Sunday, September 14, 1997
What if Miss America wore muumuu?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Did you watch the Miss America Pageant last night? In case you missed it, Leonard Horn would like you to know that he made every attempt to make this year's pageant ''more relevant.''

Mr. Horn is president of the event, now in its 77th year, and for the first time contestants were allowed to compete in either a two-piece or a one-piece bathing suit. This choice was left to each woman.

Now, lest these young women become giddy with this new freedom, the pageant officials were careful to specify standards. Regulations include ''a full or modest rear'' with the bottoms no more than 1 1/2 inches below the navel. The women also were allowed summer sandals.

Al Gore in a Speedo

''We want to encourage them to look their age,'' he says. And, in fact, most women know that we are encouraged to look their age - that is, 17 to 24 - for the rest of our natural lives. So, this is probably also relevant.

Mr. Horn told a reporter that he cringes at the contest being called a ''beauty pageant.'' He says he prefers to call it a ''scholarship program.'' There is, of course, only one relevant response to this. Hahahahahahahahahahaha.

Some pageant officials have suggested that the bathing suit portion of the competition merely has to do with fitness and good health, ability to withstand a grueling public schedule. In that case, I guess that in addition to looking at his role in Democratic fund raising, we are really going to have to insist that we see Al Gore in a Speedo.

And what of the message this sends to the nation's youth? I don't mean young girls. They're already used to the idea that they need to starve themselves into acceptability when they're young. Later, they will be expected to carve away wrinkles and hoist their breasts.

But what about the young men of this country? Last night many of them watched a fully sanctioned, prime-time rating of women's bodies. Then we send them out into a workplace where they may be fired for noticing that Ms. Dilbert in the next cubicle has nice legs.

No wonder they're confused.

Businessmen's gimmick

In the beginning there was only bathing suits. No television. No talent competition. It was just eight young women in a bathing suit contest on the beach at Atlantic City. This was a gimmick concocted in September 1921 by the Avenue Hotelman's Association to keep tourists on the boardwalk after Labor Day.

An 80-year-old man dressed as King Neptune came ashore from a yacht and led the women to Garden Pier. Later on, of course, the man became Bert Parks. The next year, 58 women showed up to compete for the crown. Mary Catherine Campbell, Miss Ohio, won the second contest and set the tone for the future. Ohio is always a contender, and anybody with three names stands a better chance.

It wasn't until the 1940s that they added the scholarship money, and Lee Meriwether was the first Miss America crowned on television. I am not sure when they started quizzing the finalists, giving them the opportunity to tell us their dearest wish is for world peace and the opportunity to star in a major motion picture.

But this year, for the first time, ''without censorship or the involvement of the Miss America Organization,'' according to ABC, they were quizzed by a professional journalist. Nancy Glass of American Journal, formerly a reporter for PM Magazine, Sneak Previews and Inside Edition, was chosen to ''ask the tough questions.''

I guess Maureen Dowd and Susan Faludi were unavailable.

Anyway, the young contestants are talented. And they do have brains. Answering the ''tough questions,'' they seem like nice people. But they still have to parade down a ramp, dressed in almost nothing.

Last night's 77th Miss America Pageant was a full-body beauty contest. And as long as young women have to take off their clothes to qualify as winners, it is silly to pretend it's anything better.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.