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A Higher Calling

What does it take to be Miss America? Devotion to God, country and family--for starters.

September 13, 1996|LESLEY WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Standing in the lobby of the CaliforniaMart, wearing penny loafers and a prep-school blazer over jeans, Lyndsay Kahler seems to inhabit a parallel universe.

Her blond hair is poufed and sprayed around an oval face made up carefully over a golden tan. A small gold cross with a diagonal slash of diamonds falls over her white T-shirt.

She draws stares from the workers here in Fashion Central as she and her entourage ride the elevator on a mid-August day to the wholesale showrooms. Shopkeepers stick their heads out doors, curious about this wholesome young woman with the photographer flashing her every gesture.

Nobody who follows her into the entrance of Claire's Collection wonders for long. There, amid the rooms housing hundreds of beaded gowns, hang pictures of Miss Californias from years past.

And 22-year-old Kahler, who was Miss Orange before becoming Miss California, will be joining them. First, though, she must choose between the safe red gown or the more daring halter style that threatens to expose one of her few weaknesses: protruding shoulder blades that form angel wings. With the contest just weeks away, she puts off the decision one more day.

This Saturday, the bright, talented, churchgoing women who inhabit Kahler's galaxy will shoulder aside the Courtney Loves of pop culture and, for a few hours at least, register on the public radar as they vie to be the next Miss America.

The winner of that rhinestone crown will uphold a tradition and an organization that has tried to change with society, even as it promotes the kind of clean living associated with the Donna Reed era.

"I don't know of a single nonprofit organization such as ours that has taken the criticism, the ridicule, from the media and survived for 75 years," says Bob Arnum, CEO of the Miss California organization. "This program is not for everyone. We don't suggest that it is. . . . I am not aware of a single contestant who has entered our program at gunpoint."

Kahler's calling to the runway came via telephone in May 1995. The Miss Orange pageant, one of 45 statewide, had attracted only three contestants, an organizer told her. Under the threat of cancellation, the recruitment drive in public schools had been widened to include Lutheran High School of Orange County, Kahler's alma mater. That contact ultimately led to the seemingly perfect candidate, by then a senior music major at Concordia University in Irvine. Last fall, competing against seven other contestants, Kahler walked off with the crown.

"I wasn't stressed about it," she recalls. "I didn't know what I was getting into."

By the time the Miss California contest went off in Fresno in June, Kahler had graduated, capping her resume as ideal pageant material.

"We want someone to represent California the way you want it to be," says Marilyn Jensen, executive director of the Miss Orange event. "Someone who has graduated from school, has a good home life, is happy and well-rounded. You don't want someone who had an abusive childhood and has scars. . . . Of course, they don't tend to apply."

Kahler is deeply religious, deeply committed to public service, a devout Republican, and devoted daughter and sister.

"I have a wonderful family," she says. "That might sound trite, but I've really been blessed. They have been my support. . . . My faith has also been very important to me."

Except for an incident in which she was robbed at knifepoint as a teenager, her life has been untouched by the drugs, crime and family turmoil that afflict many teens. The idea of sneaking beers and cigarettes, much less drugs, simply never entered her head.

"I never allowed myself to be in a situation where drugs or alcohol were present," she says. "'My parents always trusted me to make the right decision."

Instead, she filled her time acting in musical theater, conducting the preschool choir at St. John's Lutheran Church and organizing blood drives for the Red Cross, a project that never failed to thrill her.

"It's just the idea that you are literally, literally saving someone's life. It's the closest you can come to being a hero," she says.

Clearly, Kahler would not embarrass her city or the state.

The Miss America pageant has endured the occasional scandal. In the early days, contestants broke the rules by being secretly married or by having had a child. But those infractions were eclipsed in 1984, when Miss New York Vanessa Williams resigned under pressure after Penthouse magazine republished nude photos of her taken years earlier.

"All of us still feel very badly about Vanessa," Arnum says with a sigh. "It was a mistake in judgment she made when she was just a child."

*

In recent years, the national pageant has become increasingly conservative. Many contestants describe themselves as religious. Tiffany Stoker of Clovis, last year's Miss California and a Miss America finalist, encouraged sexual abstinence before marriage in her pageant platform.

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