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PNB - Miss America

Miss America 1999
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Sept. 18, 1999

Heather Renee French
Photo by PNB

On the front lines

Heather Renee French, Miss America 2000, has a platform that departs from those of her recent predecessors. Instead of crusading against a particular disease, she plans to work to help homeless military veterans.

Homelessness is a problem that should never be ignored, whoever the person may be. But broader problems exist for America's veterans. They are steadily being marginalized in the society at large.

World War I veterans are almost gone, and the great multitude of men and women who served in World War II are now elderly. Even Vietnam veterans, the warriors of the "baby boom," like Ms. French's own father, are well into middle age. Veterans' organizations are shrinking, and Veterans Day is less and less observed in corporate America. Crowning moment
Photo by PNB
A confident beginning
Photo by PNB

Today, although the United States intervenes more abroad than at most times in history, it shrinks from bloody combat. It prefers high-tech, "clean" bombardment of distant nations. Wars are still common, still cruel, but fewer Americans serve in them. Perhaps in a generation, veterans will be a truly tiny fraction of the population.

But the world is not a peaceful place, and Americans may yet be called upon to die in great numbers, as people in many lands still do. No nation should ever forget the human cost of war, to victors as well as vanquished. For helping keep that understanding alive, we salute Miss America.

Kentucky has a queen

Heather Renee French, Miss Kentucky, won the Miss America crown on Sept. 18, 1999, in Atlantic City, N.J. She is the first woman from the Bluegrass State ever to win the title.

The first runner-up was Jade Smalls of Illinois, and the second runner-up was Susan Spafford of Pennsylvania. The third runner-up was Keri Schrader of Maryland, and the fourth runner-up was Yanci Yarbrough of Texas.

Other semifinalists were Victoria Paige of New Jersey, Julie Smith of Alabama, Brandy Rhodes of Arkansas, Sylvia Gomes of Connecticut and Mary-Louise Kurey of Wisconsin.

The 2000 Miss America Pageant was faster-paced and less stodgy than contests in recent years. Only the five finalists gave talent performances, and hosts Donny and Marie Osmond did most of the entertaining as well as the interviewing. (In this versatile and talented duo, the pageant may have found its ideal emcees.) Ms. Osmond became the first woman ever to announce the winner. A beautiful field
Photo by PNB

The pageant took full advantage of the uproar it created over eligibility rules. Onstage jokes included references to the purported plan to admit divorced women. It remains unclear if the change actually will take effect.

There was also an effort to wring a bit more controversy out of the swimsuit competition. As each semifinalist posed in her swimsuit, her taped comments about the event were played for the audience. Ms. French was the only one of the 10 to express serious reservations about the swimwear competition, but she also wore the most revealing suit.

Where the boys are

This year's Miss America hopefuls aren't married. None of them has ever been married. But a lot of them are spoken for, and somebody wants us to know that.

The ABC Thursday night special "Miss America Up Close and Personal" was a whirlwind hour, featuring micro-sketches of all the contestants. A viewer of the program could get a sense of how it feels to judge a one-day pageant. "Who was that again? They all seem so much alike!"

The one remarkable aspect of the show was the number of young men in evidence. Some women showed off parents and siblings. But most introduced the viewing audience to boyfriends, and yes, even fiancés. Couples kissed and cuddled for the camera. The Miss America contestants talked more about engagement rings than they did about God, and that's something new.

What's the message here? Heterosexuality? Monogamy? Romance? We don't know, but there's a message somewhere.

Traditionally, "the boyfriend" was the invisible man in the pageant world. A contestant was not to talk about her true love or even acknowledge his existence (especially if she happened to be living with him). A beauty queen, even a scholarship queen, was supposed to be every guy's dream date. That was part of the mystique of being a "Miss."

Perhaps too many women at Miss America are being asked out by nerds. Perhaps pageant competition is being promoted to young girls as a good way to land a man. Or perhaps this was a test of public tolerance by a pageant that is planning to push the social envelope even more.

The only thing we can say with certainty is that boyfriends will never be popular with pageant directors. The trouble that a possessive young Romeo can cause is legendary.

'Somebody deserves a raise'

"They played the media like a subway saxophone. Even PNB took the bait," said a cynical pageant insider. He was marveling at the Miss America Organization's headline-grabbing revelation that divorced women -- and women who have had abortions -- just might soon become eligible to compete for the title.

We don't totally agree with his assessment. Actually, the Pageant News Bureau nibbled very carefully at the "bait" and expressed skepticism at the timing. We are used to Pageant Week gimmicks, and this had all the earmarks. But there is no denying that the change in policy, limited and tentative though it is, has been red meat for the media. Just when it seemed there were no more tricks left to generate controversy and increase viewer interest in Miss America, presto!

The story made newspapers' front pages and had TV anchors behaving as if pageants really do matter. It gave stand-up comedians a little late-summer material, and it infuriated Americans on talk radio. It led some cultural conservatives to call for a boycott of this year's pageant, which is certain to provide at least a mild bump in the ratings.

"Somebody is a genius," said the anonymous cynic. "I can just see them going over a list of things that will stir up the press. 'One of the contestants is really a man.' No, no. 'Former Miss Americas can come back and compete.' No, not quite. 'Divorces and abortions are OK.' Yes, that's it. Brilliant."

Well, it's either brilliant or awfully naive. The strong opposition from state organizations and many other Miss America supporters was perfectly predictable. A real civil war over this issue would wreck the Miss America system. We suspect that the national organization will sue for peace and that the effort to admit previously married women will be shelved. But that will come after the pageant, after millions of people have tuned in to see what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps the rule against abortion truly will fade away. But does it really exist except on paper? No one really knows who has had an abortion. No one really knows who is a virgin. At least, no one should know.

But morals are one thing, marriage is another. Mark our words.

PNB favorites on the Boardwalk

Photos by Arlyne Q. Peters
Miss District of ColumbiaMiss IllinoisMiss ColoradoMiss Arkansas
Miss FloridaMiss ConnecticutMiss HawaiiMiss Pennsylvania
Miss GeorgiaMiss OklahomaMiss Idaho

Revolutionary change or hype?

The Miss America Organization has quietly let it be known that it will no longer prohibit contestants who have been married or have had abortions. The timing of the revelation smacks of the traditional hype of Miss America Week. But the effects could be far-reaching, and revolutionary in the pageant world. The changes would, in particular, open the pageant to millions of divorced women. The organization described the changes as an attempt to avoid legal challenges. The new requirements do not mention such words as "divorce" or "abortion." They simply focus on women's current marital status and prohibit pregnant women or mothers. The new policies have been criticized by some people associated with Miss America, but if they prevail, it will be a demonstration of how much American moral attitudes have changed in the past two generations.

A pageant that's fighting back

American beauty queens are a kind of substitute royalty, and the Miss America Pageant's recent decline is remarkably like that of Britain's House of Windsor. A generation ago, the pageant was an American institution, not always admired but seldom ignored. The televised contest was one of the most watched programs in the nation. Most newspapers, magazines and TV networks limited their pageant coverage to September, to coincide with Miss America festivities.

Today, Miss America's pre-eminence in the pageant world is far more tenuous. Miss USA, its younger, flashier rival, has caught up with it in public profile and viewer interest. Few ordinary people can name the reigning Miss America. The continued decline of the pageant's TV ratings has led some observers to speculate that it may one day fade from network television.

But it won't fade without a fight. And this venerable competition, which has changed often since its birth in the Roaring Twenties, is updating its image yet again. For years, it has emphasized the talent of its contestants and found various ways to apologize for showing them in swimsuits. On Sept. 18, 1999, there will be a little less talent on display, and a little more skin, thanks to a loosening of swimsuit guidelines. The Miss America Pageant will look, in fact, slightly more like Miss USA.

Many Miss America loyalists, particularly in the vast grass roots of the organization, are alarmed at this change. But the decision-makers clearly found it unavoidable. The most frequent criticism of the pageant in recent years was that it had grown dull.

The gray lady of Atlantic City is undergoing a golden makeover, and it may be entering its golden age. It still has the most impressive cadre of volunteers in the pageant world, people who devote countless hours of their time and refuse to acknowledge that any other competition exists. It has an awareness of its history that is wholly admirable. It has a chance to regain the supremacy it has always claimed as its birthright.

Bert Parks (left) and Bernie Wayne
Photo by Joe Whiteko / PNB

Faces from history

This photo of Bert Parks (left) and Bernie Wayne was taken in 1990, the year Parks made his comeback visit to the Miss America Pageant. Both men died in the 1990s, but they remain key figures in pageant lore.

For 25 years, the hokey but likable vaudevillian Parks was the master of ceremonies at Miss America. His face was more familiar to the public than that of any woman who won the pageant.

In 1980, he was fired for being out of step with the times (as indeed he was), and the public reaction was angry but unavailing. He made a late career of hosting other pageants, but none was nearly so prominent as Miss America. He was invited back to the Atlantic City stage for a one-time co-hosting role in 1990. With all his missteps, worse than in his heyday, it was a poignant moment.

Bernie Wayne wrote the pageant's theme song, "There She Is -- Miss America," in the early 1950s, before he had ever seen a pageant. The song soon became a standard, usually warbled by Parks to the tearful new winner. It was not used for a few years in the 1980s because of a contractual dispute. But "There She Is," unlike the unfortunate Parks, was eventually judged too integral to the pageant to be let go. The dispute was settled, and the melody lingers on.

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