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Is Contest Gambling With Wholesome Image?

September 07, 1997|JOHN CURRAN

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Miss America officials, who have said "No dice" to contestants for 19 years, are gambling with the pageant's girl-next-door image this year.

For the first time since casinos opened here in 1978, contestants who are 21 or older can enter them and shoot craps, play blackjack or try their hand at poker and other games.

"These are young women. They're not babies. And we are not their parents," said Leonard C. Horn, the pageant's chief executive officer.

The contestants arrived in Atlantic City on Sept. 1 to begin preparing for the Sept. 13 pageant.

The new rule was not announced with this year's other changes or discussed by pageant officials.

The change should improve the sometimes uneasy alliance between Atlantic City's original claim to fame and its current one.

Casino hotels provide free rooms for pageant contestants and their chaperons during the two week buildup to the pageant finals. But casino industry types have grumbled about what one called the pageant's "holier than thou attitude."

"I'm glad to see they're finally loosening up. It makes sense," said Claridge Casino Hotel spokesman Glenn Lillie. "The pageant is a longtime Atlantic City tradition, and we're quickly becoming one. It's only healthy the two should intelligently cooperate."

Not everyone thinks so.

Edward Looney, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, said the sight of Miss America contestants in casinos would soil the pageant's image.

"It will be, 'Look, there's Miss America coming out of such and such gambling establishment.' It is not the image we want for young America," Looney said.

Of this year's 51 contestants, 32 are old enough to gamble in New Jersey. Several said Tuesday that they didn't plan to, though.

Said Miss Rhode Island Kelly Jo Roarke: "Maybe if we had a little extra free time, I'd play a couple quarters. But it's not a priority."

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