September 20, 2002
Changes at Miss America


It's time to select a new Miss America and, once again, there are a few new wrinkles in the process.

This year there is a "mole" in the lineup (USA Today reporter Olivia Barker), an expanded quiz competition, judging of the top five by the other contestants and a couple of Miss USA-like additions - increased use of the Internet plus new co-host Julie Moran.

In fact, Miss America officials are already working on some changes for next year's pageant that aren't yet widely known.

One new competition reportedly being considered has each of the contestants being covered by live spiders. Each would be scored according to the length of time before she starts screaming and brushing off the insects.

Another possibility is the moving of the pageant to a new city, without telling the state winners where it is. Then, three weeks before the pageant is to begin, each woman would leave from her state capitol with a film crew in search of the host city, following clues given each day. The first one to arrive on the runway wins the initial competition.

The possibility of adding an additional judge to the pageant is being considered. Not a woman from middle America, not the public at home, not the other contestants - an insulting, ignorant British egomaniac who would offer his opinions of the contestants as they leave the stage after each competition.

Then there is the idea of taking the three 17-woman competition groups and housing each group together in three different mansions, filled with cameras taping everything that happens. The week leading up to next year's pageant, the edited versions of these "real pageant" experiences would be aired on ABC.

Finally, an idea getting lots of interest has each state entering a team of four contestants - one for interview, one for evening wear, one for swimsuit and one for talent. Then, after the winning team is picked, the four women are taken to Brigantine Island. They live there together and, every night on ABC, one of them is voted off until just one remains, the new Miss America.

Silly ideas? Sure. But they are concepts that have brought in some ratings and the Miss America Organization is obsessed with improving its ratings.

At one time, this pageant was the most watched live television event of the year. But all that has changed. Now it is getting rating shares that are one-third or less of what it chalked up during its hey-day.

For decades, Miss America officials proudly identified their pageant as the one with a talent competition. Now, they act like they are somewhat embarrassed by the talent segment, cutting the number of performers on Saturday night from 10 to five. They are afraid, pageant officials have said, that people will dial out during talent. American Idol, Making of the Band and other shows should have shown them the error of their ways.

This year the pageant got a few more headlines from the battle of North Carolina. You probably know all the details of why the two women went to a federal court to determine which of them should represent the Tar Heel State. You probably don't know, however, that the competing Miss Wyoming did not win her pageant. She was first runner-up and the winner withdrew the day after winning, though no controversy was involved.

One opportunity for exposure and a deepening of this experience for the 51 representatives seems to have been missed. Why didn't they have the contestants gather in New York City, rather than Philadelphia, where they could have seen Ground Zero first hand just a few days before the national memorials?

Anyway, in Saturday night's finals, telecast over ABC starting at 8 p.m., there will be more multiple-choice questions for the finalists, even though many found last year's quiz segment rather awkward. This year the scoring will be even more important.

Viewers at home can vote in the swimsuit, evening wear and talent competitions and the result of that very unofficial viewers' poll will be announced, though it will not count in the actual judging.

What will count in the judging - it will be 10 percent of the score for each of the five finalists - will be the opinion of the 46 women who did not make the top five. Each will vote for her favorite on backstage computers after the top five is selected.

Then there is the mole factor, the reporter who is experiencing what it is like to be a Miss America contestant and writing about it each day in USA Today.

"I'm tossed about that," said Miss New Jersey, Alicia Luciano. "Okay, fine, she's writing a beautiful article and that can be to the pageant's benefit. But I just don't understand how she's going to get the full Miss America experience. To do that, she needed to be here with us when we arrived in Philadelphia - scared, nervous and not knowing each other. She needed to inter-act with us during rehearsals and preparations. She needs to compete in swimsuit. Most of these women have been preparing for this for years, facing the up and downs of emotions and pressures. There is no way she can give an accurate picture of what this experience is like for the 51 of us by just jumping in for a week or so."

Luciano is not one of those who has prepared for this all her life. "When I came to Ocean City three months ago (she won her title on the Music Pier) I was coming to have fun and to try to make the top 10 so I could perform a second time on Saturday night," she said. "I am the youngest contestant here and I was one of the youngest at Miss New Jersey. I really didn't know what I was doing. I've been a dancer all my life so I just went out and competed."

Luciano, who competed in the state pageant as Miss Tri-County, turned 19 on Aug. 31. A graduate of Lenape Valley Regional High School and a sophomore at Wagner College, she will dance to "The Prayer". She hopes to obtain her Bachelor's degree in Arts Administration. Her platform is America for Tomorrow's Cure, an educational and fund-raising effort on behalf of breast cancer.

Pageant veterans usually believe that it is very difficult for teenagers to win the Miss America title. It has only happened once in more than a quarter of a century. But Luciano wouldn't change her experience.

"When I first won I think people thought that I should have waited," she said, "but timing is everything and things have fallen into place so well for me. I'm prepared. There is nothing else I could have done to get myself better prepared. And who knows where I would have been three years down the road? There is so much I want to do with my life. This will open doors for me. I think it's perfect timing."

As you read this, the preliminary competitions are over for Alicia and the 50 other contestants. There is a boardwalk parade in Atlantic City Friday night. And there are no tickets left for the finals at the Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night.

Miss America officials are hoping that a few additional trivia questions and some interactive computer opportunities will cause more of you to watch their show on television.