She wears a dramatic cloak and a crown that hangs somewhat askew over her 1950s hairdo. She’s the center of attention—when the audience isn’t drooling over the lavish set of china or new gas range she was just gifted by a smiling spokesmodel. A few moments ago she was a mere contestant, telling a hushed audience about her inability to pay for a wheelchair for a child with cerebral palsy. Now, however, she’s Queen for a Day—the star of one of television’s most iconic, and exploitative, shows.

Before there was The Biggest Loser or The Bachelor, Queen for a Day pioneered an early form of reality TV. The show ran from 1945 through 1964, first on the radio, then on television. And for decades, it tantalized audiences with the possibility that consumer goods had the power to heal broken hearts.

Miss Wilhelmina Van Son, 27, elected "Queen for a Day" on the NBC-TV with emcee Jack Bailey. She won a flight to Florida along with an engagement-wedding ring ensemble. Once in Florida, a Navy helicopter would fly her aboard the USS Randolph, an aircraft carrier on which she would meet the 2,500-man crew in hopes of finding a husband. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Miss Wilhelmina Van Son, 27, elected “Queen for a Day” on the NBC-TV with emcee Jack Bailey. She won a flight to Florida along with an engagement-wedding ring ensemble. Once in Florida, a Navy helicopter would fly her aboard the USS Randolph, an aircraft carrier on which she would meet the 2,500-man crew in hopes of finding a husband. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The show’s format was consistent over the years, but the sob stories presented by its contestants were ever-changing. Episodes included stories about handicapped children, grueling housework and family tragedy. For each episode, four pre-screened women were asked to describe their plights in short interviews with the host, Jack Bailey, a former carnival barker and musical theater performer who crowned more than 5,000 women queen during two decades of hosting the television version of the show. They were asked which product would alleviate their suffering—a washing machine, perhaps, to help handle the strain of a large family, or a car to make taking their sick children to the doctor easier.

Contestants were open about their challenges, like a housewife who struggled to put diapers on multiple young children and a mother whose son needed a wheelchair and a special bike for exercise. One contestant told Bailey about a long string of deaths that had afflicted her family. Her request? A vacation.

“I would like to have a vacation because I haven’t had any,” she explained. “I had two handicapped sons. I lost them and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” Bailey’s response was characteristically optimistic. “There is nobody who has had more bad luck than you have,” he said cheerfully. “You must have a wonderful, wonderful spirit.”

VIDEO: Queen For a Day

After hearing the contestants’ tales of woe, the audience voted on which woman was most deserving of the title “queen for a day.” The contestant who received the most claps (measured by an applause meter) was rewarded with a crown, a cape and a rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance.” She was led to a plush throne, where she watched the host and spokesmodels present their new “queen” with big-ticket prizes like washing machines and vacations.

Publicity photo of Jack Bailey, host of the television program Queen for a Day.
Publicity photo of Jack Bailey, host of the television program Queen for a Day.

Queen for a Day was a “misery show,” media studies scholar Marsha F. Cassidy wrote, in which “each contestant vied to tell the most tear-jerking story possible.” But not too tear-jerking: Host Jack Bailey encouraged women not to break down on screen, and producers made sure to avoid selecting contestants with stories of rape, morally questionable stories of divorce or infidelity, or overt abuse. (Occasionally the show made exceptions, as when Holocaust survivor Lili Meier was awarded plastic surgery to remove her tattoo from Auschwitz.)

And it wasn’t the only sad show of its time. A competitor, Strike It Rich, pitted desperate contestants against one another. After telling distressing life stories, contestants answered easy quiz questions for much-needed cash. If they didn’t win the contest, the show opened a “heart line” to viewers who were encouraged to donate money. But though Strike It Rich was almost universally condemned for its exploitation of needy people, Queen for a Day took advantage of its contestants—and its viewers—in a different way.

Nurse assisting mother and father during the Queen for a Day program.  (Credit: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Nurse assisting mother and father during the Queen for a Day program. (Credit: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

“What they really wanted to do was teach women to be good post-war consumers,” says Josh Shepperd, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University. Shepperd, who directs the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force, says that the show was part of a larger movement to ease middle-class, newly suburban women out of factories and back into the home at the end of World War II.

During the war, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and by 1944 the women’s labor force grew by almost half. But once the war ended, women were expected to step aside for men. Instead of jobs, they were offered a new world of almost unfettered consumerism—one in which products were available at last after years of Depression and war.

On radio and the new medium of television, advertisements trained women to purchase newly available products like those integrated into Queen for a Day. As major household consumers, women were revered by industry for their purchasing power, and buying was often construed as an exercise of personal freedom.

Though product placement had been practiced since the early days of film, Queen for a Day took that consumerism one step further, providing down-on-their-luck contestants with products that promised to cure their ailments. “A candidate had to want something we could plug,” said producer Howard Blake, “a stove, a carpet, a plane trip, an artificial leg, a detective agency, a year’s supply of baby food.”

Mothers waiting in line with their children outside the Queen for a Day program.  (Credit:Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Mothers waiting in line with their children outside the Queen for a Day program. (Credit:Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

But the products came with a price. “After being humiliated, [contestants were] provided with objects,” Shepperd. That humiliation—sharing one’s unhappy personal story—served as currency in the world of the TV game show. And it still does: Shepperd says that modern shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which incorporates tales of personal struggle and financial ruin into its home renovation formula, continue Queen for a Day’s tradition of humiliation, personal strife, and consumer comfort.

Exploitative? Yes. But Shepperd notes that the show highlighted women’s stories in an era that often ignored their personal lives. At the time, mainstream media often privileged the tales of men returning from war or featured an idealized housewife—not one who struggled with personal loss. “Otherwise, certain stories may not have been told on television at all,” says Shepperd. “But clearly the women are being humiliated when I watch those old episodes.”

TV shows aren’t the only descendants of Queen for a Day. After all, the Internet was practically built on painful personal essays—raw, confessional writing that exposes people’s darkest secrets. The currency is no longer washing machines and toothpaste—instead, confessors seek internet fame. As long as we’re willing to crown people for their suffering, the silhouette of a sobbing queen will loom large over today’s media landscape.