Miss 'A' pageant raises many questions


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Questions, questions, questions. So many questions are asked at the Miss America pageant. If you were president and Iraq had just declared war, what would you do first? What is the greatest challenge facing youth today, and, as Miss America, what will you do to help them meet that challenge? Are pure metaphysics better served in Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" or Hegelian dialectics?

Who gives a fig?

Is a 23-year-old twirler going to have a useful 10-second answer to any of those questions?

You want solid answers to important issues? Tune into the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour." You want to know the way things truly are during countdown week to the Miss A contest Saturday? Read on:

* Why be Miss America?

Because as in marriage and game shows, you win valuable prizes, to say nothing of adoration and attention from relatives and strangers. Miss America gets lots of stuff: $35,000 in scholarships, a new Corvette, a Crafted With Pride wardrobe and fees for a year of personal appearances totaling as much as $200,000. She also gets to keep the crown, which weighs one pound and contains 736 stones. All of them, however, are rhinestones.

* Why do the contestants walk so funny?

Like an ancient tribal rite, they're trained from the moment they compete in Little Miss Pee-Wee Beauty to take tiny mince steps to minimize missteps and give judges extra time to examine their sculpted pulchritude.

* How many virgins are there in the Miss A pageant?

Hard to tell. According to pageant rules, you can't be a contestant if you've ever been pregnant. But virginity is not a requirement. Remember that most of the contestants are college graduates; the average age is 22.5. Sex has almost nothing to do with being Miss A, who spends the greater part of her reign opening shopping malls and being chaperoned by two New Jersey homemakers.

L * What are the greatest diseases striking contestants today?

No doubt about it: anorexia and bulimia. Because some contestants live in mortal fear of developing muscles, starvation rather than exercise is often the preferred path to weight loss. This is a mighty thin group. Miss Kentucky is 5-foot-4 and weighs 105; Miss South Carolina is 5-foot-7 and 110. Miss Maryland, Debra Renea Fries, admits to a history of bulimia and anorexia. After being crowned Miss Maryland, she said, "The first thing I want is a Reese's Pieces sundae because I'm so hungry." For the record, the "heftiest" Miss A was 5-foot-10 Colleen Kay Hutchins (1952), who weighed 143.

* What happens to former beauty queens? Do they all end up on television?

Actually, the top career path for former Miss A's is "motivational speaking," but many do seem made for the small screen: Mary Hart (Miss South Dakota, 1970), Delta Burke (Miss Florida, 1974), ESPN's Sharlene Wells (Miss A, 1985), Tawny Godin (Miss A, 1976), Phyllis George (Miss A, 1971), Susan Anton (Miss California, 1969), Mary Ann Mobley (Miss A, 1959), Cynthia Sikes (Miss Kansas, 1972), and Lee Meriwether (Miss A, 1955). Actresses Cloris Leachman (Miss Chicago, 1946), Dorothy Lamour (Miss New Orleans, 1935) and Joan Blondell (Miss Dallas, 1926) were all in the pageant. But many former contestants are lawyers, doctors, professors and state representatives. As a rule, state winners tend to have more successful careers after the pageant than Miss A's.

* Who is the most successful former Miss A in recent history?

No question: with hit records, Grammy nominations and a steady job on VH-1, it's Vanessa Williams.

* Do only singers win?

They tend to, but there are so many singers that other talents often stand out. Over the years, contestants have offered a fashion design presentation, pantomime tap dance, conducted the Miss A orchestra, jumped on a trampoline and played the Paraguayan harp and the marimba. Non-winning talents have included a lecture on raising cows, an impersonation of a psychotic bomber, two deliveries of the Sermon on the Mount and a demonstration of the art of packing a suitcase.

* Does Miss America matter?

.' Just to 40 million TV viewers.

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