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Miss Subways returns after four decades with quirky contestants

Drag queens, mermaids and comedians from every walk of life are vying to be the next Miss Subways.

The honorary title, once given to female subway straphangers by New York Subways Advertising, is being resurrected after four decades and could go to any one of 15 New Yorkers who will take the stage to wow four celebrity judges, including actress Janeane Garofalo, with song, dance and spoken word while wearing unique costumes.

Garofalo will be joined by NY1 reporter Roger Clark, artist the Rev. Jen Miller and writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston in selecting the one who most embodies the updated concept of Miss Subway -- someone who is sassy, humorous but has serious talent, according to Sarah Celentano, the assistant director of the City Reliquary Museum, which is hosting the event.

Alex Low, an organizer and member of the Riders Alliance, which will get a portion of the proceeds, said it will be a "celebration of self-expression."

"This is going to be bonkers,” Low said. "There will be a whole array of different types of people and performances -- everybody expressing themselves."

Round one will feature contestants' performances, and round two will include improvisation and a Q&A with the judges.

A banjo player, baton twirler, vaudeville singer, New York Times correspondent, psychic, comedian and writer are among those competing.

The event, billed as "a call to arms for advocates and lovers" of the underground with "a wink and a nod" to the former pageant, is expected to be a sounding board for subway frustrations, which is why the organizers haven't gotten the MTA to back it, they said.

"The subway's performance is terrible compared to other cities," Low added. "This is our way of bringing attention to these issues."

The MTA said that while it is not involved with the competition, "we wish the contestants the best of luck."

Miss Subways celebrated diversity early on

Between 1941 and 1976, the New York Subways
Photo Credit: Newsday / Ozier Muhammad

Between 1941 and 1976, the New York Subways Advertising agency and the John Robert Powers modeling agency would choose a woman as Miss Subways and her headshot and a blurb about her life would be displayed in subway cars for a month next to ads for the Bowery Savings Bank and Preparation H.

Unlike Miss America at the time, Miss Subways targeted diverse and everyday women. It wasn't common to see a minority woman in a subway ad, but the pageant featured African-American and Asian-American women.

Some of the women received more attention after they were crowned -- getting marriage proposals, interviews and some went on to win more competitions, according to articles in Newsday at the time.

The pageant stopped in 1976 after it fell out of fashion and lost social significance, the Times reported in 1983.

More than 200 women were crowned during its run.

In 1991, Ellen Hart Strum (pictured in the center), the former Miss Subways March 1959, hosted a Miss Subways reunion at her restaurant, Uptown. Pictured to the left of Strum is Heide Hafner, the last Miss Subways (September 1976), and pictured to her right is Edith Fagan, the earliest Miss Subways present at this reunion (March 1943).

In 2004, the New York Post and the MTA revived the title once more, called "Ms. Subways," for just that year and a voting contest determined actress Caroline Sanchez-Bernat won. Her poster appeared in cars with subway safety tips, another Times article noted.

Here's a look at two current Miss Subways contestants:

Laura von Holt, mermaid

Age: 37 Neighborhood: SoHo Profession: Writer, runs
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

Age: 37

Neighborhood: SoHo

Profession: Writer, runs "Mermaid Podcast" and calls herself a "triple threat."

Quote: "Mermaids are just cool."

This Hawaii transplant has lived in SoHo for the past 15 years. Von Holt says she's into mermaids, writes mermaid romance novels and interviews professional mermaids on her podcast. Of course she'd take her passion on to the Miss Subways stage -- she'll perform Sally Fields' monologue from "Steel Magnolias" while holding two Shake Weights and wearing a bright pink fin over her legs.

See a clip of her performance here.

This mermaid's favorite subway line is the Second Avenue Subway because "like me, it's half myth." She felt "very cosmopolitan" the first time she rode the train with her parents and typically hops on the R.

Glace Chase, drag queen tour guide

Age: 28 Neighborhood: Williamsburg Profession: Tour guide, comedian
Photo Credit: Glace Chace

Age: 28

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

Profession: Tour guide, comedian and entertainer

Quote: "I think this is the most significant thing to happen to New York City since the Anthony Weiner sentencing."

When she's not performing cabaret shows, Glace Chase gives tours of each stop along the L train line and says her mission while guiding is to help people find a man.

"There's so much life in the subway and we spend so much time underground that it's hard to focus on the important things like finding a husband," she said.

For her performance, she plans on singing Sheena Easton's "(My Baby Takes The) Morning Train" and giving a taste of the L train tour. She'll be wearing a dress made of subway maps that she'll make herself, even though she doesn't sew, she said.

"This needs to be a thing," she said of the contest. "I need to be the face. I think the subway system needs an ambassador who presents old time values with modern flare, who's an entrepreneur, a business woman, and a sex object to which I qualify."

See her perform at Bushwig here.

Miss Subways Extravaganza will take place on Thursday at 7 p.m., at the City Reliquary, 370 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn. Tickets range from $20 to $60. For more information, visit cityreliquary.org.

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