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County Version of Miss America Contest Revived

Women: Volunteers resurrect program after a seven-year hiatus, but debate continues about its mixture of appearance and scholarship.

September 13, 1997|REGINA HONG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After the crowning of the new Miss America tonight, the county's preliminary contest to the Miss America 1998 competition returns after a long hiatus.

The question for some is: Should the contest be resurrected?

Organizers of the first Miss Ventura County contest in at least seven years say the contest's main purposes are to provide young women with scholarships and to instill them with a sense of civic-mindedness. But critics question whether this is the best forum for those aims.

The Miss Ventura County event feeds into the Miss California and Miss America contests, the most recognized of national pageants started in 1921. Locally, the competition languished until a handful of volunteers decided to resurrect it this year.

The Miss Ventura County Scholarship Organization, formed of a dozen volunteers, most of them women, throughout the county, will hold an orientation for parents and contestants Sunday on what to expect at the Oct. 5 competition.

"I think part of the reason [for the revival] was that Ventura County had not been represented in Miss California and we have very talented young women who are looking to obtain higher education and they also want to be recognized," said June Dubreuil, a former Miss Ventura County contestant who works on the competition committee.

The competition offers the winner a $500 scholarship, and $700 more if the contestant decides to enter Miss California. Contestants also have a chance to discuss their platform, a subject they want to educate people about, such as AIDS awareness, literacy, disability.

"It's not a beauty pageant per se, it's more of a people skills contest," said Sandy Bryan, a Moorpark bookkeeper who spearheaded the movement to revive the contest.

Indeed, both the local and national competitions advertise themselves as scholarship competitions rather than beauty pageants. But if the emphasis is on scholarships and community involvement, then some question the inclusion of certain categories.

"If it is a scholarship competition, then it's unclear as to why an evening gown competition is part of this, as well as the bathing suit section," said Nancy Carroll, superintendent of the Ocean View School District. "It's unclear as to how these connect in terms of scholarship."

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The categories for the competition, only for unmarried women with a high school diploma between 17 and 24, include: a private interview with judges to discuss life goals and platforms; a talent show; a session in which contestants wearing evening gowns are questioned by judges; and a bathing suit section, called a physical fitness competition.

For Jan Knudsen, who teaches a child development class at Cal Lutheran University, this contest is a return of the "old meat market." Call it what it is--a beauty contest, she said.

"They're just describing things differently," Knudsen said.

The evening gown/interview section is to judge beauty and grace, the bathing suit the body, the talent show for a bit of entertainment and the private interview to talk about their interests, she said.

"We're basically selecting people who meet society's standards of beauty to be eligible for a scholarship," she said. "My opinion is that in our society women are objectified, and for many women to find value in themselves means they have to follow a model [person]. From my perspective, a beauty contest, which it is, continues to objectify women rather than looking for unique ways to value women."

The contest was originally started by Atlantic City merchants looking to drag out the summer season by bringing in "bathing beauties" to compete for the Miss America contest.

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Women were judged solely for beauty. And that was that. But with increasing criticism from women over the decades and changing social values, the contest was modified to include sections requiring contestants to answer judges' questions, perform a talent, and discuss a social issue.

The evening gown portion is about poise and the ability to intelligently answer questions, while the bathing suit is about being healthy, organizers say.

"The bathing suit aspect is about physical fitness," Dubreuil said. "You're looking at a whole person, head, heart and brain. . . . Being healthy is a positive trait."

For those who were expecting to see women in two-piece bathing suits, as they will do at Miss America for the first time--it's not going to happen. The new rules haven't trickled down to the local contests.

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