The reigning Miss Santa Monica hurled some ugly charges at the pageant's sponsors this week, claiming they had insulted her and damaged her professional reputation when they said that the annual contest was sexist.
M. Jai Jefferson, who fainted on stage when she won the pageant last year, said the sponsors had implied that she is not a "total person." Jefferson also accused contest officials of treating her unfairly during her reign.
Jefferson said the sponsoring Santa Monica Jaycees had reneged on promises to send her on an exotic vacation. The black actress also charged that they had failed to keep her informed of personal appearance opportunities.
"I have basically been in the closet," said Jefferson, 22. "They even tried to keep me from going to compete in the Miss California Pageant."
Jefferson's outburst was sparked by reports that the contest was being changed. Earlier this month, pageant chairman Don Sowers called the past contests sexist and said this year's entrants would be judged on community involvement, intellect and goals instead of appearance.
Sowers said this week that he was shocked to learn that Jefferson was offended by his remarks and he questioned her motives for going public.
"I really have some bad vibes about this," Sowers said. "The Jaycees are a very upstanding community organization. It sounds like a publicity stunt."
Sowers also denied that the Jaycees had snubbed Jefferson. He said that she was often too busy with her acting career to participate in events. He added that her vacation, a trip to the Mexican resort town of Mazatlan, was delayed because the sponsor backed out. The Jaycees later put up the money to pay for the trip, but Jefferson did not pick up the tickets, Sowers said.
One of the judges of this year's pageant is attorney Gloria Allred, an outspoken feminist. Allred applauded the Jaycees' efforts to modernize the pageant, and said Jefferson's charges of being slighted are "ridiculous."
"This is bizarre is all I can say," Allred said. "There is absolutely no foundation and no basis for it. . . . She shouldn't snipe at the pageant."
Jefferson's charges come at a time when the Jaycees are trying to revitalize the 30-year-old contest. By abolishing the beauty category and changing the name from the "Miss Santa Monica" to the "Ms. Santa Monica" pageant, organizers are hoping to attract more contestants and quiet critics who contend that traditional beauty contests are sexist and degrading, Sowers said.
Women in this year's pageant, a nonprofit event, will not be required to engage in a talent competition or wear bathing suits. And one of the major categories is a current events quiz. Sowers said that about 60 women have applied to be contestants, including a 42-year-old. He said he did not expect Jefferson's remarks to cause any problems.
Holds Several Titles
Both sides acknowledged, however, that relations have been strained since Jefferson won the title last year. Jefferson, who lives in Pasadena, entered the contest while she was attending UCLA. A beauty pageant veteran, Jefferson had already been named Miss American Valentine and Miss Candy Store. But she said that she did not expect to capture the Miss Santa Monica crown.
"I actually fainted," Jefferson said. "I was shocked. I had no notion that they would choose a black to represent them. I had entered for the fun and the challenge of it. I wanted to see if I could win over the other girls."
Jefferson said things started to sour shortly afterward. She conceded that she was often late for events because of acting work on television shows such as "Dallas," "The Fall Guy" and "Mike Hammer," but added that she felt the Jaycees were shunning her. She said they did not give her credit for community activities involving groups such as the United Negro College Fund, Hands Across America, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Watts-Willowbrook Christmas Parade.
"I don't know why," Jefferson said. "I lived up to the title to my fullest. I am a community-oriented person. But they didn't realize that."
Sowers disagreed. He said Jefferson turned down invitations to appear at some community events because of her acting commitments. At other times, he said that she was two to eight hours late for appearances.
Race had nothing to do with the problems between Jefferson and the Jaycees, he added. "She has been a model for young women in Santa Monica," Sowers said. "She is a credit to her race and to the selection process."
Sowers said Jefferson is still welcome to attend the Feb. 6 pageant and crown the new queen. Jefferson said she will consider the offer. Meanwhile, her publicist, June Acon, is seeking a formal apology from the Jaycees.
"She has been a queen the Santa Monica community should be very proud of," Acon stated in a press release. "She carries herself with a certain class and charm that shouts pulchritude."