Charlotte Sheffield’s baby-blue bathing suit was on display in an upstairs hallway of the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas. Sheffield herself, 74-years-old and a grandmother of 52 from Salt Lake City, wasn’t actually in the wool suit, but she was sitting nearby, signing autographs. Sheffield, who was crowned the fifth-ever Miss USA in 1957, joined nearly three dozen other former Miss USAs on June 18 to celebrate the contest’s 60th anniversary.
To capture the event, TIME asked Los Angeles-based fine art photographer Susan Anderson, whose work is currently on display in the Annenberg Space for Photography’s Beauty Culture exhibit, to create these exclusive portraits of 31 of the contest’s winners.
The pageant, now owned by Donald Trump and known for far racier swimsuits than Sheffield’s modest get up, has kept the focus firmly on the beauty part of pageantry since its inception in Long Beach, California in 1952. The Miss America contest, on the other hand, prides itself on its talent competition—an element missing from the Miss USA.
This year, the effervescent Sheffield was a big draw for a bevy of Miss Teen USA contestants who lined up for photos and advice. “You’ll have a baby someday and you won’t remember how glamorous you were,” she told one set of teens while she scrawled her name across their program. Then she added: “Hot shoes, baby.” (Once a beauty queen, always a beauty queen.)
Meanwhile, the other “formers,” as they’re called, who range in age from their 70’s to their 20’s, talked about old pageant scandals and discussed the unique pressures of being considered outrageously beautiful–and then having to live up to the title decades later. “My friends want me to get a facelift so that I’ll stay looking the same,” said Sylvia (Hitchcock) Carson, Miss USA 1967. Others feel they still have to prove that they have brains too, while some wonder whether they’ve been courted for themselves or because men want the bragging rights that come with dating a former Miss USA. And then there’s the other thing these women have in common besides their exceptional looks: each of them survived a year of wearing the glittering, metal crown which was heavy enough to press grooves into its wearer’s head even through a bouffant.
The next night, June 19, the formers gathered again to watch another gorgeous young woman, Miss California’s Alyssa Campanella, win the 2011 title and prepare to carry the weight of that crown.
—Text and interviews by Claire Martin
Susan Anderson is a Los Angeles-based commercial, editorial and fine art photographer specializing in fashion, portraiture and conceptual/narrative work. She currently has a book entitled High Glitz, The Extravagant World of Child Beauty Pageants and is in a group exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography.