Beauty queen-turned-political journalist, Taylor Marsh, won Miss Missouri of 1974, and she did it to get the hell out of the state. After competing in Miss America, she went from issuing answers to relationship questions between the personal ads for LA Weekly to presiding over a softcore adult site that earned her the title, ‘the Hugh Hefner of politics,’ from The New Republic. Marsh (real name Michelle Marshall) quit over a photo of a stripper in a playground during the day. “I thought it was content that crossed a line. I walked out period. That was it,” she says.
Her first book, The Hillary Effect, follows sexism in the media and the spillover influence that Clinton’s run exercised over the culture, even when it ended. On her own site, Marsh is a fierce mouthpiece for big picture feminism. But now she’s promoting her new book: The Sexual Education of a Beauty Queen. Talking to her about the politically-minded read is like listening to a spunky women’s studies teacher who knows how to nail all the sound bites. She’s sharp. Here, she coughed up details from her own experience as a onetime mistress, gender politics, and why women can use everything to get what they want, even a beauty pageant.
Let’s start talking about the pageant. You ran for Miss America the year of the NOW protest. A protester asked you, “How can you demean yourself like this?” and your answer was, “You pay for my college tuition.” What’s really behind her opinion?
That is a feminist I understand. I know what she’s saying, but it’s the same thing that happened yesterday. The Daily Beast ran a story about beauty queens who strut around in bikini. I mean, how much time do you have? Do you think any of the girls, if given a choice, would do this? Miss America, off the top gets 50 grand. The girls I met… they come from poor families. A lot of the girls I met way back when already had a career. They won out, they won a better life. One of the things that’s tremendously controversial is that people make rules that are hard and fast for women and you forget the overarching theme of feminism. In my opinion, it’s to get what you want and to be able to make any choice to get that.
So why are people so judgmental?
People often have this opinion when they feel they can’t compete. It’s all about, “how dare you use your body to get you want? You’re devaluing yourself because you’re not just using your mind.” Well, my immediate reaction is “fuck you!” I’m going to use ALL I’ve got, and if you think this is threatening, then it’s an asset to somebody. I was just always of the opinion that I wanted to get out of Missouri. And I was going to use whatever I had. If it was a beauty pageant, fine. I wasn’t using my brain. It doesn’t mean I’m less of a feminist. I’m trying to get what I want. It’s nobody else’s business, and it upped my bookings. Every acting gig I went for, they’d say, “oh you were in the Miss America,” and I always had a quip about it. When she confronted me, it seemed so silly because it was all about the bathing suits. They never considered scholarships.
Are pageant skills useful elsewhere?
Honestly, life is a beauty pageant. That’s really what it’s about — “can you communicate?” Look at Barack Obama. Even him. What bigger beauty pageant is there than the United States presidency? That’s a major beauty pageant… and the beauty pageant is very political. It’s about buying. There were always the states that were successful. Texas was going to get in the top 10 all the time. To say it wasn’t political is nonsense. This is a microcosm of what girls face, not so much anymore. We have more access to education. But it doesn’t hurt if you have charm. You don’t have to be the best looking. I wasn’t.
So the women that you were actually competing with, I’m guessing you got along like gangbusters?
Wonderful. We did this bus tour and had this wonderful time. They’re great girls, all of the ones I interacted with, with the exception of a couple of them. They were singers or they wanted to be doctors. They were ambitious and they were happy at the opportunity.
In your book, you show how the world is more hospitable to women in some cases. Was there a personal moment when you felt women were being treated differently?
It’s a gradual thing. I don’t want to sound like I’m personally plugging my book The Hillary Effect, but that was what it was all about for me. I really think that her run in 2007 and 2008 for the presidency was a seminal moment in politics in gender politics.
Do you think you share a kinship with her?
We have a similar cackle…it’s an unbounded laugh cackle. It’s not a guffaw. It’s a boisterous, from-the-diaphragm laugh.
You wrote that, “any feminist ideal that obliterates one for the other is doomed. We cannot do it and survive whole, because we are most vital in that collision.” Can you elaborate on what that means for young women?
People think feminism is negative. It’s actually what’s making relationships work. With a lot of the popular feminist writing today, there is this feminist “handbook” mentality that I think is not at the heart younger generations are about. The word is a bad word because they can’t make it their own. It doesn’t have to be within parameters.
So in your writing, what issues do you feel you truly own?
I don’t think anybody has a better handle on politics of gender, particularly on Hillary Clinton. That’s a subject I think I own. It’s not just politics of gender because when you’re talking about men or women it’s always sex. That’s always there.
You wrote that you had one the more perhaps political part of liberation down, but not the sexual liberation, which made me wonder what made you focus on what you did.
It’s all of a piece. It’s just a matter of what is evolving at the time in your life. It’s never that one thing is more important than the other. Every person has to learn the truth about themselves. You would like to do one thing at a time life doesn’t work that way. Life is a party. It just happens. It’s just noise and cocktails and craziness. It’s all of a piece.
You called yourself a mistress. What was your experience like?
I had a relationship with a married man. He had a very separate part of his life. He was a high roller, a Wall Street guy. He was very interesting; older than I was. It was from May to December, and it was a lot of fun. We both knew what we wanted. It was convenient and fun. He was worldly. He had no small children at home. Nobody knew about it, except my family knew because I didn’t care if they approved. I doubt they did. I never did things for anyone’s approval. I didn’t go seeking it. I wouldn’t suggest it. It’s not for the faint of heart. There are web sites that do arrangements and it’s all delineated.
This book is full of stuff from women’s liberation to modern feminists because of your career, but it’s also relationship advice. What was the most valuable lesson in your own sexual education?
That when you meet a person, it’s better not to have a checklist when you’re looking for a mate. I think that is really the most valuable thing. It is more about putting yourself out there and allowing different people to come into your life. You can love two people at the same time. Having sex with two different men at the same time, multiple partners, can be fun if you’re safe, and if you care about these people.
Have you ever had that?
I’ve never had, well, I had that a couple times, almost exclusively my relationships have been interactions. But having two men at your beck and call is terribly invigorating. I came from a conservative family, and you don’t do that. That’s just not what you do. It was just an understanding. But I was not going to have children, and I was not going to be married. I think that’s the second lesson sexually.
You’re married now though. And you seem to know yourself better than most people.
Taking your clothes off with a man, you learn more about yourself than any single thing you do in life or whoever your partner is. If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, really being willing to get naked not worrying about anything else is really the most profound liberating thing you can do. You cannot get married to that person unless that has first happened.
Photos via: Taylor Marsh LLC.