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The changing face of Miss USA pageant

Miss New York goes to Princeton and speaks four languages. Miss Utah is of Cambodian heritage. Miss California, at age 26, has never been in any kind of pageant before.

The women of Miss USA 2006 - 51 of them altogether - are, in large part, not your traditional beauty queens.

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Many of these women - in town for the April 21 competition at 1st Mariner Arena - are older or shorter or represent more ethnic groups than women in most typical beauty contests. A good number of them have never twirled a baton or paired a bikini with high heels even once in their lives.

"We are more diverse than in the past," says Miss USA contestant supervisor Shelley Hansley, who has been overseeing beauty pageants since 1988. "When I first started, it was much more of that 'traditional pageant.' So we've grown. And that's a good thing."

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Beauty contests are often much-maligned for their tendency to force an ideal "womanhood" into an impossibly narrow box.

In most pageants, there has historically been a lack of representation of many kinds of women, says Sarah Banet-Weiser, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity.

"Clearly the universal womanhood that is celebrated on the pageant stage has been one that is very exclusive and not universal at all, not just in terms of race, but also in terms of class," Banet-Weiser says. "There has been a vision of womanhood that is about becoming a wife, becoming a mother."

Women of yesteryear's beauty contests have been overwhelmingly similar: mostly white, mostly blond, mostly well-off and mostly 18 and 19 years old.

Many of them - right or wrong - also were seen as counterproductive to feminist goals. Instead of focusing on careers and intellectual achievements, detractors have said, these ladies overemphasized physical attributes and promoted an outdated lifestyle.

That may still be true for some, but many of the women of Miss USA 2006 go a long way toward busting that stereotype.

Take Soben Huon, Miss Utah USA.

She's the first Cambodian-American to win a state-level beauty competition. She's studying political science with an emphasis on international relations at Brigham Young University in Provo, and hopes to attend Stanford Law School after graduation. Her role model isn't Jessica Simpson; it's Condoleezza Rice.

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"She's one of the women I admire," says Huon, 23.

Contestant Onawa Lacy, 23, is the first Native American to win the title of Miss New Mexico.

A double major in English and Native American studies at the University of New Mexico, this graceful, bookish woman takes offense at the term "beauty queen."

"All of us women are so much more than that," Lacy says.

In fact, in order for Lacy to win many of the cultural-related pageants she entered before Miss USA, she had to learn as much as possible about her Navajo tribe's history. There was little emphasis on the American idea of beauty, and her relatives balked when they heard she had to wear a bathing suit in public to participate in conventional pageants.

But don a swimsuit Lacy did, to help pay for the next step in her education: law school, where she hopes to complete a dual degree program centered around Indian law.

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"Crossing over, for me, was important because of the lack of representation of Native American women in mainstream pageantry," Lacy says.

The more-cosmopolitan Miss USA pageant, Banet-Wesier says, has tended to be more diverse than its predecessor, Miss America.

But even Miss USA has had exclusivity issues, she says.

"The history of it has been that they've tried to accommodate diversity," Banet-Weiser says. "But only within the boundaries of an already established definition of womanhood."

That's why this group of Miss USA contestants is so unusual.

The average age of pageant participants is still fairly young, 22, but nine of them are 25 or older. Many of the ladies are tall. But several of them are 5 feet 3 inches tall - and Miss Montana, 21-year-old Jillian McLain, is only 5 feet 1 inch.

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A surprising number of them - including former elementary school computer teacher Tamiko Nash, Miss California USA - had never been in pageants before entering the state competition that led to Miss USA.

"I went through college; I had a career," says Nash, 26, who is African-American. "But this is always something I wanted to do. So I'm taking a leap of faith."

Many of this year's contestants do have traditional "girly" career goals -say, fashion or interior design. But a lot of them reject traditional ideas of girlishness. They want careers in computers, law, politics, science.

Heck, Miss Alaska, a pediatrics student, drives a Harley.

"I put 1,500 miles on her in one month," says Noelle Meyer.

"There isn't a mold anymore," says Hansley. "That was the old days. I think we have a great representation of real women across the country. We're not Barbies anymore."

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Many of the contestants have long, blond hair, true. But the great majority of them are dark-haired. Miss Michigan's got a short and sassy, brown bob. A fair number of the ladies are even dark-skinned.

"What you see is a richness, a diversity, people of different sizes, ethnicities, different heights," says Adriana Diaz, Miss New York USA, an international relations student at Princeton University who speaks English, French, Spanish and Chinese. "What it shows is that everybody can enter a beauty pageant. It really does go beyond physical beauty."

Of course, there still are women in the pageant who represent the old-school picture of pageantry.

Cristin Duren, Miss Florida USA, is a classic beauty with long blond hair and blue eyes. She entered her first pageant at 8 or 9 months old, she says, when her mother - a former pageant winner - carried her across the stage.

"I think I won," says Duren, 24, a University of Alabama graduate, as she laughs at the recollection. "I had a little trophy with a naked baby on it."

Duren doesn't apologize for the more traditional path - cheerleading, dance competitions and successive pageants - that led her to Miss USA. It's brought her quite far, she says.

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"Competition has been a big part of my life in a lot of different ways," the pharmaceutical sales representative says. "Before, it was fun, the girly thing to do, you know, buy a pretty gown. Now I'm competing for career opportunities and life experiences."

Michelle Martinez Metzger, who competed as Miss Texas in the 1996 Miss America pageant, says she is glad to witness what she calls "the evolution of the typical pageant girl."

"They do still exist," says Metzger, who went on - after making it to the top 10 at that year's competition - to marriage, motherhood and a career in public relations at a technology company.

"The issue is that the system has grown to encourage women empowerment, which includes women who want a career and want to make a positive impact on the world around them," Metzger says. "This is a societal shift. Not just a pageantry one."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

By the numbers

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Of the 51 Miss USA contestants:

The average age is 22, but one contestant is 25 and eight are 26. Only two are 18.

The average height is 5 feet 8 inches. Three contestants are 6 feet tall and one is 5 feet 1 inch tall.

Fifteen women have blond hair; 35 have brown hair. One has black hair.


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