Sunday, September 17, 1995
Miss Oklahoma took the famous walk down the runway in Atlantic City last night as she won the 1996 Miss America Pageant.
“I don’t believe this,” gasped Shawntel Smith who turned 24 yesterday as her name was announced.
Smith won the 75th anniversary pageant shortly after the conclusion of the traditional swimsuit parade by the competition’s 10 finalists which proceeded as usual after Americans, via telephone poll, voted overwhelmingly not to discard it.
Nearly 900,000 persons called in to vote yea or nay on the swimsuit question and 79% of them said yea.
Pageant sponsors hoped the gimmick would increase interest in the show and answer charges that the tradition is outdated.
Most of the contestants themselves 42 out of 50 said they favored continuing the swimsuit contest. They said the attire shows off their physically fit figures an important ingredient of America’s health-conscious society.
Contestants wore identical one-piece red swimsuits, each carrying a white jacket slung over a shoulder.
Among those opposed to suits on stage are the current Miss America, Heather Whitestone, and Miss America 1971, Phyllis George. George suggested the contestants wear tennis outfits if they want to show off their physical fitness.
Leonard Horn, the pageant’s director, had predicted viewers would vote to keep the swimsuits. He said the show’s producers had prepared alternate entertainment in case viewers nix the suits, although he refused to say what that entertainment was.
Regis Philbin, co-host of the pageant with Kathie Lee Gifford, volunteered to fill the time with a song. Pageant officials seemed less than enthusiastic about that suggestion.
Other controversies surrounded this year’s pageant. One state winner, Virginia’s Andrea Ballengee, was stripped of her title for allegedly embellishing her academic credentials. A state runnerup, Maryland’s Linda Yueh, is suing the pageant because she believes judges were told to ignore her despite high competitions scores.
Yueh, a Harvard undergraduate, plans to study law at Georgetown next year.
Pageant officials billed last night’s show, held in Atlantic City’s Convention Hall and televised on NBC, as their 75th anniversary. The first contest took place in September 1921, however, when 16-year-old marbles champion Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., took the prize.
The pageant had its ups and downs during its initial years, relying on the support of local businesses to keep it going.
It took off in 1954, when television brought the pageant into the homes of millions of Americans. Ratings have dropped in recent years, but the show is still considered a network powerhouse.
The winner of last night’s competition receives a $ 40,000 scholarship; other finalists receive scholarships ranging from $ 8,000 to $ 30,000.
The first runnerup was Miss Oregon, Emily John Orton. The other eight finalists were Miss Alabama, Leigh Sherer; Miss Mississippi, Monica Louwerens; Miss Illinois, Tracy Hayes; Miss New York, Helen Goldsby; Miss California, Tiffany Stoker; Miss Kansas, Amy Beth Keller; Miss Massachusetts, Marcia Turner; and Miss Arkansas, Paula Gaye Montgomery.