- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

There she is more or less.

The Miss America Pageant has sashayed even deeper into the grim realm of political correctness. Officially, it is no longer a beauty contest.

"Because of the changes we have made in the show, we're not even calling it a pageant," said producer Jeff Margolis. "This year's telecast will simply be named 'Miss America.' "

The 80th version of this traditional parade of pretties in Atlantic City will be "edgier," officials say, with reality TV flourishes of every persuasion. There will be live backstage vignettes, "e-contestants" on the Internet and what portends to be a hair-raising techno music version of "There She Is, Miss America."

And the swimsuits.

Contestants are allowed to wear anything short of a thong or string bikini. They can go shoeless and sport belly-button rings. But heavens, no languid strolls down the runway are welcome. The 51 contestants will make a mad dash "a fast-paced production number" across the stage.

The camera then will point out the Top 10 "in a new and appropriate way," states a press release.

Ironically, men took on the weighty mantle of sexual objectivity this week.

Fox television's Monday-night salute to the "Sexiest Bachelor in America" reveled in beefcake, boy toys, slow dancing and bathing-suited males on parade before shrieking, appreciative women.

"I didn't feel like a piece of meat as much as I thought I would," commented first runner-up Matt Thomas.

Things got giddy indeed, particularly after contestants were asked how many dates they went on before becoming "intimate" with their lady friends.

"Isn't it time we ladies got a pageant of our own?" Fox co-host Lisa Germano asked at the close of the show.

Miss America, perhaps, is the antithesis of all this. But after eight decades, the pageant is also a survivor, more institution than beauty contest, with $30 million in scholarships, 300,000 volunteers and community-outreach programs.

And they do play hardball.

The Miss America Organization is suing radio talk-show host Howard Eskin and media conglomerate Infinity Broadcasting after Mr. Eskin said the pageant was fixed.

"We will not stand by and have the good name of our organization sullied by anyone who thinks they can play fast and loose with the facts," said corporate president Robert Renneisen.

Last year, the group defended itself against doctors who said contestants had gotten too skinny, and the many criticisms of the organization's decision to lift its ban on contestants who were divorced or had ever been pregnant.

Board members noted the change was "reasonably necessary" because of anti-discrimination laws in New Jersey. Critics predicted the pageant's sure demise.

But it remains a bastion of showbiz on a dizzying scale.

"Rather than updating the set and music like we've done for years, we've thrown it out," Mr. Renneisen said.

There will be a giant video screen on stage, a Disney-themed fashion show, a display of chocolate shoes, official merchandise and a Vegas version of King Neptune, who will rise from the sea outside the convention center and cut a giant anniversary cake.

Donny and Marie Osmond will host ABC's live telecast on Oct. 14, accompanied by a match made in media heaven "O-Town," the fabricated rock group from ABC's own reality TV series, "Making the Band."

An amateur "Instant Celebrity Judge" will serve on the judging panel, along with Lenny Krayzelburg, the hunky swimmer who won three gold medals at the Olympic Games in Sydney.

And the girls, well, the girls are still the girls.

All 51 of them arrived in Atlantic City Monday for almost two weeks of rehearsals, photo-ops, boardwalk appearances and untrammeled feminine bonding. They are a diverse group that includes Theresa Uchytil, Miss Iowa, who was born without a left hand and wears a prosthesis. It occasionally gets misplaced.

"If you see one, it's probably mine," she matter-of-factly told reporters Monday.

The tradition of glittering beauty queen, however, still may be intact after all is said and done.

Tara Watson, Miss Texas, is intent upon winning the crown that lofty rhinestone tiara perched above a perfectly tweezed brow.

"I cannot wait until I walk down that runway," Miss Watson noted, "to make my dream come true."

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