As the theater lights dimmed and attention turned to the stage, a pigeon, a mouse and a few trains strutted into the spotlight one by one, each taking turns to answer questions about a New York City subway line.

At Coney Island’s Sideshow by Seashore Theater, the long-standing freak show space located just across the street from a transit terminal still bearing on its facade the letters “BMT LINES”, eight contestants in elaborate costumes on Friday night vied for the title of Miss Subways 2024 — a pageant that owes its provenance to a scheme by the New York Subways Advertising Company in 1941 to boost ad revenue a year after the previously private Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit and another competing system became part of a unified public subway system.

Much like the way popular pin-up girls captivated World War II soldiers at the time, the alluring, girl-next-car images of Miss Subways were meant to make riders look up at advertising flanking the beauty queens. For almost every month until the 1960s, a new winner would be hand-picked by an influential modeling agent named John Robert Powers. And until the contest died off in 1976, a poster bearing a short blurb of each woman’s aspirations and her portrait was plastered inside countless subway cars.

“This was probably one of those things where the winner had to kiss the MTA president’s cheeks and stuff like that for a photo,” said Derrick Holmes, a digital strategist at the transit advocacy organization Riders Alliance and one of five judges this year for the latest version of the pageant.

Today’s Miss Subways pageant — resurrected by the City Reliquary museum in 2017 — challenges the male gaze altogether. While Miss Subways of yore pushed conventions of the time as the first racially integrated beauty contest in the country, now it questions traditional definitions of femininity and opens itself to people of all genders and body types.

Participants in the competition’s new age have included burlesque dancers, drag performers and strippers, as well as comedians, singers and cosplayers expressing their passions for and complaints about the subway. Contestants in the pageant’s new iteration also represent a subway line of their choice.

“Today’s version of it, it’s more democratic,” said City Reliquary founder and president Dave Herman, noting that the pageant is not officially affiliated with the MTA. “Some people can interpret it as campiness, and sometimes we get contestants up there that are so completely sincere that you drop your guard completely.”

Mean Lady Tiff representing the R Train puts the finishing touches on her makeup backstage.
Mean Lady Tiff representing the R Train puts the finishing touches on her makeup backstage. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY / THE CITY

Meanwhile, replacing the subway posters of the bygone era as the pageant’s prize is a handmade ‘transit tiara,’ which this year is decorated with logos of the subway lines and a glittery rat dragging a slice of margherita pizza.

“We want to encourage the individual voice, and how they choose to present themselves,” Herman said. “And we think that gives the most honest presentation of the ridership.”

Subway Shenanigans

As the sun set on Coney Island, Christine Stoddard took the stage with a rat-calling act, attempting to summon a man in a rat costume first with chirping sounds, then with a song and a pizza. Sally Ann Hall, a cabaret singer dressed up as a newly impoverished marquees–turned–M train rider, took the stage next, belting a song with lyrics reflecting her real-life experiences on the train, including a time when a man had complimented her “beautiful eyes” before asking whether he could have one of them.

Sally Ann Hall, competing as Miss Subway "M" practices her expression in the dressing room mirror. Sally Ann Hall wears a green sequin gown with an orange M for her train while the other contestants get ready around her.
Sally Ann Hall, competing as Miss Subway “M” practices her expression in the dressing room mirror. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY / THE CITY

A puppetry act, a stand-up set, and a pigeon dance followed before Tiffany Martinez, 29, stepped onto the stage, turning her back against the audience in a shimmery silver dress as she counted down to her big moment.

It was the 29-year-old’s first public performance as a singer in seven years, after her lifelong dream to become an opera singer was cut short by throat cancer at 22 years old. She struggled to speak for two years after that, and only started to regain her singing voice about a year and a half ago.

“Not only was it a feeling of like, my body betrayed me, I also felt like I lost a big chunk of myself,” Martinez said, speaking to THE CITY two days before the pageant. “I think that's why I'm getting so much enjoyment from doing Miss Subways. I'm just like, ‘Oh my god, I get to do this again?’”

Miss Subway contestant Tiffany Martinez poses for a portrait on an R train.
Miss Subway contestant Tiffany Martinez is repping the R train, May 29, 2024. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The native of Woodside, Queens turned to the audience as the backtrack of a Marc Anthony song commenced. Riffing off the lyrics of “You Sang To Me,” Martinez performed “You Transport Me” — which paid tribute to the R train that took her from home to school daily as a child. She joked about how the smells are “awful and make me insane,” while also taking jabs at the OMNY payment system and the lack of bathrooms in subway stations.

The backtrack soon transitioned to a tape of Donald Trump’s voice. Next, Martinez, cosplaying as the R Train, pulled out a plastic rat dressed as the former President from underneath her skirt, and tossed it onto the ground before kicking it vigorously. The punchline was clear: The R train has hit Donald Trump.

“I want to keep the camp going, and I kind of want it to turn into something that's in your face,” Martinez said, describing her vision for the act two days before the show. “In a way it’s kind of like left, funky Americana.”

Speaking to THE CITY the day before the pageant, Holmes said he would be looking for a winner in someone who dares to challenge the subway system to be better.

“I'm really looking for someone who loves and appreciates the subway, but is also able to give it some tough love,” Holmes said.

Tough Love

The pageant is now a far cry from the original contest, whose participants didn’t get to convey much about themselves directly to the public — let alone their thoughts on subway culture and politics.

For the most part, the 20th Century version of the contest took place behind closed doors without any public pageantry. Whatever the public knew about the women came from the posters, with that information selected for the pageant's first two decades by Powers, whose signature and description of the winners completed every Miss Subways poster up until 1960.

Miss Subways had nonetheless been successful in catapulting many women and their career accomplishments into the spotlight, said 82-year-old Ellen Hart, who held the title from March to April 1959. But, she added, the contest had not been the same kind of political platform it has morphed into to today.

“People didn’t express themselves the way they do today, and some have the right to do that — they do have legitimate complaints,” Hart, now the owner of Ellen’s Stardust Diner, told THE CITY. “I feel that back in the day, you didn’t have the concerns you might have today… In a way, you wish life was a little simpler.”

These days, between news about fare hikes, National Guard soldiers in stations, and the policing of fare evaders, homeless riders and migrant vendors, criticism of the subway system has found its way into the pageant.

“Nowadays, a big part of our processes involve their own opinions of the subway themselves,” Herman said, referring to the contestants. “If they’re gonna represent the subway, then they want to be able to speak their part. We're not going to ask someone to get up and say, like, ‘I'm a representative of the New York City subways,’ but you gotta keep your mouth shut and say exactly what the subway system wants.”

For example, Julia Schemmer, a 27-year-old Broadway production assistant and contestant representing the J train, said she worried about how her father, who has Parkinson’s Disease, would navigate the city if he were to ever visit from California given the lack of accessible amenities in stations.

Hall, the 34-year-old cabaret singer representing the M train, said she was once ticketed for jumping the turnstile, and lamented that police officers often seem more concerned with entrapping fare-beaters than discouraging more consequential crimes.

“Do you believe solving fare evasion should be treated primarily as a criminal issue or as a transit affordability issue?” Holmes asked the singer during the interview round.

“I think the subway should be free,” Hall responded to roaring applause from the crowd.

Passing a pack of five uniformed police officers inside the Borough Hall subway station in Downtown Brooklyn two days prior to the pageant, burlesque dancer Queerly Femmetastic also criticized the increased police presence she’s seen in the system.

“This many cops is abnormal and unnecessary and, frankly, ridiculous. It's a stupid waste of money,” Femmetastic said. “Most of what I see the cops doing at any given point in time isn't helping. It's harassing houseless people, it's giving someone a ticket for having their foot on a chair next to them and sleeping on the way home from work.

“But the subway is supposed to be a great equalizer,” she added.

Queerly Femmetastic gives a big smile on a subway platform.
Queerly Femmetastic is repping the A train the Miss Subway pageant, May 29, 2024. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Part of her pageant act and philosophy as a burlesque dancer, she said, mirrors her belief in what Miss Subways should stand for: Reclaiming public spaces for people including those who may not fall into conventional definitions of social acceptability.

Hart, for her part, said she is glad to hear that people are embracing their identities in the new pageant. Though, she said she is not much interested in attending one of the shows.

Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY

“I think it's a totally different contest, and I don't think that we want to connect the old version of it to a newer version,” Hart said. “I think we have to keep our history the way it was. This ended in 1976 and it had its era.”

Full-Circle Moment

As the clock was about to strike 9 p.m. in Coney Island Friday night, Femmetastic sashayed her way to the center of the stage as the last act of the talent portion, dressed in a gown in the royal-blue shade of the A train logo.

Femmetastic sang a rendition of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Take the A Train” — which in its original lyrics nodded to those from Brooklyn who “must take the A train to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem.” As service commenced in 1932, the 35-year-old explained, the A train connected Caribbean immigrants who had started settling in Bed-Stuy during the Great Depression to the African American community up in Harlem.

Her own great-grandmother had bought a brownstone located off of Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue A train station in the 1950s, she added, after immigrating from Barbados a decade earlier. Three generations of her family lived in that house before they sold it a few years ago.

Femmetastic’s updated “Take the A Train” lyrics pointed to how gentrification has reversed the flow: “You must take the A train to get out of Harlem and come to Brooklyn because that’s where all the parties are now,” Femmetastic sang, joking between scatting and whistle notes that “you must take the A train before it stops running express, damn it, after 11 p.m.”

Sarah Vaughan’s slower, more sultry version of the song played next, as the burlesque dancer began stripping off her clothes and accessories. First she tossed away her rainbow boa, then her headband, which had a small replica of the A train glued on. Then she slipped out of her blue gown and white gloves, revealing her royal blue bedazzled bra before that, too, was removed to show off pasties in the shape of the A train logo.

Thunderous cheers followed as each item came off — foreshadowing that the crowd favorite would go on to win this year’s title at the end of the night.

Queerly Femmetastic is crowned winner by last years Miss Subway.
Queerly Femmetastic is crowned winner by last years Miss Subway. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY / THE CITY

As the burlesque dancer was crowned with the transit tiara and the contestants retreated back into the dressing room, Femmetastic spoke of her late grandmother, a train aficionado who sewed subway tokens into Femmetastic’s school uniform and first told her about Miss Subways as she inquired about beauty pageants as a 10-year-old.

“Listen, we’re gonna go pour one out for my grandma, actually,” said Femmetastic, who was now packing her costume into a suitcase to take home on the Q train then the 4. “Although she would’ve been like, ‘stripping?’ she would have been excited about the crown — the winning part.”