Beauty pageants: irrelevant and exploitative, or worthwhile?

WHEN the strains of ''She's Our Miss America'' flutter over the airwaves from Atlantic City this Saturday night, the latest winner of this archetypal beauty pageant will be wearing not only a crown but a burden - restoring some of the luster to a contest tarnished by the biggest controversy in its 64-year-old history.

The resignation eight weeks ago by Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, over controversial nude photos of her published in Penthouse magazine rocked the tradition-bound pageant and shocked observers. Some critics, including many angered over the betrayal of the conservative Miss America reputation, condemned Miss Williams's action. Conversely, feminists, such as Susan Brownmiller, attacked both Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and pageant officials as being exploitative of women.

In the wake of such charges and countercharges - Miss Williams herself has filed suit against the photographer - many observers have been left speculating as to the future of beauty contests. Have such pageants, from the starchy Miss America to such openly commercial ventures as Miss Hawaiian Tropic International , become anachronisms under women's professional aspirations today? Or do they remain a legitimate promotional tool, not only for pageant sponsors, but for women themselves? With more controversial photographs of Miss Williams, who is working on a TV drama in Los Angeles, expected in future Penthouse issues, sympathizers and critics alike say that pageants and their contestants are coming under renewed scrutiny.

''It's hypocrisy for pageants to call themselves American institutions of (feminine) rectitude and propriety,'' says feminist author Jean Lipman-Blumen, who labels pageants and Penthouse magazine ''kissing cousins.'' ''How different is it to parade women in evening gowns and then ask them to essentially disrobe into swimsuits?''

''Rather unnecessary,'' says Connaught Marshner of the Washington-based Pro-Family Coalition, when asked about the relevancy of pageants. ''Even 20 years ago, a beauty pageant was just as unwholesome as it is now.''

Not surprisingly, pageant officials disagree.

''Feminists are entitled to their opinion,'' says Albert Marks, longtime executive producer of the Miss America Pageant. ''We're a handy piece to be against, but nobody twists the arms of those 80,000 women every year. They know what they want.''

But promoters of the Miss Universe pageant, including Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, are less sanguine. ''Sure (the Williams controversy) affects pageants,'' says Kerry Glasser, vice-president of Miss Universe Inc., a division of Gulf & Western Industries. ''Any type of (negative) press isn't helpful. There is enough skepticism to begin with. You don't want to jeopardize your relationship with your sponsor.''

Indeed, it is the ring of the cash register even for such nonprofit operations as the Miss America pageant that many insist is pivotal to the continued success of contests. While some promotional campaigns featuring Miss Williams, including the Kellogg and Gillette Companies, were scrubbed as a result of the controversy, most sponsors have remained loyal to the pageant. ''It's a good promotional vehicle with a worthwhile purpose,'' says one longtime corporate supporter. Miss America officials happily report an increase of more than $1 million in sponsorship money this year over last.

Some observers admit privately, however, that changes are occurring. Pageant producers point to new scripts that more accurately reflect women of the '80s. Others insist that pageants will tighten up on eligibility requirements and stiffen background checks on contestants.

''Yes, (the Williams resignation) will affect pageants,'' says Mike Gargiulo, producer of the America Junior Miss Pageant. ''But it will affect them prior to production. Everybody is taking a look into their (entrance) procedures.''

Other insiders dismiss such predictions. ''You can't police future contestants,'' says Miss USA's Kerry Glasser. ''A girl signs what she wants to sign.''

Despite such industry quarrels, other observers point to the persistent popularity of pageants.

''Americans have a great obsession with winning,'' says Joe Cook, writer of the Miss America Pageant, adding that ''whatever network (the show) is on, we win the (TV) ratings for that week.''

''We're not a nation of gamblers, but we do love a contest,'' adds Mr. Gargiulo. ''Look at the interest in state lotteries, Oscar nominations, Emmy awards. Pageants are popular in the US because we love to pick a winner.'' A recent Forbes magazine cover story discussed the Miss Universe and Miss America pageants solely in terms of their television ratings.

Still others say that beyond the media hype and Nielsen charts, pageants persist because of their grass-roots appeal, particularly in the American South and Southwest. ''It's big business in Texas,'' says one pageant-watcher. ''Local (pageant) franchises used to groom girls,'' says James Hatch, former producer of the Miss Alabama pageant. ''It was always looked upon as a community thing, not a hard sell.''

And among women pursuing a career in the performing arts, the temptation to enter a pageant, if for nothing other than the exposure, remains particularly strong. More than one state contest offers Hollywood screen tests as part of its prize money.

''If you were going for a profession in the arts, just being in the contest was good experience,'' says a former contestant who attended the Juilliard School on her winnings. ''If you didn't win, you could enter every year. There were many young women who paid for their college that way.''

Many pageant officials struggle to differentiate between contests that blatantly emphasize beauty and those that couch the appearance factor among other requirements. ''We try to avoid using the words 'beauty contest,' '' says Miss America's Mr. Marks. ''We're looking for a composite and would rather use the term 'scholarship.' ''

Participants seem to agree. ''It was great exposure and a really good thing to put on your resume,'' says Kathy Harrison Allen, a former Miss New York finalist who attended graduate school on her earnings.

But critics remain unconvinced. Says Ms. Lipman-Blumen, ''Very few women can translate their success in a beauty pageant into lifetime achievement.''

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