ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Miss Oklahoma, Shawntel Smith, got a birthday present some young women only dream about: She was crowned Miss America on Saturday.
But she had to share the spotlight with a viewer poll over whether to retain the controversial swimsuit competition.
The swimsuits, a 75-year pageant tradition, won overwhelmingly. Of nearly 1 million telephone votes cast on 900-numbers, 79% favored keeping the swimsuits.
If the viewers had voted no, another production number would have been substituted for this year's show. Pageant officials declined to say what that was.
Pageant contestants competing in swimsuits have created controversy almost since the first bathing beauties paraded in 1921.
Opponents say the competition is sexist and irrelevant in choosing a role model for young women. Supporters say a woman's appearance in a bathing suit shows how healthy and physically fit she is.
Pageant swimsuits are high at the neckline and low on the thighs, and have yards more material than a string bikini. But that's not the point, opponents say--including last year's winner.
"If you're competing for a scholarship and a job to become a spokesperson for your platform, you should be judged on your heart and mind and how you handle yourself, not on how you wear swimsuits," said the departing Miss America, Heather Whitestone.
But her predecessor, Miss America 1994 Kimberly Aiken, defended the suits, saying the winner's year is grueling and she needs to be fit. In a poll of this year's contestants, 42--including the eventual winner--voted to keep swimsuits, seven voted to eliminate them and one abstained, pageant officials said.
After her victory was announced, Smith blew kisses to the crowd, mouthed thanks to the judges and blinked back tears.
"I don't believe this," she appeared to say.
The new Miss America, who turned 24 Saturday, was the first woman in her family to graduate from college. She earned a business administration degree from Northeastern State University.
The first runner-up was Miss Oregon, Emily John Orton. The other eight finalists were Miss Alabama, Leigh Sherer; Miss Mississippi, Monica Louwerens; Miss Illinois, Tracy Hayes; Miss New York, Helen Goldsby; Miss California, Tiffany Stoker; Miss Kansas, Amy Beth Keller; Miss Massachusetts, Marcia Turner, and Miss Arkansas, Paula Gaye Montgomery.