Miss Subways contest celebrates system and advocates for fixes

Miss Subways is back in 2018 to celebrate — and save — the New York City transit system.

After taking a decades-long hiatus, transit activist Alex Low revived what was once an objectifying beauty pageant last year and transformed it into a zany variety contest that reflects the “weird” side of the city’s underground and focuses on the need for improvements.

The contest, co-organized by the City Reliquary museum, will take place Thursday, Sept. 27 at Littlefield in Brooklyn, and is open to people of all gender identities, looks and sizes.

“Given the chaos of the subways, I thought it was a great time to be not only bringing back a wonderful event such as Miss Subways but using it to channel people’s frustrations in a creative performance,” said Low, who is also a member of the nonprofit advocacy group Riders Alliance. “So really this is a wonderful opportunity for people to express themselves in a creative way in a tribute to New York City’s weird and quirky underground performance scene — but also a rallying cry for the subways.”

Miss Subways March 1959 Ellen Hart Strum, center, at a reunion winners on May 13, 1991.
Miss Subways March 1959 Ellen Hart Strum, center, at a reunion winners on May 13, 1991. Photo Credit: Newsday / Ozier Muhammad

Low championed congestion pricing as a way to bring in new revenue for the MTA and the Miss Subways-supported Fast Forward plan — the authority’s 10-year blueprint for modernizing subway service.

“Every day there is some new horror story from the subway system and we all know some of the main problems,” Low said. “It’s being underfunded and there are sensible solutions to that funding crisis — such as congestion pricing — that need to be employed, and yet there’s a lack of leadership at the state level.”

Potential contestants are already busy crafting subway-themed songs, drag performances and even a video game for the event. They will be judged on their creativity and passion and, like last year, will be quizzed by judges on how they would handle certain subway situations. The panel of judges is still being hashed out, but subway rider and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will be the event’s special guest.

“Miss Subways is a celebration of how unique and quirky the subway system and the people who ride it are, and that for all its flaws it still moves millions of people every day and powers the city we love, which is pretty amazing and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Johnson said in a statement. “The current state of the subway system is so miserable, it’ll be good to have fun with it for one night at least. But after that it’s right back to work trying to fix the damn thing.”

Johnson’s role is still being hashed out, but Low said to “expect something spectacular.”

Even as the subways experience a cascade of delays and dropping ridership amid some of the poorest service performance in decades, applicants for this year’s event cherished the tender moments of humanity and serendipity that the subway system brings to their lives.

“It’s such a communal space that we all rely on,” said Parker MacLure, 25, a government worker and Greenpoint resident who is preparing a drag performance under his amateur persona “Miss Subways.” “All of us, we live in the city, we don’t talk to each other, but then we’re forced to be so close to each other.”

Jessica Delfino, 42, of the F line and the Lower East Side, joked that “even though it’s yucky and smells like pee” the subway “still has that New York City oomph, that grungy charm.”

Delfino, a former subway busker herself, will be tapping into her roots to perform folk songs about the subway on an instrument she calls the “clusterpluck” — a guitar and ukulele that have been taped together with other bells or whistles. As the mother of a two-year-old son, Delfino said she’s inspired by the specific experience that is commuting with a young child.

“Riding the subway pregnant or as a parent — that’s a totally different can of worms,” said Delfino, a comedian and writer who typically performs dirty folk songs. “With a child, people look at you different, react to you different. Some people are really cool and say, ‘Oh you can have my seat!’ and others are, basically, ‘Why did you bring that baby on the train? Couldn’t you have left him somewhere else?’”

“And I actually get it because I feel the same way,” she laughed.

Charli Battersby, 47, a video game designer and screenwriter from Williamsburg who rides the L train, said they would use their platform as Miss Subways to stick up for riders ahead of the L train shutdown. Battersby is designing a video game about the contest and commuting through the subways.

“With the L train going under halfway through the next Miss Subways reign,” Battersby said, “it seems like a good time to have someone here be an advocate for riders — especially since the government and MTA haven’t put out a good plan for when the L train goes down.”

The contestant crowned Miss Subways is expected to take up transit advocacy in some form, through their own creative lens. Last year’s winner, Lisa Levy, filed video blog reports from MTA public hearings, sometimes while wearing her crown.