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Each year, 52 women take the stage in Atlantic City to compete for the title of Miss America and earn scholarhip money from the nonprofit organization. The competiton, founded in 1921, includes swimsuit, eveningwear, talent and interview rounds, which have yielded stunning looks, breaktaking performances, heartfelt speeches and fumbled answers. And while only one contestant leaves with the crown, all of the women who've passed through the franchise have made a mark on its legacy. PEOPLE picks the most iconic.
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The only woman on the men's trampoline team at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Ford went on to win the crown in 1968 after being told by pageant officials that her talent was "a little too masculine because Miss America is not supposed to sweat." She remains the only contestant to have used a trampoline during the talent portion.
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In 1983, Williams became the first black woman to win the crown. But two months before her reign ended, she became the first Miss America to resign when men's magazine Penthouse threatened to publish nude photos she had posed for years earlier while working as a photographer’s assistant. "I’ve hit rock bottom," Williams, then 21, told PEOPLE. The actress and singer accepted the opportunity to judge Miss America 2016, where the organization's CEO Sam Haskell offered the actress an on-stage apology.
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Before landing at Fox News in 2005, Carlson served as Miss America 1989. A senior at Stanford University at the time, she earned the crown in part due to her classical violin performance of Pablo de Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen. Two months after leaving Fox, the network gave her $20 million to settle the sexual harassment lawsuit Carlson filed against former chariman Roger Ailes.
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Two days after being crowned Miss America 1992, news leaked that winner Carolyn Sapp's ex-fiancé, former pro football player Nuu Faaola, had previously attacked and nearly killed her. "The thing to understand,” Sapp, then 24, told PEOPLE after taking the title, “is you can be strong and you need to get out.” Sapp gave domestic violence victims a voice during her reign and went on to play herself the TV movie Miss America: Behind the Crown, which detailed her abusive relationships.
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Miss Alabama 1994 — who performed a skilled ballet routine during the talent round— looked to her fellow finalists to learn she'd been crowned the first deaf Miss America. "It's you," first runner-up Cullen Johnson said, pointing to Whitestone. (She started to regain some hearing in 2002, when Whitestone had a cochlear implant operation.)
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After a 50-year drought, Miss Ohio brought ventriloquism to the Miss America stage in 2014 when she and her puppet Roxy sang a rendition of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
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The Syracuse, New York, native incorporated her heritage into the competition, resulting in her crowning as the first Indian-American Miss America. Amidst her 2013 win receiving significant social media backlash —as well as supporters using #StandWithNina online — she launched a campaign called Circles of Unity to promote cultural awareness.
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The milestones continued when Miss Missouri 2016 became Miss America's first openly lesbian contestant. Though she didn't make the Top 15, the University of Central Florida grad won big with LGBTQ fans and organizations like the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Trevor Project, which publically supported her participation. "The LGBT community has gotten completely behind me," O'Flaherty told PEOPLE. "I get messages every day, words of encouragement from total strangers, thanking me just for being visible in this capacity."
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