Miss Arkansas Pageant

The Miss Arkansas Pageant officially began in 1939, though two competitions before that year set the stage for the pageant. The pageant is Arkansas’s preliminary for the Miss America Pageant, which began in 1921. Forty-five smaller pageants lead up to the crowning of Miss Arkansas. The competition is managed by a non-profit organization and co-sponsored by the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Foundation, Inc.

The first winner of the pageant was Vivian Ferguson. However, she was later disqualified for being married, and the competition was halted until 1938, when the winner was Lorene Bailey. The next year, for the first time, the winner of the pageant was sent to compete in the Miss America pageant, thus marking the official beginning of the Miss Arkansas competition as recognized by most journalists and historians. Although winners were chosen each year since 1938, the second Miss Arkansas to compete for the national title was Doris Love in 1943.

Dorathy Allen, later state senator from Monroe County, was the chaperone for Mineola Graham of Brinkley (Monroe County), crowned Miss Arkansas of 1944 and therefore becoming a contestant for Miss America in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that autumn. Allen compared the professional organization of the national contest to the amateur production of Arkansas and resolved to improve Arkansas’s pageant, giving the annual winners a better opportunity to compete on the national stage. At that time, the pageant was sponsored by the East Arkansas Young Businessmen’s Club and took place in various football and baseball stadiums in communities including Helena (Phillips County), Forrest City (St. Francis County), Newport (Jackson County), and Paragould (Greene County). The 1945 event, the first directed by Allen, was held at the football field in Brinkley. In 1958, the pageant was held at the Oaklawn Park Racetrack (now Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort) in Hot Springs (Garland County), where it remained each year until 1965, when it was held indoors at the newly built Hot Springs Convention Center. In its last years at the racetrack, the pageant drew up to 9,000 paying observers, but the seating of the convention center limited the number of guests to 4,600. The 2016 pageant was the last in Hot Springs, with organizers announcing their intention to relocate the event to Little Rock (Pulaski County).

The Miss Arkansas Pageant has provided three winners of the national title: Donna Axum of El Dorado (Union County) in 1963, Elizabeth Ward of Russellville (Pope County) in 1981, and Savvy Shields of Fayetteville (Washington County) in 2016. In 1980, Arkansas had its first African-American Miss Arkansas, Lencola Sullivan of Morrilton (Conway County); she became a runner-up at the Miss America competition, in which she was also the first African-American contestant to place in the top five.

Rhonda Oglesby, Miss Arkansas in 1965, created consternation when she quietly moved to California a few weeks after winning the title. Public expressions of concern eventually led her to return briefly to Arkansas and formally resign her crown. She went on to enjoy a moderately successful career as an actress and songwriter.

The contest has several components. During the pageant, the young women model swimsuits and evening gowns and perform in a talent competition; they are also interviewed by judges. One of the judges revealed in a newspaper interview in 1990 that the decision was based fifteen percent on swimsuit modeling, fifteen percent on evening gown modeling, and seventy percent on talent and interview skills. He also said the competition stresses poise and composure under pressure. Separate awards with different sponsors reward winners in each aspect of the contest, although the largest prize is given to the overall winner. As of 2008, more than $70,000 in scholarship awards were available to contestants.

After being crowned, each Miss Arkansas has a hectic schedule of public appearances. These consist of speaking at schools around the state, attending state sporting events, and visiting as many local or regional pageants as possible. Following this year of public service, many winners seek careers in modeling or in acting. Beth Anne Rankin, Miss Arkansas of 1994, became a motivational speaker, singer, and pianist. Donna Axum, Miss Arkansas and Miss America in 1963, has written several books and served on boards such as the National Committee for the Performing Arts. Elizabeth Ward, Miss Arkansas and Miss America of 1981, modeled in the nude for Playboy magazine in 1992 and later became a successful actress.

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Miss Arkansas Pageant was postponed until the following year, with the 2019 winner, Darynne Dahlem, retaining her crown for the interim. The announcement followed a decision by the Miss America Organization not to hold a national competition in 2020.

Cori Keller 2023
Ebony Mitchell 2022
Whitney Williams 2021
Darynne Dahlem 2019
Claudia Raffo 2018
Maggie Benton 2017
Savvy Shields
(replaced by Savannah Skidmore)
Loren McDaniel 2015
Ashton Campbell 2014
Amy Crain 2013
Sloane Roberts 2012
Kristen Glover 2011
Alyse Eady 2010
Sarah Slocum 2009
Ashlen Batson 2008
Katie Bailey 2007
Amber Bennett 2006
Eudora Mosby 2005
Lacy Fleming 2004
Whitney Kirk 2003
Lauren Davidson 2002
Jessie Ward 2001
Sara Harris 2000
Brandy Rhodes 1999
Erin Wheatley 1998
Stacy Freeman 1997
Melonie McGarrah 1996
Paula Montgomery 1995
Beth Anne Rankin 1994
Nicole Bethmann 1993
Shannon Boy 1992
Heather Hunnicutt 1991
Karissa Rushing 1990
Marci Lewallen 1989
Patti Thorn 1988
Carole Lawson 1987
Julie Russell 1986
Christi Taunton 1985
Lisa Stevens 1984
Regina Hopper 1983
Mary Stuart 1982
Elizabeth Ward
(replaced by Micki Petrus Konechny)
Lencola Sullivan 1980
Janet Holman 1979
Naylene Vuurens 1978
Bunnie Holbert 1977
Joyce McCormack 1976
Paula Roach 1975
Rhonda Pope 1974
Becky Hume 1973
Debbye Hazelwood 1972
Marilyn Morgan 1971
Donna Connelly 1970
Marilyn Allen 1969
Helen Gennings 1968
Sharon Evans 1967
Mary Craig 1966
Rhonda Oglesby
(replaced by Nita VanHook)
Karen Carlson 1964
Donna Axum
(replaced by Pam Jackson)
Edye Addington 1962
Frances Anderson 1961
Claudette Smith 1960
Susie Jackson 1959
Sally Miller 1958
Suzanne Scudder 1957
Barbara Banks 1956
Charlene Bowers 1955
Sarah Martin 1954
Helen Reed 1953
Bonnie Nicksic 1952
Charlotte Simmen 1951
Mary Jennings 1950
Barbara Brothers 1949
Van Louis McDaniel 1948
Pam Camp 1947
Rebecca McCall 1946
Leslie Hampton 1945
Mineola Graham 1944
Dorris Love 1943
Ferol Amelia Dumas 1941
Betty Benson 1940
Jean Thompson 1939
Lorene Bailey 1938
Vivian Ferguson 1933


For additional information:
Dean, Jerry. “Growing Glory: 50 Years of Miss Arkansas Pageants.” Arkansas Gazette. July 9, 1990, pp. 1E, 3E.

“Early Pageant Was No Preparation For National Event.” Arkansas Gazette. September 21, 1986, p. 1B.

Miss Arkansas Pageant. http://www.missarkansas.org/ (accessed April 11, 2022).

“Miss Arkansas Pageant Will Be Last Outdoors, 22d Contest Since 1939.” Arkansas Gazette, July 14, 1963, p. 14A.

Platt, Ainsley. “Road to Miss Arkansas Long for Some Hopefuls.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 7, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/07/road-to-miss-arkansas-long-for-some-hopefuls/ (accessed June 7, 2023).

Portis, Charles. “‘Miss Arkansas’: This Annual Competition Is a Major Project—And Here’s How It Works.” Arkansas Gazette, July 17, 1960, p. 1E.

Megan Carty
Searcy, Arkansas

Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


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