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'Miss Subways' on display at Transit Museum

It was an ad campaign conceived as eye candy to bring attention to other advertisements in New York's transit system. But the "Meet Miss Subways" beauty contest posters of young New York women and their aspirations quickly evolved into a popular and even groundbreaking fixture that ran for 35 years, from 1941 to 1976.

When photographer Fiona Gardner first learned about it she "immediately wanted to know what happened to all the women."

She searched, and the result is "Meet Miss Subways: New York's Beauty Queens 1941-76," an exhibition at the New York Transit Museum running Oct. 23-March 25, and a companion book of the same name.

The contest reflected an evolving America. When it was launched, World War II already was changing the role of women. From 1952 to 1962, the contest featured schoolteachers, stewardesses and suburban housewives; the next 10 years saw secretaries and airplane pilots.

The first black woman was crowned Miss Subways in 1948 -- long before Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America, in 1984 -- and the first Asian-American woman was honored in 1949.

"It was the first integrated and ethnically diverse beauty contest in America," Gardner said. "I realized I had stumbled on a piece of forgotten New York history."

Her interest was piqued in 2004 after seeing some of the original posters on the walls of Ellen's Stardust Diner in Times Square, whose owner, Ellen Hart Sturm, was crowned Miss Subways in 1959.

The winners' future dreams were listed with their head shots. The first Miss Subways, Mona Freeman, even went on to become a movie star after being discovered by Howard Hughes.

But for most, the subway placard was their only moment in the spotlight, and finding the former winners was not easy.

The contest archives were lost. Many of the women had married and changed names, some moved and others died.

Changing times, including the women's movement, the city's fiscal crisis and rampant graffiti, killed the contest.

With journalist Amy Zimmer, Gardner tracked down 146 Miss Subways poster girls and interviewed 41 in person.

Together, they produced the book, with Gardner taking the women's portraits wearing their Miss Subways sashes.

Marcia Kilpatrick Hocker's dream to study with the Negro Ensemble Company repertory theater came true. She auditioned after becoming Miss Subways in 1975.

Hocker, 65, said by phone from Gresham, Ore., where she now lives, that she wanted to be Miss Subways because she "wanted to be discovered. I wanted to do commercials and be an actress."

She married an American diplomat in 1981 and lived for a time in Colombia and New Zealand. For the past 11 years she's been a DJ at Jazz Radio KMHD in Portland.

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