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Resurrected 'Miss Subways' Beauty Contest to Crown Stunning Straphangers

By Janet Upadhye | September 24, 2012 8:11am | Updated on September 24, 2012 11:13am
Former Miss Subways Angel.
Former Miss Subways Angel.
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Fiona Gardner

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A plan to resurrect New York City’s historic "Miss Subways" contest more than 70 years after the first Big Apple beauty was crowned is on track, thanks to a partnership between Time Out New York and the Transit Museum.

Each month from 1941 until 1976, a woman boasting good looks and brains was chosen to be Miss Subways — the transit-themed version of Miss Universe — with her picture displayed on the walls of subway stations throughout the city.

Some 200 women reigned underground, gracing black-and-white posters that intially stayed up for a month, after model agent John Robert Powers selected the beauties. Later, the posters remained up for six months, with the public ultimately voting on their favorite female straphangers.

The description next to their headshots was short and snappy, featuring information like: "Kay Landing: stewardess for Pan American. Just returned from a jaunt to Africa. Interested in foreign countries and people" — giving a tantalizing tidbit of the woman's life and aspirations for all New York commuters to see.

Time Out New York's redux of the Miss Subways competition was inspired by two contemporary New York women who took it upon themselves to find the former beauty queens and see where life has taken them.

Photographer Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer, a news editor at DNAinfo.com New York, have spent more than five years tracking down Miss Subways, solving the mysteries of what became of the young women with so many hopes for the future.

"Miss Subways is a little-known gem of New York history," Gardner said. "And the women chosen are incredibly inspiring and have lived full and successful lives."

For example, Heide Hafner flew planes in several competitions, Juliette Rose Lee got a Ph.D in physics, and Eleanor Nash Brown became a personal trainer — after rising up from organizing nursery school parents before eventually becoming a chief of staff on Capitol Hill for a New York congressman.

Many of the women said that being Miss Subways provided the boost of confidence they needed to pursue their dreams.

Photographs and interviews with the women who Gardner and Zimmer were able to track down will be displayed in an exhibit at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn starting in October, as well as in a book to be published by Seapoint Press.

This year a new Miss Subways will be crowned, reviving the tradition that honored everyday working women. And, for the first time, men will also be able to compete in the "Mister Subways" contest.

"New Yorkers love the antique, the kitsch, all the things that make up quintessential New York," said Marcia Ely, spokeswoman for the Transit Museum. "This contest is a fun, informal way to flash back to earlier times and remember what makes New York so great."

Time Out will take photos of interested men and women at the Bus Festival on Sunday, Sept. 30. Photos will be shot against the backdrop of a vintage subway car, bringing the old-fashioned look and feel of the contest to today's competition.

After collecting sample photos, 10 finalists will be chosen to compete for votes online from the public. Along with the Mister/Miss Subways title, winners also have the chance to participate in Time Out’s annual "New York's Best Awards."