BOSTON — If you have ever groused about who should be wearing the Miss America sash and tiara, this could be your year to set things straight.
Tomorrow, viewers will have their first chance to cast votes for their favorite contestants, when the pageant is televised live from the Convention Center in Atlantic City, N.J. Pageant officials tout the call-in system as a way to take viewers "out of their armchairs" and put them "into the judges' box."
"The American public has maintained a strong interest - practically an ownership interest - in the Miss America competition," says Leonard Horn, chief executive of the Miss America Organization in Atlantic City, N.J. "Our pageant has become a lot more relevant at a time when there are not too many positive role models for young women."
But the effort to bring democracy to America's oldest beauty contest has stirred up an age-old controversy over whether such pageants are appropriate for modern times. Some women say this year's call-in is a desperate bid by an industry that has seen its influence begin to wane.
"The ways in which Miss America exploits women have come to seem rather dated compared with the way that Hollywood exploits women," says Katha Pollitt, a writer for the left-leaning Nation magazine in New York. "It's so old-fashioned. I mean, they wear clothes."
Even though it offers the world's largest female scholarship program, the Miss America Organization will eventually have difficulty attracting contestants, she adds. "There is a model now of women becoming professionals, of being valued for their achievements and not just for being pretty."
But some social observers say pageants have remained popular, even throughout the rise of feminism, and they are an essential part of human culture.
Western history began with a beauty contest, when the goddess Aphrodite awarded a Trojan prince the most beautiful woman in the world, says Camille Paglia, a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. "The woman, Helen of Troy, happened to be married to someone else at the time, a Greek general, and that led to a war and tragedy, but also gave us the Illiad and the Odyssey and the advent of Western literature. And a beauty contest began it all."
"If there's one thing I hate," she adds, "it's when Miss America moves in a PC [politically correct] direction and makes the stupid decision to hold the swimsuit contest in bare feet, when every woman knows that legs should be shown to their best advantage by wearing heels. So bring back those heels!"
To be sure, the MIss America pageant has undergone many changes since the first contest in 1921. In 1945, the first scholarship grant was awarded (to Bess Myerson, the first Jewish winner). In 1989, contestants were encouraged to come up with platform statements on how they would serve as spokeswomen for Miss America. Past winners such as Phyllis George and Vanessa Williams have gone on to careers in broadcast journalism and entertainment.
Last year, Miss Oklahoma Shawntel Smith won the judges' hearts (and $40,000) by supporting school-to-work programs as a way to solve the dropout problem. This year, contestants are vowing to support good eating habits and the rights of disabled children and to combat illiteracy and domestic abuse.
Under the new call-in system, viewers can dial one of 10 telephone lines to choose their favorite from among the final 10 contestants. Performance will be measured for several categories, including talent, interviews, "physical fitness in swimsuit," and "on-stage personality in evening wear." The results will be tabulated instantly to form a single vote, equal in importance to the votes of the other seven celebrity judges. When the final 10 contestants are named, phone lines will be set up to block calls from those states to prevent larger states from dominating the vote.
But none of these changes seems to sway David Granger, executive editor of the men's magazine, GQ, in New York. When asked about the Miss America pageant, he responds: "They still have that? It's antiquated, it's tottering on its last legs."
"I can't speak on behalf of the American male," he continues with a sniff, "but I would hope that none of our readers would be interested."