Cover Story

Bye-bye, Miss American pie

As liberal cultural forces tug at the historic Miss America contest, some beauty queens say many pageants prefer that contestants abstain from having abstinence platforms

Issue: "The narrow runway," Oct. 14, 2000

It's that time again-time for 51 contestants to don glitzy evening gowns and alluring swimsuits at the Oct. 14 Miss America pageant, eliciting feminist outrage and equally passionate pageant pride. But the pageant experience also brings mixed reviews from 25-year-old Mary-Louise Kurey, last year's Miss Wisconsin, who placed among the top 10 finalists in 1999.

She recalled the moment that some 30 Miss America candidates gathered for spontaneous prayer minutes before curtain time. As voluntary prayer began to flow, so did the tears. "We had mascara streaming down our faces and in 45 minutes we would be seen on national television," she said, laughing. That's her favorite memory.

She has others that aren't so fond. She remembered when state pageant directors told her that the national Miss America organization did not want her "Sexual Abstinence Through Character Development" platform at the national competition. (Each candidate is required to present a "platform," some idea or program that she supports.)

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State directors presented her with a choice: "They said, 'If you want you can change your platform to character education and just let abstinence be a part of it.... It will be much more politically correct and palatable to the [national] organization.' And then they said, 'But if you don't want to, we stand behind you 100 percent.'

"I thought about it for like two seconds and said no," Miss Kurey told WORLD. But the pressure continued. "It was pretty much clear to me that they did not appreciate my platform," she said. Ultimately, comments about abstinence were edited out of the "Up Close & Personal" video she made for the national competition.

State pageant directors say much of the pressure against abstinence platforms is subtle. National directors "never said they would prefer another one," Wisconsin's pageant director Sue Captain told WORLD. "That's just the perception that it wouldn't be a platform that would be taken nationally," she said. Asked how that perception was communicated, Ms. Captain responded: "I wouldn't even begin to try to tell you."

Ironically, Ms. Captain said Miss Kurey's platform was one of the state's most popular. "I never had so many teachers, parents, and clergy respond to this," said Ms. Captain. "They came back saying this was an issue that needed to be addressed far more than it really is."

Miss Kurey isn't the only contestant to detect a bias against abstinence platforms. Brooke Buie, 23, entered the Miss Texas pageant competition in hopes of expanding opportunities to share her abstinence message, which she has publicly advocated since age 17.

For her first platform title she chose "Sexual Abstinence and Self-Worth" and competed without results. Difficult interview sessions-a portion of the pageant competition not seen by the public-aroused her suspicion that her platform might be part of the problem. She said judges asked questions like, "Do you think this is even logical to present this as an option?" and "Are you saying that you can only have self-worth if you are sexually abstinent?"

Then came disconcerting feedback. "We heard judges kind of talk at the local level-a lot of judges or directors for other pageants-[saying] that it was hurting me a little bit because it was too narrow," she told WORLD. "They were just afraid it was too judgmental." Miss Buie also learned of several nicknames attributed to her by unidentified critics, including "no-sex girl" and "Miss Christ on the Cross" (because of a Christian song she sang during pageant competition).

In response, Miss Buie chose what she calls the "sheep in wolf's clothing" approach and changed her platform to LIFT-Life Changing Intervention for Teens-and made abstinence a facet of that. Results were positive: Last year, Miss Buie competed for the first time with her new platform and placed in the top 10 finalists of the Miss Texas competition. This year, she did even better, becoming first runner-up to Miss Texas. The winner's platform: "Aids Awareness."

In Kentucky, 19-year-old Amber Jones said she encountered similar resistance after choosing the platform "True Love Waits," indicating support for the national abstinence program.

Interviews with judges about the platform "were very cutthroat," she told WORLD. "They just couldn't get past the aspect that it was religious." She said that "every question they asked me had something to do with getting me to back down off my opinion." Frustrated, she changed her platform last year to "America's Promise"-a program dedicated to helping children-and kept "True Love Waits" as a smaller portion of that platform.

"One reason I changed my platform was not to back down to that but to get them past that," she said. Again, the results were immediate. This year, Miss Jones placed 2nd runner-up to Miss Kentucky. The winner's platform? You guessed it: AIDS awareness.

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