One wouldn’t intuitively put U.S. nuclear tests and pin-up girls together, but the two share a little-known history in the barren deserts of Nevada. While thousands of soldiers trudged around the infamous Nevada testing site, women sashayed into the nuclear narrative by way of beauty shows to help maintain American morale. Women and nukes is a weird pairing, but an essential one at the time; showgirl glamour became a means to cope with the existence of new deadly arsenals in America’s backyard.
It was the 50s and American culture collided with nuclear phenomena, face first. The televised airing of a nuclear tests and emergency preparedness PSAs were but a few ways Americans faced a hard truth: nuclear weapons are here to stay – we have them, our enemies have them, and the possibility of nuclear war is a fact of life. But instead of spawning fear, nukes became the source of a strange culture craze, giving way to clocks and tablecloths embroidered with atoms (the now kitsch “atomic-style”), cocktail parties atop mountains for a premier viewing of nuclear tests, and the emergence of pin-up girls named “Miss Atomic Bomb.”
We don’t know much about these flashy ladies except that they were Copa showgirls who happily donned mushroom clouds while playing their part. According to the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) guide, the first known Miss A-bomb is Candyce King (1952) and the last is Lee A. Merlin (1957). Despite the bronze sculptures commemorating their service, both remain a mystery.
I was particularly struck by Miss-Cue (1955 – named after Operation Cue during the Operation Teapot series) who was crowned by U.S. army personnel at the test site. The photograph speaks volumes: a bunch of guys smiling while a woman balances a replica of a deadly cloud on her head while wearing heels. She’s obviously the one with the hardest job. I couldn’t help but reflect on the jarring juxtaposition of beauty and destruction. Somehow she transforms that cloud on her head into novelty and takes us far away from the hard-hitting impact of nuclear weapons on American security. And it’s interesting to think that in a male-dominated trade at that time, it was the woman’s place to bear the burden of having a nuke on her head and making it dazzle.