition.

The former Miss Subway was chosen by an ad agency that worked with MTA at the time. In the event’s resurrection, Herman wanted the competitors to actually have their moment in the spotlight, thus adding the pageant portion.

“We felt that we wanted to give these contestants their actual moment of pageantry and show off their skills and host this again in a new form, especially in a new climate where the idea of pageantry could have a different meaning where it was less influenced by a patriarchal society,” he said.

City Reliquary leaders look to explore the spectacle in a new way by expounding on the revolutionary history of Miss Subway as the first racially integrated beauty show.

Scenes from the 2019 Miss Subway competition.Photo courtesy of Phil Buehler

According to Herman, the event was considered progressive for its time as it celebrated a diverse array of women from all ethnicities, backgrounds and occupations. He says while the organizers use the term “Miss Subway” to keep the event connected to its historic value, the term can be ‘miss’-leading as the competition is open to all gender identities, body types and ages from 18 and up.

“We’re not looking for a stereotypical beauty queen at all, we’re looking for someone who exudes that pride in New York City and the subway system,” he said.

Previous events have been held at the City Reliquary Museum in Williamsburg before moving to Littlefield, a performance and art space in Park Slope. This year organizers decided to partner up with Coney Island USA, a nonprofit art center best known for their Sideshows by the Seashore and annual Mermaid Parade

Herman says his team was eager to partner with a fellow nonprofit that celebrated performance and inclusivity.

“That’s been a joy for us, to work with a venue that has a place that is very open to the type of diversity that we hope to see,” he said.

According to Adam Rinn, artistic director of Coney Island USA, the two nonprofits share a like-minded and “unique mission in keeping the old-time and sometimes forgotten aspects of New York City alive.” 

“This is the first of what I hope will be many fun collaborations with The City Reliquary. Our very own reigning Miss Coney Island and Coney Island Circus Sideshow cast member, Maggie McMuffin will be emceeing the event,” Rinn told Brooklyn Paper. “That, along with a packed dais of local celebrity judges and the talented folks that will be showcasing their extraordinary skills on our legendary stage make the Miss Subways show one that is not to miss.”

Applicants will have to present an original performance that highlights their personalized relationship with NYC subways. They welcome songs, dance, poetry or stand out talents like Rubik’s cube solving or speed knitting. Past performers took the stage with ode’s to the G train or experimental soundscapes inspired by their favorite train line. No talent is considered too strange for this celebration of New York’s train system. 

“We’re definitely looking for someone who can be a representative of either a specific line or of all the subways in general,”Herman told Brooklyn Paper.  “We’re looking for people who have a heartfelt connection to their communities and the way they get around them.” 

Miss Subway 2023 applications are open until April 18.