Being Miss Maumee Valley

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Pageant Press: It's Not Atlantic City, but Miss America Pageant Adjusts Easily

There has been an abundance of press surrounding the Miss America pageant this year; I have selected to publish this one from the New York Times because of its candid view on the situation. It also includes several great behind-the-scenes photos, click here.

It's Not Atlantic City, but Miss America Pageant Adjusts Easily
Published: January 21, 2006

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 20 - Just as she has every year since 1969, Sally Johnston spent the week taking in the preliminary rounds of the Miss America pageant.

But for all that has been comfortingly familiar - the contestant who chose to pluck a harp for her talent entry (Miss Colorado), the parade of taut, bikini-framed abdomens on display in an early swimsuit round - Ms. Johnston can be forgiven for feeling disoriented this year.

In a gamble meant to draw attention to a televised competition that viewers have steadily tuned out since the advent of the feminist movement (and, more recently, of reality television), pageant organizers have forsaken Atlantic City, the only home it had ever known in its 85-year history, for the Aladdin Resort and Casino here.

While the ultimate test of that decision will lie in the ratings for this year's pageant, to be broadcast live Saturday night on Country Music Television, there are already signs that the move has infused the contest with new life. Each night this week, several thousand tourists have bypassed shows featuring artists like Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil to spend as much as $70 a person to watch the judging of the early rounds of the talent and swimsuit competitions, which count toward the final result. The actual pageant is sold out.

The 52 contestants (including one each from the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia) have mostly been sequestered in the hotel - per Miss America protocol, they usually move in groups of four, with each assigned a minder - but they say they have nonetheless been dazzled by the neon lights visible from their rooms.

"All the room service people, they want to be professional, but at the same time, they wish you good luck," said Alexa Jones, 24, sounding more like Eloise at the Plaza than Miss Alabama. "They know who you are."

For the contestants, the slot machines have been little more than a blur en route to rehearsals in the Aladdin theater with its more than 7,000 seats. If they have stopped at all, it is usually at the request of George Burroughs, 27, who mans the guest services desk at the casino entrance and claims to have met at least 15 contestants. Mr. Burroughs said he had not placed a bet on who might win - per Nevada gaming rules, none of the casinos are permitted to take wagers on the contest - and was torn as to whom he favored.

"I would have to go with the hometown girl, Miss Nevada," said Mr. Burroughs, who had nonetheless decorated his black vest with buttons featuring Misses Utah, Louisiana, South Dakota and Connecticut. "But that Miss California is awfully, awfully pretty."
His enthusiasm notwithstanding, the calculated effort to soak up a little of this city's intoxication with glitz and risk - the song that will open the pageant Saturday night is a remixed version of
Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" - has also come at a price, depriving Ms. Johnston and hundreds of other pageant devotees of nearly every external touchstone they have come to associate with Miss America.

Gone, for example, is Boardwalk Bob, who had sold programs on the night of the pageant for as many years as anyone associated with it could remember. For that matter, there is no Boardwalk, its planks - notorious for catching the high heels of contestants and spectators alike - replaced by the drab sidewalks and scaffolding of the booming Las Vegas Strip.

And, on the morning after Miss America has been crowned, she will not, as had been tradition, wade up to her ankles in the ocean. The closest major body of water probably lies at the base of the dancing fountains of a competing hotel, the Bellagio across the Strip.

"Atlantic City grew up with the pageant, and the pageant grew up with Atlantic City," said Ms. Johnston, who has regularly escorted Miss New Jersey to the pageant as co-executive director of the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation, which administers the state competition. "The people in the hotels - the same bellhops, the same waitresses - were excited to see us every year."

But, she quickly added, "I think it is great for Miss America to make a statement that we are not going to be as complacent as we were."

The move here this year - pageant organizers have not yet decided where next year's will be - was driven largely by financial necessity. In 2004, ABC decided to drop the broadcast, making this year the first time in the pageant's 52-year history as a television event that it will not be shown on a major broadcast network. (While the competition drew a respectable 9.8 million viewers in September 2004, the last time it was staged, that represented a loss of more than half the viewers it had attracted a decade earlier.)

Though CMT, a unit of Viacom, enthusiastically picked up the telecast and marketed it heavily, it could not match what ABC paid for it in its last year (more than $3 million). Among CMT's innovations was to move it from September to January, when it felt it could better promote it.

As a result of a budget deficit - the magnitude of which the Miss America Organization has yet to disclose - the scholarship that will be given to this year's winner has been slashed from $50,000 to $30,000, not enough to cover even a year of tuition, room and board at many colleges or graduate schools.

But for the competitors, neither the change of venue nor the shrunken purse has appeared to diminish their desire to don Miss America's crown.

"My mother told me that for all these years, girls have been coming into our state and taking the crown away," said Julie Robenhymer, 24, of Moorestown, N.J. "She told me, 'You go into someone else's state and bring it back.' "


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