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Alabama's third Miss America, Deidre Downs of Birmingham, relinquishes her title Saturday.
Courtesy Photo
Alabama's third Miss America, Deidre Downs of Birmingham, relinquishes her title Saturday.

There she is
Once an icon, is Miss America a dying tradition? Miss Alabama 1991: 'I don't think it will ever be the same'

Twenty million-plus once tuned in to see a new queen be crowned. In 2004, under 10 million watched. ABC canceled its coverage, the pageant left Atlantic City, and gimmicks to attract viewers, including a quiz show and casual wear competition, fizzled with fans. Supporters hope CMT coverage, a move to Las Vegas and a return to Bert Parks-era glamour will help revive an 85-year-old institution.

By Barry Sublett
Living Today Editor 340-2448

Attempts to change the image of Miss America may have been the catalyst to its decline in popularity, says Decatur resident Wendy Neuendorf McDougal.

When McDougal became Miss Alabama 1991, contestants were required to wear "official" pageant swimsuits. The community service platform issue was a new concept and "evening wear" replaced "evening gown."

"The three years I competed (for Miss Alabama) were all years of transition on both a state and national level. Little did I know that the very program I loved as a little girl was pulling out trick after trick to change the pageant's image. The result is where we are today — a program that isn't sure in what direction it's headed."

It appears Miss America CEO Art McMaster agrees. When the 2006 production airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on CMT (Charter Channel 52; PCL Channel 60 in Decatur), longtime fans will see the pageant as it used to be. Gone are the civics quiz, casual wear competition and talent face-off between the final two contestants.

"When people see the Miss America pageant, they want to see the Miss America pageant," McMaster told USA Today. "They don't want to see all these games and gimmicks."

For the first time since the 1980s, the 52 contestants (including District of Columbia and Virgin Islands) will don state sashes. The Top 5 will perform their talent, and Miss Congeniality, an honor voted by contestants, will return after a 32-year absence.

The swimsuit competition remains a great debate. While some say that area of exploits women and has no value, others defend it as a way to exhibit physical fitness. Still others say that donning swimsuits carries on tradition because the pageant began as a bathing suit competition.

New venue, new coverage

McDougal and Miss America 1988, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko Wilson, have mixed feelings about the move from network television to cable coverage.

"I'm a little disappointed that we're not on a prime time network," said Wilson. "Miss America has to be televised. I just wish we had more chips at the bargaining table. A lot of us are trying to see who we can tap into and get scholarships from. We used to have seven or eight major sponsors, including Clairol and Coca-Cola, when I was there. I'm not sure what we have now. I don't know of one official sponsor."

McDougal said her initial reaction to CMT coverage was negative, "I will have to say they have done an outstanding job promoting the program."

She isn't as complimentary of the move to Las Vegas from Atlantic City, N.J., where Miss America began in 1921 as a publicity stunt to boost tourism. The program has evolved into the largest source of scholarships from women in the world, awarding more than $45 million annually.

"I was hoping for a new venue that would bring back some of the wholesomeness that has been lost in recent years," she said. "I don't know Las Vegas is the place for that."

Of the many changes Miss America has undergone over the years, McDougal says one positive change has been the creation of community service platforms. Each contestant on the local, state and national level chooses an issue important to her and touts it during her reign.

"It adds much-needed credibility to the pageant and its contestants, showing that these women do truly care about making a difference in their communities," she said.

"I may have unintentionally started the platform issue when I started talking about a nursing shortage and hospice care," said Wilson, a former nurse who says she continues to be a mover and shaker in her hometown of Monroe, Mich., by serving on 13 boards.

"The positive PR resulted in the creation of the platform program and I think that people now tie Miss America as an ambassador to an issue. People remember which Miss America spoke about what issue."

Whether Miss America survives is anyone's guess, McDougal says.

"I don't think it will ever be the same. Too many changes have happened. I won't be sad if it dissolves because in my mind it already has. It's not the pageant I knew and loved years ago. The pageant may be around another 10 or 15 years, but in my heart it will never be Miss America as we once knew and loved."

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