Miss Illinois, Katherine "Kate" Shindle, won the Miss America crown on Saturday night, Sept. 13, 1997. The first runner-up was Miss North Carolina, Michelle Warren, and the second runner-up was Miss Mississippi, Myra Barginear. The third runner-up was Miss Arizona, Stacey Momeyer, and the fourth runner-up was Miss California, Rebekah Keller.
It was a difficult year for the pageant. It tried to reverse years of declining TV viewership by projecting a less innocent image for its contestants, but most of America was not paying attention. The death of Princess Diana gripped the public imagination during the early days of September, the period when Miss America traditionally gets most of its free publicity.
As the curtain was set to go up on the pageant, Miss America officials were talking openly about the need for better TV ratings. This was a startling turnaround: As recently as last year, they had insisted that falling ratings were of no concern to them.
When ratings were released a few days later, the news was encouraging. "Miss America" had shown an 11 percent improvement over the previous year and was the fourth-most-watched program of the week in the United States.
Within hours of Kate Shindle's victory as Miss America, questions were being raised publicly about her family connections. Her father, Gordon Shindle of New Jersey, has served on the board of directors of the Miss America Pageant and has a long-time connection to the event. Shindle took a leave of absence after his daughter won a local preliminary in Illinois, but critics alleged that such action was too little, too late.
Miss America CEO Leonard Horn, after initially insisting that Shindle had handled the issue correctly, blamed him for the controversy. Horn said he would work to tighten rules to prevent even the appearance of impropriety.
The uproar seemed unlikely to cost Ms. Shindle her title, and the criticism was not directed at her personally. But it was clear that the matter would not be forgotten soon.