Miss America to campaign in the fight against AIDS

Miss America is an unlikely AIDS activist.

But Leanza Cornett, Miss Florida since June and Miss America since Sept. 16, is an unlikely young woman. Complicated in a '90s kind of way.


She's a pro-choice Republican, a Bible-reading Christian who calls "Murphy Brown" her favorite TV show. Her official platform is to increase AIDS awareness and assistance.

Ms. Cornett is the first Miss America to take on AIDS, and she has many people asking if Miss America can really make a difference. After all, the Miss America organization is an old-fashioned institution that, despite its scholarship awards, is still seen as a showcase for big-haired young women in high heels and bathing suits. That's why Ms. Cornett's little red AIDS ribbon drew so much attention at the pageant.


This is the fourth year the pageant has asked contestants to offer an official platform or social cause. Last year's Miss America, Carolyn Sapp of Hawaii, took on a less provocative platform she called "education is everyone's business."

AIDS, on the other hand, remains a very hot potato. Could this mean that Miss America -- both the organization and the woman wearing the crown -- are meeting the 1990s?

"We feel that a beauty queen is irrelevant if all she is is pretty," says Leonard Horn, chief executive officer and chairman of the Miss America board. "She should also have a sincere sensitivity to some of the troublesome issues facing this world and a willingness to do something about them."

He made the change after becoming involved with the pageant four years ago.

"It's a fundamental part of our program," says Mr. Horn. "It's just not incidental. It's fundamental."

On Friday, Ms. Cornett will take part in the opening ceremonies for the international display of the Names Project AIDS memorial quilt in Washington.

Like many young people today, Ms. Cornett seems to view AIDS as a very unfortunate part of life in 1992. Unfortunate but real.

And after talking to Ms. Cornett, her friends and family, one begins to realize that Miss America 1993 is pretty average: just another 21-year-old without much context to help her reflect, but plenty of good ideas.


Ms. Cornett wants people to like her. Wants folks to know she likes to "take her shoes off, sit on the couch and watch a couple of stupid sitcoms."

It's no big deal that she's got a 2.8 grade point average. It's no big deal that she believes women should have a choice when it comes to abortion because "even God gives you a choice." It's no big deal that she'd be quite comfortable telling folks how to use a condom.

"Definitely," says Ms. Cornett, who has helped with safe-sex seminars where explicit materials were used to demonstrate condom use. "That's just one aspect of education. I don't promote premarital sex or sexual activity or promiscuity. I don't think it's my job to promote or be anti that. But it is my job to educate. Safe sex is something I would feel necessary to address."

There she goes being a normal '90s type again.

"By the end of my year as Miss America, I want to be able to say that society as a whole is more educated and more aware," she says. "I also want to be able to say the White House is more involved and that I've made a difference in funding."

Leanza Cornett hopes to use the Miss America win as a stepping stone to Broadway and performing. But she says she won't be truly satisfied until she has more.


"When I become a wife and mother, and I think that will definitely be something that I am, that will be the icing on the cake for my career."