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Beauty pageant turns ugly over eligibility questions


As she walked onto the stage at the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown on June 24, Linda Yueh believed her third try for the Miss Maryland crown would be the charm.

After winning preliminaries the week before in swimsuit, talent and interview competitions, it seemed the contest was hers to lose. Soon, she believed, she'd be heading for the glitter of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.

Instead, Ms. Yueh was named first runner-up -- a selection that has touched off a brouhaha of finger pointing and allegations involving lawyers, beauty queens and pageant officials from Washington to New Jersey. Hers is the second Miss America competition in a week to be embroiled with controversy. On July 20, Andrea Ballengee, Miss Virginia, was dethroned, suspected of falsifying her resume.

Now, one side of the rhinestone crown has Ms. Yueh and her attorney charging that the Miss Maryland pageant was fixed so that anyone but Ms. Yueh, the 23-year-old Miss Laurel, would win.

The other side claims that Ms. Yueh deceived pageant officials about her residence. Rather than living in Washington and being a law student at Georgetown University, officials say she really lives in Cambridge, Mass., where she is a doctoral candidate in public policy at Harvard University.

Michael Higginbotham, Ms. Yueh's lawyer, is threatening to ask a Maryland judge to resolve the dispute by installing Ms. Yueh as the state's beauty queen. Any such action would oust Marcia Griffith, another Washingtonian who formally won the Miss Maryland title.

Whatever the resolution, the fracas has become a world class version of As the Pageant Turns.

"I believe in the system and always felt that if you worked hard, you could become Miss America," said Ms. Yueh yesterday, from her job as a summer intern at the White House.

"I don't want to sue. I think that Maryland [pageant officials] made a mistake, and once Miss America investigates, the truth will come out. I just want to go to the Miss America pageant. That's my only goal."

Ms. Yueh charged that the pageant judges for Miss Maryland were told three hours before the final competition was to begin that she was ineligible to win because she did not meet the residency requirement. Under state pageant regulations, contestants from the District of Columbia have been eligible to compete in either the Miss Maryland or the Miss Virginia contest ever since the District lost its Miss America franchise after a scandal in 1988.

Countering the claim that she is not a Washington resident -- despite having a Texas driver's license, being a registered Democrat in Cambridge, Mass., and being enrolled at both Harvard and Georgetown -- Ms. Yueh said she has lived in Washington since graduating from Yale in 1992. She rents an apartment with several roommates on Elliott Street in Northeast Washington.

As proof of residency, she gave pageant officials her gym card, a library card, bank statements and affidavits from her landlord.

Leonard Horn, chief executive officer of the Miss America Organization in Atlantic City, said the state pageant officials were right to intervene.

Mr. Horn said that after an investigation by national pageant officials, he found out that Charles Skinner, executive director of the Miss Maryland Pageant, told the pageant judges privately that Ms. Yueh was ineligible to win. Nothing was said to Ms. Yueh, she contends, and she completed the competition.

Those actions were mistakes, Mr. Horn said, but one that he will let slide because pageant officials were in "a panic" when they discovered the residency flap shortly before the finals were to begin.

After the new Miss America is crowned on Sept. 16, Mr. Horn said he plans to call the Maryland state pageant officials to Atlantic City to discuss the details of the Yueh residency problem. He said he expects that the national pageant will establish guidelines on how to handle last-minute problems that arise from false claims by contestants.

"Pageant officials . . . did not have enough time to figure out in a calm way how to handle this," Mr. Horn said. "In fact, they really did it the wrong way. I'm being a little more lenient on them because it happened three hours before and they did not know how to handle it." The Miss Maryland pageant's new attorney, Thomas O'Connell, said three people reported her eligibility problems, but he refused to disclose further details.

Mr. Skinner declined to comment on the controversy. He forwarded all questions to Mr. O'Connell, who said the decision of the judges to award the crown to Ms. Griffith is binding.

Mr. O'Connell said the residency problem also has caused the Miss Maryland executive board to strip Ms. Yueh of her first runner-up title, although under pageant rules she will keep the $3,200 in scholarship money she won.

But for Ms. Yueh, it's not the scholarship that counts.

"They acted on rumors and innuendoes. The fairness is that I be given my rightful crown. This cost me my dream and I'll never get another chance. To me this was my chance to compete for Miss America."

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