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Photo courtesy Joe Whiteko
Enlarged image available (23k jpg)

Pageant News Bureau - Miss America

Miss America Pageant
Sept. 14, 1996
Atlantic City, N.J.

Hats off to Kansas!

Tara Dawn Holland, 23, representing Kansas won the Miss America crown Saturday night.

Ms. Holland, the third Miss Kansas to win the title, is a former Miss National Sweetheart from Overland Park, Kan. She competed in the Miss Florida Pageant three times before competing for Miss Kansas.

The first runner-up Saturday night was Erika Schwarz, 24, Miss Louisiana.

The second runner-up was Miss Oregon, Patricia Leines, 24.

Third runner-up was Alison McCreary, 22, Miss Alabama.

Kimberly Massaro, 24, Miss Missouri, was fourth runner-up.

The 10 semifinalists

Thirty-seven minutes into the telecast, the 10 semifinalists in the Miss America Pageant were announced, in the following random order:

  • Miss Louisiana, Erika Schwarz
  • Miss Indiana, Shani Nielsen
  • Miss Missouri, Kimberly Massaro
  • Miss Oregon, Patricia Leines
  • Miss Kentucky, Veronica Duka
  • Miss Alabama, Alison McCreary
  • Miss Mississippi, Kari Litton
  • Miss Hawaii, Melissa Short
  • Miss Texas, Michelle Martinez
  • Miss Kansas, Tara Dawn Holland

Post-pageant reflections

The Miss America Pageant held Sept. 14, 1996, made history in some interesting ways. One was the fact that the contest got the lowest television rating in its history. National pageant officials dismissed this as simply a result of an overall decline in network TV, but it is part of a disturbing trend for Miss America telecasts.

In recent years, the pageant has sought to counter this decline in viewer interest with publicity gimmicks. In 1994, the gimmick was the introduction of bare feet in the swimsuit competition. In 1995, it was a viewer referendum on the swimsuit event itself. The 1996 idea, allowing viewers' phone calls to play a small role in choosing finalists, fell flat.

From the point of view of the Pageant News Bureau, there was an even more serious problem: the refusal of credentials to PNB. This controversy is discussed at length below, in comments written at the height of the disagreement. PNB wishes to thank many members of the media, and many people associated with the vast Miss America system nationwide, who expressed their support for our right to cover the news.

This incident has not made PNB hostile or indifferent to the Miss America system, but it has made us more intent than ever on covering the pageant thoroughly. We believe this is in the best interests of the entire pageant industry.

On a more cheerful note, we are happy to report that PNB's preliminary list of semifinalists proved to be 90 percent accurate. For this, we are grateful to our many news sources. Next year, we will be aiming for a perfect record.

Snapshots from Atlantic City

Photos by Charles Fallis / PNB

Alison McCrearyShea Olliff
Melissa ShortGiGi Gordon
Top left, Alison McCreary, Miss Alabama; top right, Shea Olliff, Miss Georgia;
bottom left, Melissa Short, Miss Hawaii (demonstrates a tropical dance); bottom right, GiGi Gordon, Miss Pennsylvania.

Web censorship
at Miss America

On Monday, Sept. 9, 1996, the Miss America Organization officially declared its intention to restrict the flow of Internet information about the pageant.

MAO had previously refused media credentials to the online Pageant News Bureau, citing an "exclusive agreement" with Pageantry magazine. But Monday's statement by Karen Aarons, executive vice president of MAO, made no mention of any magazine. Instead, it cited the journalistic independence of the Pageant News Bureau as a reason for denial of credentials.

"We prefer the public to go to our Web site ... rather than one that provides information for all pageants," the statement said. It also noted officials' concern that "when our information is placed in the same context as all other pageants, the public does not understand our singular position."

PNB finds the Miss America position "singular" indeed. America's oldest and best-known pageant, which operates as a non-profit organization, is fearful that Internet readers around the world may see something other than the authorized version of its activities.

Many pageants large and small, including Miss Universe Inc., maintain their own sites on the World Wide Web, but they have shown no such fear of independent coverage. PNB will continue to collect and publish information about the Atlantic City contest, but it will be unauthorized.

Readers who are concerned that they might find out too much about the Miss America Pageant and how it operates should read the Miss America Web site exclusively. (See our Pageant Surfing page.) Those who prefer a less controlled view can look to PNB for additional information.

If this censorship of Internet bothers you, email the Miss America organization by clicking here.

"Pageant pulls the shades down" -- Leah Garchik, San Francisco Chronicle

Web watch

Pageant World magazine (see our Pageant Surfing page) is planning a live "Night of Pageantry" on Sept. 14. It may have no official connection to Miss America, but the timing is surely no coincidence.

The mark of zero

Rumors of another tattoo, besides the one on Miss New York, have proved to be unfounded.

Thursday night: Seeing double

It was literally more of the same in the Miss America preliminaries on Night #3. Melissa Short, Miss Hawaii, who won the talent category Tuesday night, walked away this time with swimsuit honors. And Miss Oregon, Patricia Leines, who won the swimsuit preliminary Wednesday, was Thursday night's talent winner, singing the aria "Chacun le sait" from Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment."

These double winners are certain to be strong contenders for the Miss America crown. "In the old days," an insider told PNB, "you could pretty well bet that one of these two would win it all. But now, with celebrity judges, and with the evening gown and interview counting so much, it's harder to tell."

Lucky state

Pageant buffs will note that Thursday was a good night for Oregon: Melissa Short was a Miss Oregon contestant before competing in Hawaii.

Lucky number

Four women have won in the preliminaries, and each of them has competed four times at the state level.

From their own lips

Miss Vermont, Nicole Juvan, 21, said the biggest thrill in Atlantic City has been "singing on that big, big stage."

Miss California, Lyndsay Kahler, 22, said the biggest surprise has been that "everybody is so normal."

Wednesday's winners: Body and soul

On Night #2, Miss Oregon, Patricia Leines, 24, won the swimsuit preliminary. She has the figure of a California girl, and it's no wonder: She was in the Miss California Pageant twice.

Shani Nielsen, Miss Indiana, was something of a surprise winner in the Night #2 talent category, singing "In His Eyes," a Christian song. Ms. Nielsen, 24, is a graduate of Mars Hill College, a Baptist school.

Behind the scenes

Because Miss America contestants have a grueling schedule, they are sometimes allowed to sleep, a few at a time, during the day. A Miss America nap room near the stage area will accommodate more than 10 of them. This chamber of sleeping beauties is one of the most heavily guarded spots in Atlantic City.

With limited opportunities to talk to contestants, come reporters covering the pageant have been interviewing each other.

Michelle Martinez, Miss Texas, says she has grown very fond of the dancers who will be part of the pageant on Saturday night. "The day the dancers got here really brightened things up," she said. "They keep us laughing."

Will she be the first?

Michelle Kang

Enlarged photo available
(16k jpg)

Asian-American participation in the Miss America Pageant goes back to 1948, but no Asian has ever won the crown. By contrast, the first black contestant did not take the stage until the early 1970's, but so far five black women have already worn the Miss America crown. (It's fair to note that blacks are a much larger percentage of the U.S. population than are Asians.)

This year, the only Asian contestant is Michelle Kang, Miss Virginia. She is the daughter of Korean immigrants, and she won her state crown on her first try.

Historically, the most successful Asian competitor at Miss America was Virginia Cha, who was first runner-up in the 1990 pageant. There are some interesting comparisons to be drawn between Ms. Cha and Ms. Kang. Both are of Korean ancestry. Ms. Cha represented Maryland but was named "Virginia." Ms. Kang is representing her home state of Virginia but was born in Maryland. Is it just coincidence? Absolutely.

Two women from four states

Miss Kansas, Tara Dawn Holland, 23, won the swimsuit honors Tuesday night in the opening preliminaries of the Miss America Pageant. Ms. Holland is from Overland Park, Kan., but she has had plenty of practice in swimsuit country: She was first runner-up twice at the Miss Florida Pageant. Insiders tell us she is one to watch.

Miss Hawaii, Melissa Short, 23, won the talent honors Tuesday night, singing the aria "Ah, Je Veux Vivre" from "Romeo and Juliet." It's a favorite of contestants throughout the Miss America system. She is currently from Ka'a'awa, Hawaii, but has also competed twice in the Miss Oregon Pageant.

Making her mark

A little bit of skin has made Tammy Harris, Miss New York, the biggest news generator thus far at the Miss America Pageant. Ms. Harris has confided that she has a pair of ballet slippers tattooed on her lower back. Writers have outdone themselves in coyly identifying the location. Ms. Harris is reportedly the only one of this year's contestants with a tattoo, but this is impossible to verify, even by "authorized" news personnel.

Pageants and politics

U.S. President Bill Clinton is alleged to have had romances with some beauty queens, but that doesn't help him with Miss America contestants. Twenty-two say they plan to vote for Clinton's chief opponent, Bob Dole, while nine support the president. Another 19 are undecided or not disclosing their preferences. Polls of ordinary Americans show Clinton far ahead of Dole.

The power of persistence

Only 11 of this year's 50 Miss America contestants won state titles on their first attempt. One contestant competed in her state contest six times, and some have competed in the finals of more than one state. (Given the mobility of today's women, pageant eligibility rules tend to be liberal.)

A history of numerous state competitions should not be seen as negative. It is, in fact, a sign of extraordinary psychological strength. To come back repeatedly, often losing each time by the thinnest of margins, can be extremely taxing on one's self-confidence. Women who don't give up are to be admired.

STATISTIC - Total state finals that this year's contestants have participated in: 131.

Alison McCreary

Alison McCreary, Miss Alabama,strikes a patriotic pose. Her state gave up the Miss America crown just last year, and she would like to bring it home again.

Enlarged photo available (28k jpg)

What's missing?

The original Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was from Washington, D.C. But the Miss America Organization, despite its stated commitment to tradition, has not sanctioned a D.C. preliminary for years. (The Miss USA Pageant continues to have such a preliminary.)

The status of the District of Columbia, the seat of the U.S.government, is a controversial issue in the United States. The district has sought statehood, but has been rebuffed. District advocates say the reason for this refusal is racial, because most of the district's residents are black.

Amy Duncan

Oklahoma: Defending champion

Amy Duncan, Miss Oklahoma 1996, is using her reign to promote her platform of child abuse prevention and education. She has been a court-appointed special advocate for child abuse victims in her home state, and she has shared the stage with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno at a convention on the issue.

Ms. Duncan wants a national campaign "to show people where to go and what to do if they are affected by child abuse." She got into the Miss America system to promote her cause, and to obtain scholarship money. That strategy has paid off. She will be debt-free when she completes her Master's degree in social work.

Ms. Duncan has competed in comparatively few pageants, but she has been successful in most. She and her mother won a joint pageant title in 1989.

She will perform a song from "Yentl" at the pageant.

- Kristin Ferrier, PNB

Penthouse cover

Enlarged photo available (60k jpg)

The biggest scandal of them all

The September 1984 issue of Penthouse magazine, which hit newsstands in midsummer, forced the resignation of Miss America, Vanessa Williams. Penthouse had acquired nude, sexually explicit photos of Ms. Williams before she won the Miss America crown. In late July, under pressure from Miss America officials, she resigned.

The incident brought at least one former Miss America to tears on national television, and it provoked a media circus that continued until pageant time in September.

Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse, declared that he had nude photos of one of the contestants and would show them to the world if she won. Luckily for pageant officials, the woman who won the crown, Sharlene Wells of Utah, was a Sunday school teacher who played the harp in the talent competition. There was no nudity in her background.

Today, Vanessa Williams is a leading actress and singer, the most successful former Miss America in history. In a 1994 television program authorized by Miss America officials, she was briefly mentioned as "Miss New York 1983."

An extraordinary year

By Kristin Ferrier
Pageant News Bureau

PAULS VALLEY, Okla. -- Shawntel Smith, Miss America 1996, is wrapping up a year full of extraordinary experiences. She has watched the play "Beauty and the Beast" from the box of the president of the United States. She has carried the Olympic Torch as it moved across America toward the Atlanta Games. She has participated with the governor of her home state of Oklahoma in events that commemorated the tragic bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Shawntel SmithBut one thing she recalls feeling "lucky to share" is information that has helped students change their lives. She has traveled to a different state almost every day promoting School To Work, a community-based cooperative project of "business, industry, educators, parents, and students" that prepares young people in school for the transition to the work force.

School to Work is Ms. Smith's "platform," the cause she adopted as part of her quest for the Miss America title. Every one of thousands of contestants in the Miss America sytem has a platform. Ms. Smith, by winning the crown, became the most visible spokesperson School to Work has ever had.

In August, Ms. Smith returned to Okahoma for a School to Work promotion. In Tulsa, she attended the graduation of a class in the Craftsmanship 2000 program, which prepares young people for jobs in manufacturing. Several students said they had once considered dropping out of school altogether, but now they all had jobs waiting for them. Ms. Smith said some of the jobs paid much more than she was offered when she graduated from Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.

Visiting Pauls Valley, Okla., Ms Smith urged local people to get behind School to Work, partly as a way of helping young people identify and focus on potential careers. She recalled that when she worked at the Graduate College of her alma mater, "nine out of 10" students who consulted with her did not have a career planned.

Ms. Smith is a strong advocate of continuing education. One of her slogans is "Learning is K through life." (K is a frequently used American abbreviation for Kindergarten.) One of the high points of her reign, she said, was meeting a woman who was a high school dropout, had three children, was recently divorced and was only 17 years old. What inspired Ms. Smith was the fact that the young woman was planning to return to school.

School to Work was not always Ms. Smith's platform. Until early 1995, she campaigned for self-motivation, which she feels was a natural introduction to her current cause. Self-confidence is essential to building a career, she says.

After she gives up her crown Sept. 14, Ms. Smith will remain in demand as a speaker. She will continue to speak about School to Work, but she will add the topics of self-motivation and Christianity. Her next personal goals are an MBA and then a Ph.D. in education.

Ms. Smith says she was once "torn" about the recent decision to allow audience participation in voting for Miss America. She felt it strange that "anyone sitting in a recliner drinking Kool-Aid or whatever" would have input in such a decision. But she changed her mind after seeing the results of a survey about what Americans look for in a queen. The qualities, in order, were education, values and attractiveness. For Shawntel Smith, that was very convincing.

Miss America archive
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