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Miss Outspoken

In Her Year as Miss America, Kate Shindle Has Bucked Stereotypes, Tackled AIDS Education and Raised the Bar for Her Successors

September 18, 1998|CLIFF ROTHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

REENWOOD, S.C. — It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and Kate Shindle, the current Miss America, is waiting in the wings of the middle school auditorium. She's here to talk about what she's talked about at whistle-stops around the country over the last year. It's her chosen platform--and a hot potato: AIDS prevention and safe sex.

But this engagement is a potential minefield. The school district has told her she could speak as long as she doesn't use a few words. She's holding the list in her hands: "condoms," "needles," "homosexual," "heterosexual," "bisexual," "body fluids." All verboten.

But at least this censorship is better than a total ban on speaking, like when she tried to speak to students in another North Carolina school district. The district barred her completely. Her platform, officials said, was too controversial. So here in Greenwood, S.C., Shindle has agreed to talk about AIDS--without talking about sex. She takes a breath--as she learned to do in courses she took as a theater major at Northwestern University--and walks out on stage.

It goes off well, applause is polite, if not robust, and the floor is opened up to questions. And then the magic happens--as it has with the 21-year-old Shindle's speaking engagements over the last 11 months since she was crowned in Atlantic City.

A student stands up and uses one of the taboo words. He wants to know about condoms. She answers in her straightforward way, and the students perk up. To quote from "Mame," she can "charm the birds off the trees." Another student raises her hand and speaks another verboten word in a question about AIDS transmission. These students want to know about sex, about AIDS, about safe sex, even about gay sex.

They're allowed to use the words Shindle can't initiate--but she can respond once the students ask. And they do. Again and again.

And the auditorium is electrified with the thunderously silent fears suddenly out in the open. Students are laughing, stomping and cheering, as she pulls no punches. Everything from needle exchange, which even the White House takes a position against, to condom distribution.

We live in down and dirty times, and she's a Miss America for a new age.

The yearlong reign of the former Miss Illinois is now over, with a successor to be crowned in the pageant Saturday. But Shindle may have raised the bar for those to follow.

Like the new evolution of female leaders--Hillary Clinton and the late Princess Diana being the most vivid examples--the Atlantic City pageant winner is also no longer a figurehead, but a social activist and an agitator for issues of her choice. And Shindle has taken that new activism to the extreme. Gone are the debutante-white shorty gloves, vague homilies about world peace and the demure eyes-down stance of a girl meant more to look good than sound good.

"She's a great ally for me and anyone who works in HIV and AIDS on a daily basis," says Sandra Thurman, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. The two, she said, have grown close and see each other every few weeks at official functions.

Shindle first impressed the White House official when she was open to dialogue on the question of needle exchange.

"When she was first crowned as Miss America, she was asked about needle exchange funding and was hesitant about whether or not we ought to be supporting it," Thurman says. "But after further research and talking to activists, she took another look at the evidence and decided that needle exchange was something she was very much in favor of. And it's been just a delight to watch her take the opportunity as a woman who represents Middle America and be willing to go out and talk about an issue that people still find very sensitive."

Thurman is obviously tickled that Shindle can advocate a position that Thurman, as President Clinton's AIDS policy advisor, privately supports but cannot publicly endorse because the administration opposes it.

"These are things that I am not able to say, even though people know that I've been a supporter for a long time. So, for Kate to stand up for these issues, while I stand on the podium with her, is a delight."

Shindle now stands in her Chicago hotel room, ironing an outfit she plans to wear later that evening while addressing a Communities for Youth conference of educators and activists.

"To tell you the truth, I can't imagine doing this job without the platform issue [of AIDS prevention]," she says. She's spoken before the U.S. Conference of Mayors and has addressed the National Press Club. Shindle is also the first Miss America to move beyond domestic shores, having addressed the International AIDS conference in Geneva last fall.

"I have to say, a lot of people told me I'd be impressed, and I was," says Doug Harbrecht, Washington news editor of Business Week magazine, who was in the audience when she addressed the press club members and also spoke to her beforehand.

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