Striking Pictures Show What Beauty Pageants Look Like Behind The Scenes

Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
As the year draws to a close, It’s a time to look back on things that happened over the past twelve months. Over the next few days, we’ll be revisiting some of our favorite stories from throughout the year, and seeing again what they mean for 2015 in review.

This story was originally published on September 30, 2015.


In 2009, husband-and-wife photography team Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber were invited to take pictures of beauty pageants and the women who enter them. But not, as you might imagine, on show night, when everyone takes to the stage. Rather, they were sent behind the scenes.

The Miss Universe organizers invited the duo and their cameras inside to shoot the pageants over the course of several years. And so from 2009 to 2011, they did just that, spending time at the Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe pageants.

The series that resulted, called Miss, is a voyeuristic look into the world of big grins and perfect teeth. The photographs express desperation, defeat, ebullience, and envy so intensely that it's almost impossible to believe they're documentary. Ackerman and Gruber insist they are.

Click ahead to see our favorite shots from the project and read our conversation with its creators, below.

Why did Miss Universe want you to photograph the pageant?
Jenn Ackermann: "People had lost interest. They didn't really care about pageants at that point. I think [Miss Universe] wanted something that was genuine and honest. We had done this project inside of a prison and they saw that and were like, 'Let's do something like this. How cool would this be?' — which was crazy to us at first."

Tim Gruber: "It's a different look than what you'd expect from the controlled, Pageant Polly sort of smile. In this age of social media and reality television, they were trying to push the pageant beyond the 'two-hour special.'"

What was most
surprising part for you?
TG: "The amount of work the girls actually dedicated to competing. Jenn and I came in a bit cynically, like, 'Oh, okay, pageant girls — this is gonna be pretty lifeless.' Then, we started to see them as athletes themselves. They were competitors and this was their version of a sporting event."

Jen, what was your reaction, as a woman, to seeing other women place so much emphasis on their appearances?
JA: "I had multiple responses. As a female, when you're looking at these beautiful people all day long, at first it was a little bit overwhelming. These women are so beautiful and there are so many of them. But there's a sadness about putting so much effort into your appearance. You start becoming numb to it — just a bunch of bodies running around."

TG: "The other thing we realized is the idea that we may or may not wear a sash, but in life, we're all competing in some way. As photographers, we enter contests. It's not like we're putting our bodies on display, but we're putting our work out there to be judged. In some ways, even though we're different, we kind of do the same thing with our photography."

Was your ultimate impression positive or negative?
JA: "It went between the two — the human aspect of it, that these are all women who are just realizing they're beautiful — and this sadness of, 'Wow, they are really focusing on appearance.'"

What was the most challenging part of the project?
JA: "They are competitors. They did not have down moments. That's the one thing that we really had to work hard at. We had to gain their trust...They knew how to play the game. They were always on their A-game. To get them in an off moment was really tough."

TG: "They've been programmed by all the other photographers they've been dealing with. Their natural response is to have a big smile, to put their hands on their hips, to have a really striking pose, whereas we wanted them to just ignore us. That was the hardest part."

But I noticed that some of your photos are, as you mentioned, quite different from traditional pageant photos. You show the contestants passed out or gorging on something. When did those happen?
JA: "Every once in awhile, we had people that really trusted us. We weren't trying to make them look bad. We were just trying to show real moments — 'We're taking photos of you guys eating, because we're trying to show that you actually eat.' We had to talk through some of the shots. It also helped being a couple."

TG: "As a male, I obviously wouldn't go into their rooms without somebody else with me. But as a female, Jen could go hang with them in their rooms. It's nice to be a husband-and-wife team in that sense. Jen could go do things that I didn't feel comfortable with."

Ahead, the photographers comment on 28 selected shots.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss California practices walking in front of the judges while the other contestants watch in the background.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Alice Musukwa, Miss Zambia 2010, rests in the back of a boat on Lake Mead during the Miss Universe pageant.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Contestants at Miss Universe are filmed for a Australian Gold promo on the beach in Guaruja, Brazil. The women were driven two hours to the beach to film a 10-second segment for the pageant's telecast.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Contestants at Miss Universe 2010 run back to their rooms before getting ready for their next event. With only 30 minutes to change for a formal event, the women race each other back to the hotel.

"In order to get this far in the pageant need to be competitive and always on your game," Roselie Monte, the contestant supervisor, says of the contestants.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
With only minutes left before the start of the preliminary competition, the contestants race to their places on the stage.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Vanessa Goncalves, Miss Venezuela, applies her own makeup before the Miss Universe pageant. The women were given eight hours to apply makeup and get dressed for the event.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
All 84 contestants in the Miss Universe pageant are on display for the media and paid guests at a hotel function. The women are used to promote the host city, in this case Las Vegas, to an international audience.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Breanne Ponder, Miss Mississippi, dives into a watermelon during the Weird and Wacky talent show. Thirty of the contestants were chosen to show their talent, including Breanne's watermelon eating abilities.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
With hours between rehearsal and the pageant, Miss Utah finds a quiet place to sleep in the theater.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss Maryland cries after not being named to the top 15 during the Miss USA pageant.

"'Everyone said I was going to win," she says, before wiping one of her tears. "I just don't get it.'"
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
With a few hours before the start of the pageant, a contestant sleeps in the hallway.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Taking a deep breath, the contestants gather themselves before walking on stage for the first time.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Rima Fakih, Miss U.S.A., is reflected against the Las Vegas skyline as she poses for a photo to promote the upcoming pageant. The photos caused controversy due to their sexual and risqué nature.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss Universe contestants walk into the water during a trip to one of the islands in the Bahamas during the Miss Universe pageant.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss Finland waits for her turn to introduce herself on stage for the first time during the preliminary competition at Miss Universe.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Mareike Baumgarten Oroa, Miss Paraguay, and Sandra Otohwo, Miss Nigeria, rest in-between photo shoots during their time in the Bahamas. During these three weeks, the contestants have 18-hour days filled with fashion shows, events, and rehearsals.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Anastagia Pierre, Miss Bahamas 2011, prepares to reveal her national costume, which is supposed to reflect their country and their culture or people. For many of the contestants, the costume takes months to make and cost thousands of dollars.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss Universe contestants wave during a photo shoot.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
A contestant attempts a grand entrance on stage during a preview event for the media.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Contestants at Miss Universe listen to instructions backstage during rehearsal.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Contestants pose in front of the judges during a closed-room preliminary competition. These judges decide the top 15 for the final telecast. This is the first time the contestants see the judges — and the first time the judges see the contestants. They are asked to stand for two minutes while the judges critique their physical appearance.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss Idaho is coached backstage on her walk before stepping on to the stage at Miss U.S.A. From the walk to their hair and dress, the contestants have a coach for every portion of the competition.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss New Zealand and Miss Sweden watch Miss U.S.A., Rima Fakih, as she looks into a mirror before going on the stage during rehearsals.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Contestants at Miss Universe including Larisa Popa, Miss Romania, work out in the hotel gym during their hour of free time for the 19-day pageant. Many of the women have been training at least four hours a day for months leading up to the competition. Once they arrive, they are required to work out in their hotel rooms in order to get exercise.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss U.S.A. contestants practice before competing against one another in a hula hoop contest in the hotel's lobby.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
Miss Universe contestants prepare to go on stage before the start of the swimsuit competition during the pageant. Already named to the top 15, the women hope that they advance to the top 10 and the evening gown competition.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
The contestants wait to enter the hotel.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber.
After finding out they were not in the top 15, Miss U.S.A. and Miss Greece console each other backstage.
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