A pageant, a crown, and a backdrop for war

In Wisconsin, the 2003 beauty gala draws crowds and raises a curtain on one town's political views.

One of the more telling moments of the 2003 Miss Oshkosh Scholarship Pageant - a big annual fete here in this working-class town on the shores of Lake Winnebago - arrives during the talent competition.

As the lights dim and quiet settles onto the sold-out crowd of 1,500 - a sea of pearls, furs, and double-breasted blazers - stagehands wheel out an impossibly long piano. And Contestant No. 5, Amy Rider - a biology major at the local university - strides out, sits down, and begins playing Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.

Her manicured fingers flash across the keys. But halfway through, she falters - then recovers her place, and stumbles again. After a moment, still smiling, Amy finds what passes for the song's end - and gives it an extra punch. The crowd roars.

Throughout the pageant - and across this one-time sawmill capital of the Midwest - there's a velvet steeliness. It stands out in the way the 62,000 residents grip life and work and family - with long vowels, flat accents, bulky wool sweaters, and serious devotion to the duty of the day. It's also evident in how many of them view a potential war with Iraq - with a cut-and-dry determination that the US should oust Saddam Hussein.

There is, for instance, the recently reactivated Mothers Against Saddam Hussein (MASH), a support group for families with relatives in the Persian Gulf. There's the student government at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, which recently voted 43-6 to disallow formal debate on an antiwar resolution. And there's the klatch of local women knitting slippers, socks, and hats for troops overseas - along with cotton "cool ties," for soldiers to wrap around their foreheads for relief from the heat.

'Saddam Hussein has to go'

Certainly there are those opposed to war here, too - and they're just as hardy. For weeks now, a small antiwar group has stood in the town square every Friday - even in subzero temperatures - holding peace signs.

But outgoing Miss Oshkosh Rebekah VanScyoc may speak for most residents when she says, "Since 9/11, it's just became clear that Saddam Hussein has to go." The petite blonde has spent the past year riding in parades, promoting community service, and earning her $3,000 in scholarship money. "We need to remember the families of 9/11," she says, "and support our troops."

Another steely pageant moment comes when local beauty queens are introduced. Miss Fon du Lac, Miss Door County, Miss Fox River Valley, and others stride across the stage, with perky "parade waves" in the Queen-Mother tradition. Then comes Miss Southern Wisconsin - on crutches. No big smile, no graceful wave: She simply puts her head down and barrels across the stage. The surprised crowd gives her an extra helping of applause.

A comparatively tame spectacle

And then, of course, there's the swimsuit competition. To Frank Sinatra's crooning "Love is the tender trap," the 14 contestants spin and strut in swimsuits and heels. "

The first year I thought it would be horrible," says three-year pageant veteran Tiffany Jonasen. But "you just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other."

And compared with ABC's "Are You Hot?" it seems relatively tame. In fact it's the comparatively wholesome nature of beauty pageants that may be sparking their revival in these parts.

"We notice more and more that moms are bringing their daughters," says pageant chairman Gert Schultz. "It's a good, clean entertainment program."

Even Madison, Wis., home to the state's flagship university campus and a robust liberal ethic, recently held its first Miss Madison pageant in four years. And Oshkosh locals tell of the reinvigoration of the annual Miss Wisconsin parade, held here each June.

This year's Miss Oshkosh contestants share $10,000 in scholarship money - a record amount. The winner gets showered with prizes, from a free McDonald's meal every day for a year to complimentary car washes at the Jet Stream Car Wash to a fur coat - and $3,000 in scholarship funds.

Contests that transcend good looks

As the young women are quick to point out, pageants aren't just about beauty anymore. Each contestant has a "platform" she promotes - topics from breast-cancer awareness to helping disadvantaged girls get prom dresses.

And consider Marjorie Trew's answer during the interview portion of the competition, which comes just before the winner is announced. Standing in her amethyst-colored floor-length gown, Ms. Trew is asked whether she would rather be smart, rich, or beautiful.

After a half-second pause, she says, beaming, "I'd rather be smart, because then you're beautiful inside - and you've got the brains to become rich!" The crowd bursts into applause.

Indeed, 10 of this year's 14 contestants attend the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. They're studying everything from cellular biology to business. And the mood on their campus tilts toward supporting a war. "If we don't take care of Saddam Hussein now, he'll take care of us later," says Ms. Jonasen, describing the prevailing sentiment. "The mentality is, 'Eat or be eaten,' " she says.

Yet despite the sharp-edged realism that prevails, there is plenty of hope - as seen in contestant Danielle Parker's well-received lyrics: "Someday, somewhere, we'll find a new way of living."

Finally, as the new Miss Oshkosh, Christina Huffman, is crowned - her moment replete with tears, roses, and a victory walk across the stage - the pageant's costume designer beams as she talks of the hope incarnate in the strong young women onstage.

Patti Karlgaard muses about her approach to the pageant - and to war. For these girls, as for the country, she says, "You prepare for the worst - and hope for the best."

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