- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

Miss America 2003 Erika Harold, who last year fought pageant officials’ attempts to stifle her abstinence message, says growing numbers of young people are rejecting sexual promiscuity, despite “what they see on television.”

“We really are seeing a change in the culture, and I think we may not see the end results until 10 or 15 years down the road. But we’re seeing a definite shift in the way in which abstinence is being viewed,” Miss Harold said in an interview as she arrived for a week of visits to D.C. public schools.

In the month since she relinquished the Miss America crown, Miss Harold has continued traveling the country to promote teen chastity. Throughout the week, she will speak to some of the 7,000 D.C. students in 16 schools whose health curriculum, “Game Plan,” encourages them to avoid drugs, sex and alcohol.

Miss Harold has resumed her role as national spokeswoman for the curriculum’s publisher, Project Reality of Golf, Ill., for whom she worked as Miss Illinois while competing for the Miss America title.

Last week in Louisiana, 17,500 teenagers packed stadiums in five cities as Miss Harold visited and applauded youngsters who went to microphones to talk about their commitment to abstinence, she said.

“When they would stand up and talk about that, instead of being booed by their peers, they were applauded and given ovations,” she said. “We’re definitely seeing a shift in people’s attitudes.”

A year ago, The Washington Times broke the story that Miss America pageant officials had ordered Miss Harold to stop talking about her views on chastity and stick to an antiviolence platform.

“I have to tell you how young people were so inspired by that, and I received a lot of letters from young people saying, ‘Thank you for standing up for that, I believe it too,’” she said. “So what was nice about [The Times] article, it wasn’t just about the issue, it was telling kids that if there’s anything in life that you believe in, and you believe in it strongly enough, you have to stand up for it and stand behind the courage of your convictions.”

Despite confrontations within the Miss America organization after the story broke, Miss Harold said she stood her ground and pageant officials relented, allowing her to talk about abstinence for the rest of her yearlong reign.

“After that story hit the front page, there was an enormous amount of media attention, and then letters started to pour into the organization, and e-mails,” Miss Harold said.

“And to the best of my knowledge, they were overwhelmingly in support of me speaking about abstinence.”

Miss Harold, whose mother is part black and part Cherokee Indian, and whose father is white, competed three times for the Miss Illinois title before winning and going on to become Miss America.

At the time of her confrontation with pageant officials, the Advocate, a national homosexual publication, accused Miss Harold of having ties to the religious right and said her abstinence-until-marriage message “effectively demands celibacy from all gay people” and cited the “many gay men who work behind the scenes volunteering for Miss America.”

But Miss Harold said she had not experienced hostility from homosexuals involved with the pageant.

“I have worked with a lot of those in the homosexual community in terms of pageants, because there are a lot of people who are homosexual involved, but to the best of my knowledge they were not the ones that were raising the opposition.”

Miss Harold said some pageant sponsors had a “really visceral reaction to the platform. I think they felt it was just too controversial.”

“I basically said that to have spent many years talking about abstinence and to be telling young people to stand up for what they believe in, and then to have become Miss America and to say nothing about the issue simply because it’s viewed as too controversial, is being a hypocrite,” she said.

“In addition, when you’re speaking in schools, you’re talking about your life story, you’re using your life and your experience as a catalyst to encourage young people to stand up for what they believe in.

“And to leave out some of the most important things in my life — mainly my commitment to being abstinent with drugs, sex and alcohol — is leaving out half of the story.

“Then you’re not able to really give a complete picture as to why you turned out the way you did, especially when I was talking about how I was able to overcome harassment, to gain the confidence to start competing in pageants.

“A lot of that had to do with the fact that I choose to define myself in my own terms, and not based on what other people would think. And that’s certainly how the abstinence statement factored in.”

Miss Harold said pageant officials and sponsoring groups ultimately liked her message.

The uproar over her censorship “was a wonderful learning experience for all involved because they got to see how young people responded to the message,” she said.

“I think they realized that is wasn’t something that they should be afraid of.

“It was something that actually was a benefit for our organizations.”

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