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.)
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.
Both Miss Buie and Miss Jones acknowledged that judges are expected to play devil's advocate to test contestants' ability to defend their platforms. But the interview should never focus entirely on the platform, according to former Wyoming pageant director Jon Young, who judged pageants for several years.
"You are not supposed to have the interview center on the platform because you really want to know about the girl," such as "what attributes and qualities she would have to be able to go on to be Miss America," he said. "The platform is part of it, but you don't judge them based on what platform they have chosen."
Not everyone who chose an abstinence platform experienced discouragement. Last year's Miss Wyoming, Elaine Dabney, told WORLD that she "never met discouragement at anytime by anyone" after choosing her abstinence platform. And during the televised alphabetical parade of state platforms, Miss Kurey and Miss Dabney followed one another and "were able to make a statement" and "to just hit them with a wham-bam finish," said Miss Dabney.
But it doesn't look like there will be any "wham-bam" statements this year. None of the national contestants have listed "abstinence" as their platform title. Instead, there are only nebulous-sounding titles like "Youth Inspiration" and "Character Education."
"You have to remember that sexual abstinence is very controversial and any time you choose something that is very controversial it could hurt you," said Miss Buie. But the pageant system doesn't seem to mind other kinds of controversy. In 1998, Miss America winner Kate Shindle stirred debate by publicly advocating drug-needle exchange and condom distribution in public schools as part of her "AIDS Awareness" platform. When a student at a Montgomery, Ala., high school asked Miss Shindle whether she personally chose abstinence or safe sex, her response-"I don't get into my own sexual experience"-elicited boos from the student audience.
At the time Miss Shindle was advocating condom distribution, her predecessor-1997 Miss America Tara Holland-was speaking at True Love Waits rallies across the nation. But during her beauty queen tenure, Miss Holland (now Mrs. Christensen) chose to focus on her literacy platform. Miss Buie said she will follow that example. "You just have to decide what your goal is. Do you want to stick to sexual abstinence no matter what?" she asked. "Or do you want to get as high up as you can so that you can have a national platform to say what you want once you have the title?"
But even then she may not be able to say what she wants. Nicole Johnson-an outspoken Christian who won the 1999 Miss America title-cited outside "pressures" that limited her ability to share her faith. "My year as Miss America was the hardest thing I've ever done," she told WORLD. "I wouldn't trade it for anything, but spiritually it was very difficult," she said, adding that "it was disconcerting at times to feel as though you weren't allowed or it wasn't advised to say certain things and maybe react in certain ways."
Miss Shindle's freedom certainly didn't seem limited. While provoking the outrage of local audiences, she garnered extraordinary media attention and won accolades from the Associated Press for having "completed the evolution of Miss America from beauty queen to social activist."
In addition to media bias, marketing pressure may also affect an abstinence-platform holder's chances of winning. "It's not my opinion that abstinence is a good choice for a platform. And that's just my opinion," Miss Johnson told WORLD, explaining that the most successful platforms are those easily marketed in a wide variety of forums. "It's very much a business that the young woman is involved in," she said.
Even so, Miss Kurey chose to keep her abstinence platform. Now she says the Miss America pageant has its own choice to make: "Are they going to head down the route of Hollywood values and reflect that kind of ultra pop superficiality, or are they going to reflect the diversity and the values of young women growing up in America today?" she said. "Young people are embracing abstinence. This isn't a movement that's being led by adults, but by young people, and they are searching for truth and meaning."