- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Miss Alabama Deidre Downs, an aspiring doctor who put off medical school to compete for the Miss America crown, won the title last night.

Miss Downs, 24, of Birmingham, Ala., outsmarted and outperformed 51 other women in a spiced-up version of the 83-year-old pageant that included a head-to-head showdown between the final two contestants.

Miss Downs, who sang “I’m Afraid This Must Be Love” for her talent routine, bested Miss Louisiana Jennifer Dupont, who performed a jazz dance for hers.

Miss North Carolina Kristin Elrod was second runner-up, followed by Miss Arkansas Lacy Fleming and Miss California Veena Goel.

With skimpy bikinis, less emphasis on talent and a shorter show, the producers of last night’s annual Miss America pageant telecast were hoping less would mean more — more viewers, that is.

Producers hoped the revamped show would turn the tide on declining TV ratings.

Taking a page from reality TV, Miss America producers spiced up the prime-time special by enlisting “The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison and crooner Clay Aiken.

The ABC telecast marked the 50th year since Sept. 11, 1954, when Lee Meriwether was crowned Miss America 1955 during the first televised pageant.

This year’s pageant retained the same basic elements, but with plenty of updates, including the Miss America Quiz, an eight-question pop quiz on U.S. history, U.S. government and current events given to the five finalists.

Miss America gets a $50,000 college scholarship, a modicum of overnight celebrity and a yearlong reign that can net up to $200,000 in appearance fees.

Citing hour-to-hour Nielsen ratings that traditionally ebb during the talent competition, pageant producers axed the often-amateurish singing, dancing or baton-twirling acts that had been a part of Miss America since 1938.

The swimsuit contest was briefer, too, in a sense. Showing more skin than ever, the contestants competed in two-piece swimsuits provided to Miss America under a two-year sponsorship deal with swimwear maker Speedo.

Miss Downs succeeds Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap, 22, an aspiring lawyer from Orlando, Fla.

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