Brains 1, Barbie 0

The inside story of how a Harvard law student beat out her more bodacious sisters for the Miss America crown.

By Jake Tapper

Published September 25, 2002 7:23PM (EDT)

Miss America 2003 is humoring me.

She doesn't know she's Miss America 2003 yet, and neither do I. That has yet to be decided. Right now it's the Thursday before the Saturday when she's awarded the tiara, and as of this moment she's merely Miss Illinois, Erika Harold, a nice young woman whom I've glommed onto because her brief biographical sketch -- she'll begin matriculation at Harvard Law School in a year -- makes her seem like an antidote to the vacuous bims I've been told are surrounding me.

Harold is polished. Incredibly polished. And never is heard a disparaging word from her mouth. It's the second time I've spoken with her, and since she's obviously bright and seems maybe interesting, I'm trying to get her to open up a bit about matters other than her compelling stories of being a victim of some clearly traumatic high school bullying.

I begin with what I think will naturally arouse some ire. A number of people associated with the pageant are annoyed with Olivia Barker, a USA Today reporter who's spending a few days as a contestant. "She demonstrated a total lack of respect for the contestants, the judges and organization officials," one in-the-know pageant source gripes. "I guess because none of us ever met her at Starbucks on the Upper West Side." (The subsequent story makes Barker even less popular.)

Miss USA Today's group of contestants -- for preliminaries, the 51 contestants are divided into three groups -- did swimsuit tonight, but she wasn't there. "Isn't that convenient?" I joke to Harold.

"She said she had a deadline," Harold explains sweetly.

"She writes for USA Today," I say. "Her stories are like 30 words long."

Harold laughs, but defends the journalist again. "She said she works 40 hours a week and is past her prime and doesn't have time to work out," Harold says. "She's right next to me during the opening number. She's really bright. I liked her a lot."

I'm getting more exasperated. I mean, everybody I've spoken to hates Miss USA Today. But these young women are politicians, or at least extremely politic. (They're even officially called "state representatives.") "Do you like everybody?" I ask Harold. She laughs again. "Is every contestant here a wonderful person?"

"I think every contestant has some sort of wonderful attribute or they wouldn't be here," Harold says sincerely.

When I first saw the contestants at Wednesday's preliminary competitions, I was amazed at how young they look. On TV they look 35 and act 40. Harold, too -- so, so mature. Not the kind of young beauty I'm used to, at any rate. "How old are you?" I ask her.

"I'm 22 years old."

"Twenty-two! Has anyone ever said to you that you're too polished?" I ask. "You're like a CEO!"

"Well, thank you," she smiles. "That's a compliment coming from a reporter!"

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In my four days at the Miss America pageant, I learn that Harold is hardly the only state representative who's this professional. While there were anticipated moments of high camp and high kitsch in my backstage peek at the festivities, the experience was much different than I thought it would be. Sure, some contestants were airheads, but more of the young women seemed born of the ambitious executive track rather than the weird JonBenet pageant-from-cradle pool. Many are as polished as your average member of Congress.

Getting to know this organization -- which provides more college scholarship money for American women than any other, and is dependent upon a corps of 40,000 volunteers -- causes a complex overhaul of the feminist dogma one is fed from the 1970s. Such reconsideration doesn't come without serious rest stops regarding matters like, say, that swimsuit contest. But behind the veneer of Miss America 2003 is a struggle for legitimacy, and Erika Harold, a smart, involved young woman of African-American, white and Native American descent, embodies the claims that Miss America Pageant officials have made for years: The contest is about scholarship, not boobies; and success is based upon the impressive articulation of a platform, not the ability to make men pant.

Ornate but flawed, bold but awkward, feminist but sexist -- Miss America is America, a place where women are valued for more than their curves, but their curves are worth something, too.

The somewhat controversial selection of Harold was an attempt by the judges to underline that point. Because the future attorney, while perfectly lovely, is hardly a Venus DeMilo-esque stunner like many of her hottie competitors. She wasn't a contender in the swimsuit competition, or evening gown, or even talent. (She performed an aria from Bizet's "Carmen," revealing decent vocal skills but modest range.) But, in a twist never before accomplished in a Miss America pageant, Harold won by blowing away the seven Miss America judges with her intelligence, quickness, presence and genuineness in her closed-door interview. Harold's score shot to the top after the confab, and everyone else was playing catch-up from that moment on.

"This selection validates an opportunity for young women who never would have considered entering this competition," says judge Evan S. Dobelle -- the president of the University of Hawaii and the White House chief of protocol during the Carter administration -- when it's all done. "By picking a multiracial, Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard Law School woman who's articulate and personable and was selected, in my opinion, because she was the smartest -- that is antithetical to the perception historically of the pageant."

Sunday morning, women all across America -- including, at least in my world, feminist, liberal Democratic women -- whispered cattily to their friends about Erika Harold, wondering how on earth she won. And within the stands of the Boardwalk Convention Hall, just yards from the chilly Atlantic Ocean, it wasnt just the friends and family of the 50 runners-up who appeared stunned.

But it's really quite a natural selection. After being browbeat by feminists and media elites for years, the pageant created a method of scoring that paved the way for a winner who isn't necessarily the average frat boy's choice for a roll in the hay, but who may very well end up his boss. And that woman is Erika Harold.

You start with 51 women, many of whom are bright, a majority of whom are talented, and most of whom are attractive. (Though a few, notably, are not attractive at all, which says volumes about the scoring on the state level as well.)

It's Tuesday, the start of the preliminaries, and time to winnow the herd down to 15 by Thursday night. The judges start looking for glitches.

From the very beginning of the alphabet, Miss Alabama -- "Hi, I'm Scarlotte Deupree, looking forward to a career in nonprofit management" -- the judges look savagely for things to dislike. They have to. There is no room for sweetness here. They are looking for a reasonably attractive woman with brains, some talent, a deep commitment to some sort of issue, and the ability to think on her feet. Someone to represent the organization well -- which is why raven-haired Rebekah Revels, the deposed Miss North Carolina whose lame-ass ex-boyfriend threatened her with topless photos -- didn't stand a chance even if a judge had reinstated her.

It wasn't so much a matter of the photos -- though no one wants a return to the Vanessa Williams era. It was more that Revels changed her story about whether the topless shot was consensual. And then, from the perspective of pageant officials, laffaire dRevels had some questionable timing issues. After resigning preemptively in July, she waited until August -- until a time closer to the pageant that would guarantee more press attention -- before taking action to reclaim her Tarheel State tiara. And her restraining order against her ex, blocking him from showing anyone the photographs, came late too, at least as far as many associated with the pageant are concerned.

In the pressroom, contestants autograph an immense map of the United States with their circley, effusive John Hancocks, and Revels signed North Carolina. "The Forget Me Not Campaign," she wrote. "God Bless You All." Pageant officials quietly condemned the act as classless and inconsiderate to the actual Miss North Carolina, a bubbly blond beauty with the Dickensian name of Misty Clymer. (Judges are of course admonished to ignore any media coverage of contestants, but the Revels flap was unavoidable anywhere in the U.S., much less the Jersey shore, what with Revels and Clymer jointly appearing on "Good Morning, America" days before the pageant, Begin-and-Sadat style.)

The 51 official state reps are regarded much more highly than Revels, but it's judging time, time to find things to dis. A few decisions seem fairly obvious. Miss Montana's talent is a rather sparse session of Tai Kwan Do, complete with nunchucks. Miss Oregon -- whose platform features the widely disputed claim that abortion causes breast cancer -- sports a white bathing suit that leaves little, gynecologically speaking, to the imagination. Miss Virginia trips. Miss Indiana trips.

In addition to the private grilling they get from the judges, each night's evening gown contestant gets two questions from the host of the prelims, New York City ABC reporter Rebecca Rankin. Miss Nebraska fumbles on a question about how she deals with the fact that her father is a well-known local anchorman. "Wow, um, hi!" she says in the middle of it. The very next contestant, Miss New Mexico, catches herself referring to "the most new" treatment for Alzheimer's disease, her platform. She quickly corrects herself, but by then it's probably too late. She's 22, and she talks like a 22-year-old, and that's not what the judges are looking for. Especially since these questions have all been asked before, in the private interview.

The accompanying music is an insufferable loop of some unrecognizable "slow jams" tune; "There's nobody better for me," the soprano wails. No one has any idea why they're playing this song until Saturday night, when it turns out to be a ditty from the new album of ABC-TV star Wayne Brady, the pageant's host.

Miss Idaho is asked about stereotypes of her state, and she argues that most citizens of the Gem State are not white supremacists. "That's kind of a red mark on our white uniforms, so to speak," she says in an unfortunate metaphor. In the dark of the Atlantic City Convention Hall, if you listen closely, you can hear seven judges mentally cross off the name Misty Taylor.

My ears prick up when Miss Tennessee actually takes a stand. Asked by Rankin if Britney Spears is a good role model, Valli Kugler says no. "She's a fabulous performer," she says, "but as far as being a good role model, I don't think so." She disparages Spears for her suggestive dance moves and for dressing "very scandalously." The next night, Kugler will parade onstage in a bikini.

Rankin asks Miss Florida, whose platform is environmental conservation, how she reconciles "the need for low-income housing with the need for preservation."

"I'm sorry?" Miss Florida says. "What was that again?" Ouch.

Rankin repeats the question.

"I'm not really understanding the question," Miss Florida says. Oof. Painful.

Rankin explains it and Florida takes it and runs with it adequately, but by then the damage has been done, and Miss Florida's Miss America chances have gone the way of the butterfly ballot. You have to be able to think on your feet.

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During the week, each contestant is subjected to a 12-minute interview, preceded and concluded with a 40-second opportunity to share her thoughts. Swimsuit competition is only 10 percent of a contestant's total score; ditto evening gown. But the judges' sense of the contestants, much of it gleaned from the interview, is reflected in the preliminary "composite" score they'll assign Thursday night -- which will amount to 40 percent of a candidate's total score.

Obviously, the interview is key. Women are asked to name the first African-American on the Supreme Court, female senators other than Hillary Clinton, their favorite newspaper, their favorite columnist. This is where women who could easily be the next Miss A get eliminated, women who seem not that bright, women who seem phony, women who seem to be in it for the wrong reasons.

On Thursday night, Harold is awarded the interview award for her group. She looks stunned. I ask her about it.

"People always say, 'How did you feel coming out of the interview?' and I felt like I shared who I was but it's so subjective, you have no idea," she says. "Sometimes when they call your name you wonder if they actually just called your name. It's just a surreal moment because you work for a moment like that and to actually have it come through on a stage like that is just incredible."

I ask her if one has to receive one of these preliminary awards in order to make that first cut. "Oh, no," she says. "No awards guarantee you a spot in the finals. It's cumulative points. Someone could win no preliminary awards but actually be the highest scoring person. You just have to hope that you have enough points to make it on the final night."

But unbeknownst to Harold, her interview was so staggeringly impressive to the judges it will end up putting her over the top, ahead of tough competitors like Camille Lewis, Miss Maryland, with her virtuoso violin performance and mesmerizing good looks (4th runner-up); or Scarlotte Deupree, Miss Alabama, with her classy Southern charm, victory in the current events and trivia quiz, and popularity with her fellow colleagues (1st runner-up).

Pageant officials have complained for years that the media is too dismissive of the pageant's generosity in scholarships, that elitists sneer about the contest's exploitation of women but never seem to laud the fact that the eventual winner is almost never the best-looking in the bunch. But if the media weren't listening, this independent batch of pageant judges sure were.

On Wednesday night, in a typical preliminary evening, Miss America 2002, the beloved Katie Harman, comes out and, after telling us that she's "looking very, very forward" to returning to Portland State University for her junior year, paid for by the $75,000 in scholarship funds she garnered the year before, she breaks into a medley of patriotic songs: "America the Beautiful" into "Yankee Doodle Dandy" into "This Land Is Your Land" into "God Bless America." Harman has a real hammy, Vegas-y delivery that, again, makes her seem at least a generation older than a coed.

With that, the night is over. All the preliminary scholarship awards have been given to each of the three groups' winners in each of five categories: swimsuit, evening gown, talent, interview, and onstage knowledge and awareness. The judges now have an idea of whom they like, whom they think could be one of the final 15. They retreat to a private room at the Trump Taj Mahal with a black lacquer desk surrounded by Ernst & Young auditors and two women from ABC-TV standards and practices. They review their scores, and pick the 36 women who will open the show by announcing their name and dreams and desires -- only to have their Miss America chances summarily dismissed.

The unlucky 36 will then retreat backstage where they'll stuff their faces with pizza and donuts and be grilled by former "Entertainment Tonight" reporter Julie Moran about their disappointment. They'll also get to vote on which of the five finalists they would prefer to see win -- and their votes will count for 10 percent of the total score.

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"Show us your shoes!"

It's Friday evening and men, women and children yell this catchphrase as the contestants drive down the boardwalk in the annual Miss America Parade. Each contestant then lifts her leg in the air, revealing an ornate shoe-apparatus of some sort. Miss Massachusetts has lighthouses on hers; Miss California sports little surfer figurines.

Nowhere do they yell the shoe entreaty with more verve and actual shoe-lust than at the intersection of the Boardwalk and New York Avenue, below a couple of billowing rainbow banners in what used to be Atlantic City's gay mecca. Four drag queens -- not "To Wong Foo" drag queens, more like "Mrs. Doubtfire" drag queens -- stand cheering, surrounded by other trim, presumably gay men.

"Show us your shoes!" they yell.

"That's how it got started -- the queens," says Gary Lee Boas, a photographer who has been coming to the pageant for 30 years, professionally snapping shots of the contestants for the last 13. "Now everybody yells it and nobody knows where it came from."

The official Miss America program refers obliquely to this phenomenon on a page about the parade. "Show us your shoes," it says, "began with a group of spectators in the early 1970s. Each year, they would watch the parade while dressed up like Miss America, but they could not see what type of shoes the contestants were wearing under their long gowns. And so, to the amusement of all the Boardwalk spectators, they shouted, 'Show us your shoes!' Joining in the fun, the contestants simply raised their feet to show that they were indeed wearing no shoes at all or simply a pair of bedroom slippers."

However pussyfooted around they may be in the program, gays are a huge part of the pageant -- not only as hairstylists, costumers and choreographers, but as a loyal band of fans. "Sometimes there are more queens in the audience than onstage," Boas jokes.

And every Sunday following the pageant, local gay bar Studio Six holds its "Miss'd America" pageant, which Miss America 1998 -- the stellar Kate Shindle, whose controversial AIDS awareness platform included condom distribution and needle exchange -- even attended.

"There were 10 gay bars on this street" when the pageant started, says Doug Lambert, 41, who, as Chlamydia Liverpool, was Miss'd America 2001.

Why is Miss America so big in the gay community? "Well, why not?" asks another drag queen, Mortimer, Miss'd America 1995. "Glamour, shoes, gowns and big hair!"

"Plus it's for a good cause," lisps Ms. Dareena Ho, a contestant in this year's Miss'd America pageant.

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Across Pacific Avenue, yards away from the Boardwalk Convention Hall where the crown will be awarded, stands the grim strip joint Bare Exposure. Back in the 1970s, when feminists would picket the pageant on the Boardwalk, the contestants would literally be sandwiched between scolding Ellen Jamesians and down-and-dirty Atlantic City strippers rolling their eyes at the goody-goodies competing for the crown. Is this not where America often finds itself, leading the world in both Puritanism and pornography?

Ask a feminist why she disapproves of the pageant and she'll ask why the leading scholarship program for women requires contestants to strip down to bikinis and shake their booties for a bunch of judges. It's a valid question -- even if the pageant now refers to the category as "lifestyle and fitness in swimsuit," and judges contestants on confidence, poise and muscle tone.

But just as fair a question is: Are women judged according to their looks only within Atlantic City's city limits? Are attractive people in general not born with a leg up? Would Bill Clinton have been elected if he looked like Paul Tsongas? Would George W. Bush have won if he resembled Steve Forbes?

Pageant officials once gave the American people the opportunity to eliminate the swimsuit competition in 1995, and almost 1 million viewers phoned the two 900 numbers available for registering their votes. Seventy-nine percent voted to keep the swimsuits. One pageant official whispers to me that they would be glad to be rid of the swimsuit bit, but then ratings would take a dive, and then networks wouldn't pay for the telecast, and then the contest -- and scholarship money -- would vanish.

Thing is, for all the hoopla, the contest is a rather unsexy affair. After the initial shock of seeing the 51 in white gowns, parading to the platform at the start of the prelims, it was like showing up at the best sorority formal I'd ever been to -- I got bored kind of quickly. Bathing suits, shmathing suits, the sexiest moment for me actually came when Miss Maryland strutted around the stage while demonstrating her brilliance with a violin, which I guess is kind of the point.

Chopping down the pageant tree and inspecting its rings reveals much about the nation -- and not merely in the technical landmarks of first live radio broadcast (1925), first live television broadcast (1954) and first color TV broadcast (1966). Just as the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman in 1921, resembled the American ideal at the time -- silent screen star Mary Pickford -- so have contestants and winners come to reflect, and sometimes preview, what mainstream America accepts.

The first black woman to enter was Iowa's Cheryl Adrienne Browne in 1970; six years later Delaware's Deborah Lipford was the first African-American to make it to the top 10, and in 1984 Vanessa Williams won the crown. The first Asian-American to enter, Hawaii's Yun Tau Zane, came in 1948, just three years after Japanese internment camps were shut down. It took until 2001 for an Asian-American, Angela Perez Baraquio, also from the Aloha State, to win.

A Native American, Oklahoma's Norma Smallwood, won in 1926. The first Jew, Bess Myerson, won in 1945 -- the same year that scholarship money was first offered. In 1995, Heather Whitestone of Alabama, who is deaf, became the first disabled woman to win. Three years later, Nicole Johnson of Virginia -- a diabetic -- became the first woman with a life-threatening illness to win. Latinas like this year's Miss Nevada, Teresa Benitez, have been nominated before but have yet to gain a crown.

How many Jews are in Bush's Cabinet? How many Asians star on prime-time TV? How many African-Americans are in the Senate? How many high-profile films has deaf actress Marlee Matlin starred in since "Children of a Lesser God"?

This year's entrants included six African-Americans, one Eskimo, one Hawaiian, one Native American and one Indian. Ten of the contestants grew up in public housing; six come from single-parent homes; three read the Bible every day.

Platforms weren't required until 1990, when Debbye Turner won with "Motivating Youth to Excellence," but politics have long been part of the contest. In 1944, Kentucky's Venus Ramey, Miss District of Columbia, worked with the House and Senate to get full voting rights for the citizens of D.C. -- a cause so ahead of its time it still hasn't happened 58 years later.

This year, Benitez declares herself to be the future senator from Nevada, so naturally, smartass that I am, I interview her to see if she knows what she's talking about. She does. She embarrasses me for being such a skeptic. At 17, she co-founded a group that lobbies for low-income women, and she has personally registered 1,500 voters. She cites Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the assistant majority leader, as one of her role models.

I interviewed Reid, I say. He told me that President Bush lied to Nevada voters about his secret support to ship nuclear waste to the state's Yucca Mountain facility. I ask her if she agrees. In her answer she shows more spine than half the Democrats on Capitol Hill.

"He did on this," Benitez, 24, says. "He said he would not allow Yucca Mountain to happen and he did a complete 180 and pushed through Yucca Mountain legislation and supported it. I felt very betrayed by the president when he did that."

She considers the pageant a "dry run" for her eventual state Senate run, she says. "The premises are exactly the same. You have a limited amount of time and resources to convince a panel of judges that you are the person who is best able to represent that community. You're running on a platform. There are an amazing amount of parallels between the two."

Most contestants aren't so outspoken, but then again, neither are most politicians. But plenty of Miss A's have raised some hell. In the throes of the Roe vs. Wade decisions, Miss America 1974, Colorado's Rebecca King, proclaimed herself pro-choice. This was King's second shocker -- she had already committed pageant blasphemy by saying that she entered the pageant for the scholarship money.

Nowadays, scholarship money is everyone's motivation. Many of these girls have tried for the crown before and lost, only to return a year or two or three later to make it to the Boardwalk -- and money for school. Benitez lost her state competition as Miss Sparks in 1997, Miss Silver State in 1998, Miss Reno in 1999, and Miss University of Nevada-Reno in 2001 before finally landing the state crown this year. To hear her tell it, the trip hasn't been so bad.

"All in all, I've already funded my entire undergraduate degree," Benitez says, adding it all up to approximately $15,000. She'll add thousands to this kitty throughout the week in various awards, culminating in an additional $25,000 for her showing as 3rd runner-up.

Similarly, Miss America-to-be Erika Harold walks me through all the Miss Illinois contests she has lost. As Miss Champaign-Urbana in 1998, she was trounced in the state competition. "I had a terrible dress on," she laughs. "I wasn't as familiar with the system as I should have been and I had this terrible royal blue monstrosity."

She won Miss East-Central Illinois in 1999, but lost the state contest; was Miss Kishwaukee Valley in 2000 but lost the state contest; was Miss Land of Lincoln, representing the Springfield area, in 2002, and finally got the nod.

Harold says she got interested because of the scholarship money: Her mom told her she would need to help provide for her college education, and with the pageant providing more than $40 million in scholarships and cash assistance to young women this past year alone, Harold says that's when she started exploring the option.

Her mom remembers it a little differently. "When she was about 12 or 13, she started saying 'I'd like to be Miss America,'" Donna Tanner Harold tells me two nights later, just minutes before the pageant begins. "She was just interested in it."

Are women like Harold, our new Miss America, shamed away from admitting that they want to be Miss America because they desire the accompanying glamour and fame? Most definitely. I ask Harold what she would say to her future sisters at Harvard Law School, who will no doubt look askew at her tiara, sash and bikini walk.

"I would stress the issue of empowerment," Harold says. "Participating in the Miss America contest has given me the equipment and skills" to make a difference. "Not to mention the scholarship assistance," she adds.

There's a defensiveness, a backed-into-a-corner anger, that pageant participants and defenders seem to feel. It is palpable as they list Miss A achievements: Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999, raised tens of millions to combat diabetes; Kate Shindle, Miss American 1998, did similar fundraising to fight AIDS and was refreshingly opinionated -- she also said that President Clinton should resign if he lied under oath.

Miss Americas aren't serious women? Tell that to Miss America 1964, Donna Axum Whitworth, a judge this year who sits on the board of the Kennedy Center and is a delight -- one who has aged maybe a year since winning the crown. Miss Americas aren't tough? Aren't smart? Go ahead -- tell that to Whitworth. I dare you.

One day after this year's Miss America Pageant the TV people performed their annual act of self-love with the Emmy broadcast -- and all they do is shovel crap into our living rooms, lowering our national I.Q. They certainly don't dole out $40 million in scholarship money to young women. Why, therefore, are pageant officials and participants constantly being asked if they're relevant? Why do they need to defend themselves?

One of the main reasons for this awkward dynamic is the nonprofit Miss America organization itself. Run almost entirely by volunteers, the spirit is marvelous -- but you get what you pay for. And the paid staff -- particularly the CEOs -- have been even more wanting.

In fact, the parents of Katie Harman -- Glen and Darla Harman -- complained about how poorly the organization is run in an angry eight-page letter on Feb. 3 of this year. "Katie is your Miss America and I can't tell you how many times she is 'in trouble' for things that are not her fault," Darla Harman wrote to the Miss America board of directors.

Katie was being billed for items related to her pageant duties -- 26 clothing alterations, $2,248 for her post-victory party at the Taj. Moreover, each Miss America makes her salary for the year in speaking fees, which can top $100,000, but during Harman's "year of service," as it's called, the organization wasn't coming through, said Katie's mom.

Harman, ever the loyal soldier, denied reports that she was "unhappy as Miss America and that I have been 'mistreated' by the Miss America organization. These statements are not true; they do not represent my feelings and were attributed to me without my knowledge or consent."

But it appears that the organization was indeed being poorly run. In an odd development, Darla Harman's letter was released to the press by former casino executive Robert Renneisen, then the Miss America Pageant's CEO, who had to resign in March when he lost the confidence of the board, for, among other reasons, his threat to move the pageant out of Atlantic City if the city didn't cough up an additional $1 million.

This was heresy: The contest was founded to bring tourism to Atlantic City after Labor Day weekend, a goal made evident by the lame infomercial the pageant runs every year featuring contestants eating salt water taffy, playing in the surf, and having fun on the Steel Pier. On the video, the women sing the city's praises; in reality, the place is a rundown and decaying shack whose unofficial city slogan could be encapulated in the pawnbroker's blunt solicitation: "cash for gold."

The interim CEO, George Bauer, made a shaky debut with his support for a controversial decision to lend the pageant's copyright to a slot machine, a move that so angered past crown winners that several boycotted this year's event. (The pageant has historically steered clear of gambling, at one point even banning contestants from entering casinos, even though they often stayed in the hotels connected to them.)

The contest's connection to Atlantic City is ultimately its strength and its weakness. The unabashed idealism, the appealing naiveté of contestants armed with plans for how to save the world, mirrors the rundown city's hope to save itself. The pageant is a mom and pop operation at heart, and it's horrible to imagine a coven of California suits preparing the "Fear Factor," "Celebrity Death Match," "Temptation Island" version of the pageant, were they allowed to get their hands on it.

But it is the organization's small-town perspective that mutes the pageant's potential and keeps Miss A on the B list. Many pageant volunteers long for the days when Miss America was demure, and quiet, and known mainly for her beauty; they have not evolved as the pageant has attempted to break free of that stereotype, adding the platform, grading on more than looks, requiring community service.

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The pageant -- the main event -- is over in a split second. Stars either on their way up, like Brady, or down, like last year's emcee, Tony Danza, host the festivities, gushing about how wonderful the girls are, even though they haven't spent any time with them at all, save for brief rehearsals. They're the phoniest part of the entire affair, except, quite possibly, for one or two pairs of bosoms.

All 51 state representatives come out, then 36 leave in the blink of an eye. The final 15 are winnowed to 10 after the swimsuit competition, 10 go down to five after evening gown. In the talent segment, Miss Nevada does an earnest but cringe-worthy interpretation of Matthew Shephard's father's trial testimony -- innocent in its conception, brave in its subject matter (considering who's watching the show), but ultimately kind of trite. Miss Alabama has a lovely voice, singing a golden oldie from "Footloose" -- "Holding Out for a Hero" -- but she moves her body like a girl who hasn't yet had sex.

The last five also take a "Jeopardy"-esque multiple-choice quiz revealing that Misses Maryland and Oklahoma are, triviawise, tonight's weakest links. Miss Alabama wins the quiz show, as well as the support of the 46 also-rans backstage. Harold still gets the coveted tiara, indicating how far ahead she must have been before the night even began.

Once Harold has taken her crown, and the friends and family of the other 50 have left town as fast as they could, the judges celebrate with the pageant board in a Taj suite. But the merriment, joking and pats on the back are interrupted by the entreaties of judge James M. Jones, a former aide to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and the founding executive vice president of the Vaccine Fund, a Gates-funded group that works to immunize children against preventable diseases.

"You have got to support Erika," James urges the small crowd. "You have got to provide her with support." James reminds them that the judges understood their mandate and selected Harold even though they knew it would ruffle the feathers of those hoping for a more traditional queen.

Another judge, Tammy Haddad, a highly respected TV producer, stands and urges the pageant board of directors and staff to "tell their story," to get the word out. People don't realize the sheer volume of young women who enter the competitions to get scholarship money, the hours and hours of community service they put in before foot one lands on the Boardwalk, how the organization is run by volunteers. She gets the other six judges to sign off on an Op-Ed she wants to submit to a newspaper defending the program and urging the Miss America organization to move ahead. Erika Harold is the future of the pageant, Haddad says, and the pageant needs to use her to tell its own story better.

But the night ends more in hugs than lectures. The dignified pageant judge Gwendolyn C. Baker, a civil rights activist and former national executive director of the YWCA, admits to having started the process as a skeptic and at 70, she says, she no longer changes her mind about much. She still refuses to call the young women "ladies," since "I'm a feminist," but swimsuit be damned, the educational opportunities extended to contestants, and the devotion of the volunteers, has shaken her up. The speech is sweet, and cornball, and kind of naive, and also, in a way, rather sophisticated. It was the perfect way to end the week.

Down at the Miss America press conference, Erika Harold is handling questions deftly, introducing the crowd to her parents, smiling and thanking everyone. Judge Axum Whitworth, a former Miss Arkansas who was crowned six years before an African-American won a state contest, doesn't have to be there but she watches from a respectable distance, seemingly proud of the choice. Photographs are taken. The bouquet is held. And then a chaperone guides her off the dais.

Harold walks by me. "Congratulations," I say. She says, "Thank you," with rote politeness, and then does a double take since we've spoken twice -- before her life changed forever. And then she's whisked into a limousine and driven to her future.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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