How Md. pageant became an ugly battle over the crown Title Match

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Linda Yueh stood motionless on the stage, a band of sequins glittering on her deep blue evening gown and a wide smile locked on her face as she waited for her dream to be realized.

This was it, the night the 23-year-old Yale graduate would be crowned Miss Maryland and get her shot at the real prize -- Miss America.

Twice before, Miss Yueh had entered the Miss Maryland pageant, and twice before she had lost. This time was different. This time Miss Yueh, competing as Miss Laurel, was the pageant's acknowledged front-runner, leading the pack in the preliminary judging.

She wouldn't learn until later that the competition was already over for her, that the tiara was already beyond her grasp.

Even as the excitement was building inside the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown June 24, even as Miss Yueh was clasping the hands of two other finalists under the glare of the stage lights, pageant officials had already decided that she was ineligible to win. Miss Yueh had lied about her Washington residency, the pageant's judges were told just hours before the final competition.

The five judges voted her first runner-up anyway. But another young woman, Marcia Griffith, walked off with the crown.

Now Miss Yueh is charging that pageant officials unfairly tampered with the judging and rigged the competition against her. And she is threatening to take her allegations from the runway to a courtroom.

"I want to feel like I lost in a fair competition," says Miss Yueh, who was eventually stripped of her first runner-up title. "If they think I am ineligible, why didn't they just take me out of the pageant?"

Her allegations offer an embarrassing peek behind the pageant curtain, where the bright smiles and feigned friendliness of the contestants often give way to icy ambition and sororicidal sniping. And the Miss Maryland pageant isn't the only one with a black eye this year.

Last month, Miss Virginia was dethroned, accused of padding her resume; this month Miss Delaware had to produce documents showing she is a legitimate state resident after two losers challenged her.

For Miss Yueh, it isn't just a matter of defending her integrity. This was her last chance to be crowned Miss Maryland. Next year, at 24, she will be too old to compete. Too old to be Miss America.

But her tearful interviews and press conferences haven't won her many fans among Maryland pageant officials and judges. Many local pageant directors fear the intrigue surrounding this year's contest could cost them some sponsors next year. And some of the judges think Miss Yueh should stop whining and show a little more class.

"I find it quite upsetting that a young woman who thought she had the qualifications to be Miss State, to compete for Miss America, is not grown up enough to accept the fact that someone else was more qualified than she was," says the pageant's chief judge, Mary Lou Lewis. "We don't all get everything in life that we want."

Linda Yueh wasn't one of those little girls with a Miss America fixation. In fact, she seems overqualified for a beauty pageant, and it has nothing to do with her good looks.

She graduated from Yale University in 1992 -- in three years, with a double major in economics-political science and East Asian literature.

She finished one year of law school at Georgetown University before taking a two-year leave of absence to get a master's degree in public policy at Harvard.

Last year, she landed a research assistant position there with legal scholar A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., a former federal appeals court judge in Philadelphia. She was accepted into a doctoral program at Harvard, but plans to return to Georgetown this fall to finish law school. She spent this summer working as a White House intern.

"I would like to be a federal judge one day," she says. "My interest has been to go into public service. D.C. is where I want to make my home. This is where public policy is made."

By all accounts, Linda Yueh has always been ambitious and goal-oriented.

"I always thought if you work hard, you can do anything," says Miss Yueh, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and was 5 when her family moved to the United States. Her parents, John and Patty )) Yueh, commuted between the United States and Taiwan for their real estate business.

An early success

At Elsik High School in Houston, Linda Yueh stood out right away -- even in a big school of 4,000 students, recalls Charles Fitzgerald, her academic counselor. He found her uncommonly poised and articulate when she came to him seeking a change in her freshman schedule.

She quickly established herself as one of the school's brightest, most involved students, he says, ticking off her posts in the French Club, National Honor Society and her junior and senior class. She participated in fund-raisers for the Ronald McDonald House and helped out with the Jerry Lewis telethon for muscular dystrophy.

She also worked after school at a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor, where cookies-and-cream was her favorite flavor.

"I always thought of myself as being on the nerdy side," Miss Yueh says.

She graduated in 1989 as valedictorian, with honors classes boosting her GPA to 4.34 on a 4.0 scale.

At Yale, her ability to focus on her work impressed the other overachievers.

"She was really admired for her capabilities," says Joy Nishime, a former classmate and close friend.

Besides her studies, Ms. Yueh held a work-study job in the admissions office and got involved in campus activities.

In the Chinese Student Association, she helped organize a show honoring the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration. She was supposed to be the emcee, she says. But when the Chinese lute player dropped out at the last minute, she performed on the instrument her grandfather had taught her to play.

After the show, an official from the Miss Connecticut organization approached her about entering that state's pageant. But it was 1992, and she was about to leave New Haven for Washington, which lost its Miss America franchise after a scandal in 1988. Since then, Washington residents have been eligible to compete in the Miss Maryland and Miss Virginia pageants. The Connecticut official gave her the names and numbers of Miss Maryland officials.

That fall she telephoned them. Her friends were surprised.

She doesn't strike most people as the kind of young woman who'd willingly tape her breasts together to create more cleavage or spray adhesive on her bottom to prevent her swimsuit from riding up her backside.

"Some people think you must be a bubblehead," Miss Yueh acknowledges.

But she defends the pageant system. The Miss America organization, she says, is the largest source of scholarship money for young women in the world, provides a forum for them to discuss public policy issues, and promotes achievement for women.

Each time she competed, she left the stage with more than $3,000 in scholarship money. Even stripped of her first-runner-up title last month, she keeps the $3,200 in scholarship money.

Miss Yueh says her first two years entering the Miss Maryland pageant were learning experiences. This year, she was in it to win.

"This year was a totally different feel than the other years. She really worked for it," says Angela Yeung, a close friend.

She hit the gym, molding her 5-foot-6, 120-pound frame into shape by spending as much as two hours a day lifting free weights and doing aerobics.

Ugliness amid beauty

The difference was obvious from the moment she arrived at the (( Venice Inn in Hagerstown for pageant week. The word was out that Linda Yueh was the contestant to beat, and she quickly became the object of considerable sniping on the part of other contestants.

"I would have to say this pageant week was the ugliest I've ever seen in my five years of doing it," says Angie Rodriguez, who runs the College Park pageant.

Contestants complained that Miss Yueh was skipping group appearances around town so she could practice her Chinese lute. They also resented the amount of help Miss Yueh was getting from Lori Windsor Hunt, Miss Maryland 1988. Ms. Hunt was a local pageant director in 1992 and 1993; both years her contestants won the Miss Maryland crown.

Ms. Hunt, who was going to help emcee the pageant this year, was staying on the same floor as the contestants during a week when their contact with local directors, parents and pageant staff is restricted.

Though Ms. Hunt helped other contestants, "it was blatant that she was paying special attention to Linda," one contestant says.

The simmering anger boiled over into a full-fledged rebellion the night before the finals, when some contestants overheard Ms. Hunt, her husband, Jody, and Linda Yueh speculating about the chances of other contestants. Those who overheard the conversation claim it was nasty and cutting; Miss Yueh insists there was nothing malicious about it.

At 2 the morning of the finals, a half-dozen contestants woke up Charles Skinner, the pageant's executive director, and Patricia Skebeck, its president, to express their outrage. The upshot was that the Hunts faced the young women Saturday morning with a conciliatory statement, and Ms. Hunt withdrew from being an emcee of the pageant.

A question of place

All week long in Hagerstown rumors were swirling about Linda Yueh's residency.

Miss America pageant rules require contestants to meet one of three criteria to qualify for their state pageant: be a full-time student; be a six-month resident before the preliminary pageant; or be a full-time employee for six months.

The rules allow for a fair amount of carpetbagging: A Virginia resident who works in Washington is eligible just about anywhere in Maryland. Miss Howard County is from Pennsylvania and attends school in College Park.

Though Miss Yueh signed an affidavit saying she is a resident of Washington, she has a Texas driver's license and is registered to vote in Cambridge, Mass.

In the last academic year, she neither worked nor attended school in Washington. But Miss Yueh says her research for her master's thesis on presidential decision-making in Haiti kept her in the capital much of the time.

She shares a group house on Elliott Street in Northeast Washington, she says. She has gym and library cards in Washington. Last month she also produced a signed statement from her Washington landlord for the state pageant board.

But Thomas O'Connell, the organization's attorney, says the cumulative evidence did not convince the board that Miss Yueh resides in Washington.

Neither side is releasing the documents. She says they may be part of a lawsuit; he cited privacy.

Despite the questions about her residency, Miss Yueh was clearly on a roll. She won the preliminary talent and swimsuit competitions among her half of the contestants, and she was expected to ace the overall interview just as she had in prior years. The grilling by judges counts for a key 30 percent of the final score, and it is the only preliminary score that carries over from earlier in the week.

Miss Yueh looked unbeatable until 3 p.m. that Saturday, when the local pageant directors held their traditional pre-pageant meeting and several raised the issue of Miss Yueh's residency.

With only five hours to go before the start of the pageant, Mr. Skinner and Ms. Skebeck told the directors they would handle the situation.

By 4:30 p.m., Mr. Skinner called the chief judge, Mary Lou Lewis, to tell her that Miss Yueh was ineligible. The pageant's lawyer, Mr. O'Connell, defends that action because it allowed the judges to decide what weight to give the matter.

"They could have ignored it completely," he says.

Ms. Lewis says she never told the other four judges how to vote, though one disputes that.

Judge David Kendall, an Oklahoma pharmacist, claims he was told his scores should reflect Miss Yueh's eligibility problem. He gave her top scores anyway, but believes the other judges may have been swayed.

"I question the fairness of the result," he says. "This clearly affected the outcome of the pageant."

Two other judges disagree.

McNeil Chestnut, an assistant attorney general in North Carolina, says the call from the chief judge was irrelevant. "Had Miss Yueh been the top candidate on the Saturday-night competition, I would have had to grapple with that," he says. "Overall, I felt

Miss Griffith was the strongest contestant."

Judge Dorothy Sullivan, a retiree in Florida, says she didn't hear about the eligibility issue until the pageant's intermission. "Nobody told me how to vote," Mrs. Sullivan says. "I was very happy with the girl who won. She was very elegant."

At first, Linda Yueh was hoping the Miss America organization would come to her rescue by ordering a whole new competition. But that didn't happen. Miss America officials acknowledge that the state organization handled the situation poorly, but they refuse to get in the middle of it.

So Miss Yueh must decide whether to go to court or get on with her life. She's got exactly one month left before the curtain goes up in Atlantic City.

She still wants to be there. She still believes in Miss America. She still thinks dreams shouldn't end this way.

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