Beauty Pageants Advance Careers

But swimsuit competition still draws complaints of sexism

SHANNON DEPUY is a veteran all-star of America's beauty pageant circuit. She's not, however, a stereotype bubble-head blonde. Prize money from pageant triumphs helped put her through college - and now she's using cash from being crowned Miss Florida USA last year to attend law school.

''I come from a middle-class family and if it weren't for these beauty pageants, some of my educational goals may not have been realized,'' says Ms. Depuy. ''And winning the Florida contest has opened so many doors in my law career - having that title on my resume has only helped.''

To some, beauty pageants today are relics of American society, outmoded events where lipstick and latex mean more than energy and brains. Cries of ''sexist'' and ''antiquated'' have become so pointed that the Miss America pageant is currently weighing elimination of its most controversial aspect, the swimsuit competition.

But as Ms. Depuy shows, many beauty pageant contestants think of themselves as something more than items on display. Fifty young women from around the state of Florida traveled to Miami this past week to compete in the 1996 Miss Florida USA pageant - and the watchword for most of them was ''career advancement.''

''This pageant, hopefully, will get me noticed,'' says Cathy Doe, an aspiring actress from Tallahassee. ''The contacts are just something you can't make anywhere else.''

Like Ms. Doe, the majority of this year's contestants hope to use their pageant experience to advance their careers in the entertainment industry. They look to past pageant winners such as Phyllis George and Mary Hart as role models.

But not every contestant is competing for the exposure that comes along with the $30,000 in cash and prizes that go to the winner. Some simply want the pageant experience.

''The pageant has given me a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem,'' says Kendra Goins, a student from Margate. ''The pageant directors make me feel wonderful, and brought out qualities in me that I never knew were there.''

The Miss America pageant, for its part, is contemplating a major change in beauty-pageant culture. Directors say they'll let the public decide by calling a 900 number whether contestants should continue to parade for the cameras in swimsuits and high heels. (Preliminary polls give the swimsuit contest overwhelming support.)

But talk of abolishing swimsuits has not surfaced in the Miss USA pageant. Unlike the Miss America contest, Miss USA does not mandate that contestants perform some sort of talent. Miss USA is a true beauty pageant, and promoters believe swimsuits are an integral part of the contest.

''We believe, particularly in the '90s, that the swimsuit competition is necessary,'' says Grant Gravitt, executive producer of the Miss Florida USA pageant. ''These young ladies are often role models, and the public needs to see that intelligent women are also concerned about staying in shape. That is the ideal.''

The contestants don't seem to mind either.

Nicole Botts of Titusville entered this pageant because there is no talent portion. ''This pageant is a beauty pageant. It's about having a strong mind and a strong body. It's about having a certain style, whether you're wearing an evening gown or a swimsuit.''

So what is the ideal Florida woman? ''Beautiful, articulate, and goal-oriented,'' says Sue Ann Olsen, a judge of this year's Miss Florida USA pageant and a winner of the 1965 Miss USA title.

This year Idalmis Vidal, a student from Miami, fit the bill. She'll now represent the state in the 1996 Miss USA contest. The part-time model says she wants to pursue a career as a television news anchor - a common choice for past contestants.

Mr. Gravitt says the pageant provided all contestants, winners or not, with lifetime experiences. ''That's why this pageant, and others like it, will thrive in the '90s and beyond. The public always wants to see the ideal modern woman and that's what we give them.''

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