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FASHION : Pageant Contestants Will Leave Swimsuits at Home : The Ojai competitors will forgo beachwear, but the tradition remains firmly rooted at the national level.

August 11, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At woodsy Libbey Park in Ojai, a corps of young women, moving in a circle to the disco beat of "I'm Your Boogie Man" on a green tennis court, kick in unison, point fingers in the air and toss heads of shining hair.

Dressed mostly in T-shirts and shorts, they are practicing the dance number for the Ojai Pageant, to be held at 7 p.m. Saturday at Nordhoff High School, where one of them will be crowned Miss Ojai of 1994.

The tradition of choosing a feminine namesake for a town is alive and well in Ventura County, where at least a dozen such contests are held each year.

Costuming for these events is a big part of the attraction and is carefully determined, either by standards set by the Miss USA contest or the inspiration of local program committees.

Except in Ojai, where the event is not licensed by the national contest and there is no committee. The sponsoring Optimist Club of Ojai leaves the matter of dress up to Nancy Hill, director-producer of the pageant for almost a decade.

Hill says the contest is to build self-esteem, and she likes the contestants to feel happy about what they wear.

This year's costumes will be formal gowns, '70s-style disco dresses for the dance number, street wear for the interview with judges. And for the first time in pageant history: no swimsuits.

"So many girls said, 'I would (enter) if I didn't have to wear a bathing suit,' " said Hill. "The majority don't mind doing the bathing suit, because it's for fitness. And I have found the ones who are (physically) disciplined are the ones who make your best queens."

The firmly rooted tradition of the swimsuit is loosening slightly in local queen pageants. Miss Moorpark has been named without beachwear for several seasons; the decision at this year's Miss Simi Valley contest is up in the air. The rest of the pageant committees we surveyed said the suit remains.

"If we could eliminate it altogether, we would," said David Caufield, producer of the Miss Oxnard pageant. "But we don't do it because it's not fair to the girls. If they make it to the state (contest), then all of a sudden they're nailed with it, and they need to be able to get in front of an audience in a suit."

The state is not about to drop the swimsuit, said Carolee Munger, director of Miss California USA.

"We've had this discussion at our national meeting several times," she said. "Interestingly enough, when it is brought before the table, it is typically the contestants who will say, 'No, leave it in. It's fun.' And they're very proud of their physical appearances. The entire country is so health conscious--everybody's mother and everybody's father is a fitness zealot. So, if anything, in many ways swimsuits become even more relevant in any kind of national pageant."

A contrasting sentiment was expressed by Mindy Henshaw, 20, of Ventura, a cashier at Unocal, who entered the Miss Ojai pageant only when she heard the swimsuit event was removed.

"I feel it's degrading," she said. "A lot of the pageants are beauty pageants. If you are out in a bathing suit, they are looking at the outside of you, not the inside."

Rene Martinez, 18, who will enter Ventura College in the fall, wore a suit last year when she was named third runner-up for Miss Ojai. Competing again this year, she said, "I'm happy that they took it out. It's really embarrassing to get up there in a swimsuit. You have the judges real close to you in the daytime, and you have to turn every way so they can see every side of you.

"When you walked up on stage, you had a little sarong skirt on, tied at the side, and you had to untie it and flop it over your shoulder and walk off. It was kind of weird."

The swimsuit has been replaced by a tank top and shorts in which contestants appear prior to the public event. This will result in a fitness award, which does not add points toward the queen title. Judges will rate contestants on composure, posture, stage presence and eye contact.

Traditions die hard. Swimsuit competition for aspiring queen was born in 1921, when the first Miss America competition was proudly labeled a bathing beauty contest. Beauty has lost a lot of points on the charts since then.

Last fall, during a Miss America special on NBC, the audience could call an 800 number and vote on the issue: Are swimsuits relevant to the pageant? Should they stay in? Over 60% of the audience said yes.

So, officials figured, why fool around with success? The suits will be back this fall, and there's no plan to phase them out.

Nonetheless, there's an innovation in this grandmother of pageant ceremonies--maybe in response to that 40% who registered a "heck no" or a "maybe":

In 1994, the swimsuit event will feature bare feet. High heels will be banished, and the runway parade will be saved for the ball gowns. Contestants' swimwear will be observed only as they cavort on the beach.

It's history in the making. Another milestone in the chronicle of queen pageantry, updated for the '90s. You might think of it as footprints in the sand.

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