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MISS AMERICA GETS A MAKEOVER UPDATED PAGEANT FRESHENS ITS LIPSTICK FOR MOVE TO CABLE NETWORK.

Byline: David Kronke TV Writer

Last week, had you been sitting on one of the plush sofas dotting the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton's corridors, you might have beheld a line of beautiful women striding through, their professionally beaming smiles tightly in place. Sashes diagonally across their carefully chosen outfits identified them as contestants in Saturday's Miss America pageant in Las Vegas.

They strode through the area - back and, then, after the day's second or third photo shoot, forth - in crisp alphabetical order, by their home state.

Wondering if I had missed their press conference, I asked, ``Have you already done your session?'' as they passed.

No response: The women cascaded past, some assiduously avoiding eye contact. I asked again. Perhaps they pegged me for a crank with a particularly awful pickup line (reasonable enough), or maybe they had been instructed not to talk to strangers.

Only one - and I don't want to bust her, in case she did breach protocol - looked distressed; she wanted to help me, it seemed, but didn't want to get in any trouble.

Her eyes wide with something akin to panic, she looked at me and, ever so subtly, barely shook her head: No.

Switching channels

If Miss America contestants seem a bit fragile, wondering who they are, that's because the pageant itself is getting a makeover.

The press conference - at which pageant contestants appeared only briefly, for a photo-op with this year's MC, ``Desperate Housewives'' star James Denton - was arranged by CMT, the cable network dedicated to all things country music. It proclaimed that, recent setbacks notwithstanding, the Miss America pageant was back and, with luck, better than ever.

Up to now, Miss America had been crowned on ABC on a Saturday night, the lousiest evening for network-TV viewing. Even given the lack of competition from other networks, ABC's last pageant broadcast in September 2004 drew a mere 7.1 million viewers, down 50 percent from 1997. Which explains why the show will now be seen on basic cable.

``ABC was never unhappy with us,'' declared Art McMaster, CEO of the Miss America Organization. ``We still had one of the best Saturday nights of the whole year.''

He was equally disingenuous when attempting to explain the ratings slide: ``When Miss America was in its heyday, there were three television stations to watch. Now, you have 203 television stations.''

True enough, and clearly, appearing on a cable network that will put a lot of advertising muscle behind a signature show, rather than a broadcast network whose promotion treats the pageant as just another night in 365, will help. (The women have been traversing the country in buses whose garish exteriors blurt, ``The next Miss America is on this bus! Follow me to ... Las Vegas!'')

Still, there's obviously more to it than McMaster's simplistic thesis. When the Miss America pageant ruled the airwaves, from the '50s to the '70s and even into the '80s, an evening of sheer, unrelenting beauty - OK, let's say it, of downright sexiness - was still something of a novelty on TV. In recent decades, however, TV executives have - duh - discovered that attractive women lure lots of (need we say it? male) viewers, and so nowadays the level of beauty Miss America offered one night a year is available virtually every evening.

You can watch sexy cops, sexy doctors, sexy wives married to fat oafs, sexy women aspiring to become ``America's Next Top Model,'' even sexy terrorists and sexy counter-terrorists. You can see more taut women in teeny bikinis on any given episode of ``South Beach'' than during the pageant. And, though the pageant has attempted to remake itself as an exercise in wholesomeness - emphasizing, among other wholesome things, the scholarships it distributes to contestants ($43 million this year throughout the sundry levels of competition) - viewers have clearly indicated they prefer sexy beauty over wholesome beauty. Sorry, the numbers just bear that out.

Bikinis `R' Us

At an event later that night at Pasadena's Twin Palms, where the women were allowed not only to shake their heads without fear of reprisal but speak their minds, Nicole Brewer, Miss Pennsylvania, conceded the point, but offered this rebuttal: ``You can see scantily clad women easily on shows that want to get your attention, but it's rare to see beauty and grace, and that's what the Miss America pageant has to offer.''

And she's right: All of the contestants interviewed at that event were more personable, well-spoken and, certainly, more graceful than most young actors I've spoken to. Though it may not come out on the show itself, the contestants really are highly intelligent, which explains those scholarships that everyone involved has been endlessly grilled to discuss.

Rebecca Hayes, Miss Alaska, put a more pointed spin on Brewer's thoughts by emphasizing one difference between the pageant and the rest of ogle-ready TV: ``You see women in bikinis eating bugs on 'Fear Factor.' The women competing for Miss America have real talent.''

Which brings up a bone of contention at the press conference that the assorted journalists would not let go of: The swimsuit competition is sexist. One would have imagined that these reporters might have encountered sexism elsewhere on TV to far more egregious degrees, but this was a topic that genuinely got them riled.

McMaster didn't help his cause much by insisting, ``It's all about health and fitness in the swimwear (competition),'' which provoked one reporter to laugh openly and respond, ``Are you kidding?''

Panelists Deidre Downs, the current Miss America, and Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, were then forced to admit the bathing-suit competition was not their favorite part of the pageant.

``It's tough,'' Downs said. ``Everyone recognizes that it's part of the Miss America tradition. ... It's not as big a focus for contestants.''

``I would've loved to see it go, but I know it can't,'' added Meriwether, who actually looked far more alluring in her Catwoman body suit on the '60s ``Batman'' series than in beachwear. ``All the male viewers (enjoy it), definitely. I don't know about the women watching, whether they really care about that.''

Current contestants were more pragmatic. Alexa Jones, Miss Alabama, noted, ``Miss America is about self-confidence, and the swimsuit competition strikes some as uncomfortable. If you can walk around in a bathing suit before the judges and audience, you're pretty confident.'' She was enjoying a chocolate dessert as she said this, so it can be assumed that she's very confident.

`Don't cha wish'

Dustin-Leigh Konzelman, Miss California (out of San Diego) and a member of the bluegrass band that includes her entire family and tours internationally, offered a perspective that seemed far more rational than that of anyone else I'd spoken to that evening.

``It's the nature of people to find fault, and that happens to be a problem with Miss America today,'' she said. ``Miss America is held to a much higher standard because it has so much tradition and adheres to core ethical values. And for many people, to have that associate with swimsuits is a problem. I don't have a problem with it, but perhaps you could accomplish the same goal with a different competition - say, a sportswear competition.''

As the evening drew to a close, and the young women momentarily no longer had to worry about bikinis or scholarships, they were at last able to shed their inhibitions. A sizable group of them began dancing as the chorus of the Pussycat Dolls' ``Don't Cha'' poured from the restaurant's speakers: ``Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?''

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

MISS AMERICA PAGEANT

Where: CMT.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) The reigning Miss America, Deidre Downs

(2 -- 3) Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, chats with contestants Rachel Leigh Ellsworth, Miss Maryland, center, and Jacqueline Marie Johnson, Miss North Dakota, at the Twin Palms restaurant in Pasadena. The pageant has lost its crown at ABC and will now be taped in Las Vegas for cable network CMT. Below, Meriwether wears the crown.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer

(4) The swimsuit competition dates back to the 1920s, when the pageant was held on the Atlantic City, N.J., boardwalk.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 18, 2006
Words:1365
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