Miss America Pageant distances itself from 'other' pageants


While Miss USA winners were frantically trying to cling to their crowns last month in the wake of scandals, a collective groan could be heard rising from Miss America fans who felt the guilt by association.

"Nobody knows the difference," said Miss Michigan Angela Corsi, who worries that such out of bounds behavior feeds into stereotypes about pageants. "I think people already have the wrong idea."

But the pageant world, some of which is gathered in Las Vegas for the 2007 Miss America Pageant on Monday, knows the difference.

Miss America is the older, more mature, more substantial of the two, its fans say. There is a talent contest that counts for more than the swimsuit competition. Scholarships are on the line.

Miss USA is judged on an interview and her poise in a swimsuit and evening gown. She is hip, sexy and co-owned by Donald Trump.

In the words of a pageant adage: Miss America is the girl who lives next door, Miss USA is the girl you wish lived next door.

Recently, Miss USA has been the girl who lives on the gossip pages.

Miss USA Tara Conner checked into rehab earlier this month after nearly losing her crown for hard-partying in New York nightclubs. Miss Teen USA Katie Blair was found in the entourage, leading Mothers Against Drunk Driving to drop its affiliation with the 18-year-old.

Miss Nevada USA Katie Rees was dethroned after racy pictures emerged on the Web. Miss New Jersey USA Ashley Harder resigned when she got pregnant.

That was just within the past month.

The scandals have only heightened the rivalry rhetoric with officials in Las Vegas who refer only to that "other" pageant.

"Obviously, Miss America is a scholarship organization, the other organization is really a true beauty pageant. That's not us," said Miss America Organization CEO Art McMaster. "We're really trying to find that complete young lady that's going to represent America."

Miss USA officials did not return a call for comment, though the New York-based organization also claims to be concerned with more than good looks. Its Web site describes its winners as "savvy, goal-oriented and aware" and interested in advancing their careers and the lives of others.

Contestants in the Miss USA Pageant, which began as a swimwear promotion in Long Beach, California, in 1952, pay an entry fee. State pageants are part of the franchise. The Miss USA pageant is to be held March 23 in Los Angeles, and the winner goes on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, also owned by Trump and NBC.

Miss America started as a bathing revue in 1921 to draw tourists to the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and grew into an icon as it added host Bert Parks and crowned such past winners as Bess Myerson, Mary Ann Mobley, Lee Meriwether and Phyllis George who have a firm place in American culture. This year's winner will take home a $50,000 (€38,750) scholarship along with the crown. A network of local pageants in the "system" award thousands more.

The distinction is well-known among the contestants.

"They pay money for looking pretty and walking in a bikini. We get money for being talented and well-rounded," Miss Alaska Stephanie Wonchala said.

There are a handful of aspiring Miss Americas who have competed in both systems, and Miss America is not immune to scandal herself.

Miss America Vanessa Williams' "year of service" was cut short in 1984 when the organization learned she had had previously posed nude. Revealing photos also led to the dethroning of Miss North Carolina 2002 Rebekah Revels.

But the 86-year-old organization is not taking many chances this year, its second in Las Vegas, a city where girls go wild nightly.

In the week leading up the pageant, the 52 contestants were kept to a packed schedule of photo opportunities, rehearsals and preliminary competitions. Though they traveled to Sin City unescorted, while they are competing, they are not allowed to walk alone in public and are monitored and catered to by a busy pack of 26 chaperones.

"We're basically on lockdown," Miss Arkansas Amber Bennett said.

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