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Dispute Erupts Over Choice of Beauty Queen : Pageant Director Criticized by Angry Ex-Board Members

August 25, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Robert Speights couldn't get over how unfair it all was.

Speights said that no newspaper had even covered the Miss Ventura Pageant that he, as the event's executive director, had so painstakingly staged nearly two weeks ago.

But ever since the pageant's five-member board of directors resigned immediately after the Aug. 13 crowning of a newly transplanted Northern California contestant considered an outsider, Speights' telephone hadn't stopped ringing with inquiries from reporters.

Finally in the spotlight, the former hairdresser who runs a dress shop in Oxnard was putting his foot down. There would be no photographs or interviews with Debra Filstrup, the 24-year-old former Concord resident whose triumph last week had precipitated the ruckus.

"This thing has lost its momentum and there's nothing else to say," Speights said, straining to contain his voice as his two terriers snapped in the background.

But if momentum had dwindled, it wasn't evident to those who attended the Ventura County Fair parade Friday, where protesters mistook fair queen Erica Fuchs for Filstrup and booed her.

Favoritism Charged

Neither was it evident to the board members who resigned, including Ventura Mayor Jim Monahan and his wife, Suzanne, who criticized Speights and his wife, Karin, this week. One of the board members who quit, Tony Soares of Camarillo, a florist, was out of town and could not be reached. The other two board members, florists Bob and Sheelah Henry of Oxnard, would say that their "actions speak louder than words."

The Monahans accused the couple of allowing Filstrup to enter the contest late, violating local pageant rules that require contestants to attend every practice. And they characterized Robert Speights as an ambitious director caught up with preserving the local pageant's record of having Miss Ventura County place within the top 10 contestants in the Miss California Pageant.

They also accused the Speights of favoring participants in the contest--which feeds into the Miss America Pageant--and using the local contest as a steppingstone to their recently attained positions as fashion coordinators for the Miss California Pageant. Meanwhile, two other board members who previously resigned, Don Johnson, publisher of the Santa Paula Daily Chronicle, and Margie Moritz-Arem, an Ventura businesswoman, claimed that the Speights mismanaged pageant funds.

"They're only in it for the glory," Monahan said. "They don't care about a local person winning. They think you have to win period, and however you do that is fine."

State pageant officials, however, disagreed, describing the Oxnard couple as unstinting volunteers who have selflessly devoted themselves to the local pageant since reviving it three years ago.

'Sour Grapes'

"Bob and Karin Speights do an excellent job and really support their contestants," said Robert Arnhym, president of the Miss California/Miss America Pageant.

The resignations should, instead, be attributed to so much "sour grapes," Beth Williams, a pageant field representative, said. "Maybe their favorite girl didn't win."

State officials said they had understood that the Henrys and Soares were planning to resign to devote more time to their businesses.

Filstrup, a recently enrolled student at Cal State Northridge, was entitled to participate in the Miss Ventura County pageant under a provision in the state rules that allows women to enter the pageant nearest to their residence, workplace or school, Williams said. Cal State officials confirmed Filstrup has registered there for the fall semester but would not say when she enrolled. With no contest in Northridge, Ventura had the closest contest, she added.

Besides, Williams said, Ventura County benefits from having the strongest possible candidate for the Miss California pageant, which is held every year in June. "Everybody loves a winner," she said.

But not Monahan, who accused Filstrup of being "a ringer."

He said the Speights caved in under pressure from Williams to admit Filstrup, a seasoned beauty pageant contestant known throughout the state to pageant officials and a gift for piano playing that she had honed over 16 years. Williams, however, said Filstrup, who is familiar to state officials because she's entered several contests, went through the same channels any other beauty pageant contestant.

"She knew that her girl in Concord had a talent that far surpassed anything we had," Monahan said. "She didn't care whether it violated our rules."

Monahan, who maintains the board should have authority in these and other policy matters, said the board had previously voted against admitting Filstrup because she would not be able to attend every practice, a prerequisite of participation. But after conferring with state pageant officials, Speights allowed her to compete anyway, Monahan charged.

State officials said Filstrup was allowed to enter after they learned that other contestants also would be missing practices.

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