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This just in . . .
The United States has come to the defense of a journalist and former Miss America contestant who has been sentenced to prison in Iran for spying. Roxana Saberi, who was Miss North Dakota in the 1997 Miss America Pageant and is partly of Iranian descent, has reported from the Islamic Republic for a number of years. The U.S. government says Ms. Saberi has never been a spy, and it is demanding her release.

December 2008 and January 2009 was a time of turmoil and tragedy in the pageant world. Mexican beauty queen Laura Zuniga, 23, was stripped of her Bolivian-based Hispanoamerican Queen crown after being arrested along with seven men in a truck filled with firearms. The arrest led to charges that she is the longtime girlfriend of a Mexican druglord. Ms. Zuniga retained her Mexican state crown of Miss Sinaloa pending the investigation. As a runner-up in the Miss Mexico Pageant in 2008, she was scheduled to compete at Miss International 2009. Meanwhile, Miss Iraq 2002, Anisa Abdi, was jailed in Hong Kong, accused of investing money from firms in Kenya and Hong Kong.

On a sad note, popular Brazilian beauty queen Mariana Bridi died Jan. 24 after contracting a mysterious, fast-acting urinary infection that spread throughout her body and resisted all antibiotics. Doctors had amputated her hands and feet in a vain attempt to save her. They described her as having a remarkable will to live to have survived so long. Ms. Bridi had been a Brazil Miss World finalist more than once, and her other pageant accomplishments including Face of the Universe at a pageant in Ghana and "Best in Swimsuit" at Miss Bikini International in China. She had fallen ill just as her modeling career was beginning to take off.

On Oct. 29, 2008, the Supreme Court of Chile upheld a judgment against a journalist for libeling a former Miss Universe. Victor Gutierrez claimed in 2001 that the former Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco of Chile, was having an affair with a writer while engaged to former Argentine President Carlos Menem. She denied it. She and Menem later married but are now moving toward a divorce.

Evelyn Ay Sempier, who was Miss America 1954, died on Oct. 19, 2008. As Evelyn Ay, she was crowned Miss America while representing Pennsylvania. She was the last Miss America crowned before the pageant was televised.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was chosen by Republican Sen. John McCain to be the party's 2008 vice presidential candidate, is a former Miss Wasilla who competed in the Miss Alaska (America) Pageant. That makes her the most politically successful pageant veteran in U.S. history.

Jessica Huntington, Miss Georgia Teen American Queen 2008 and second runner-up at nationals, is the new cover girl for Short Hair Showcase magazine. She was the 2008 cover girl for the Riva Designs satin line and has appeared in Seventeen Prom, Teen Prom, Riva, and Johnathan Kayne publications.

Former beauty queen and PNB cover girl Amy Robach, now of NBC News, will anchor the "The NBC Nightly News" on Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, 2008, while regular anchor Brian Williams is away.

On July 9, 2008, authorities in Boulder, Colo., declared that DNA evidence had cleared John and Patsy Ramsey in the slaying of their 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet. The crime remains unsolved. The slaying of the child in the family's Colorado home on Dec. 26, 1996, created a media firestorm. Pictures of JonBenet performing in child pageants created the impression that such competitions sexualized young girls and that the parents of contestants were child abusers. Bizarre theories focusing on the parents became commonplace, many stressing the fact that Patsy Ramsey, who died in 2006, had once competed at Miss America. The family was vilified for years. Interestingly, no evidence of scandals in child pageants emerged as a result of the intense scrutiny. "This case was a horror for the family," said journalist Gerdeen Dyer, founder of www.pageant.com, "but it was also an enormous blow to the pageant business in America. Its impact on public opinion has been lasting."

Elyse Umemoto, who as Miss Washington was the second runner-up the 2008 Miss America Pageant, ran into an embarrassing situation in July 2008 when pictures of her making various kinds of obscene gestures at a party surfaced on the Internet. Ms. Umemoto apologized, saying she was clowning at a private party and regretted that the pictures had become public. Miss Washington officials, saying it was basically a lapse in judgment by a good person, said there would be no punishment.

Miss America 2008, Kirsten Haglund, has been selected by the Detroit News as one of the Michiganians of the Year. The award is given annually to recognize outstanding Michigan citizens and their contributions to society.

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