The Nation

Junior Miss Bows Out True to Tradition -- Gracefully

July 03, 2005|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

MOBILE, Ala. — Underneath grand crystal chandeliers, gold-framed portraits line the empty hallway of America's Junior Miss antebellum headquarters. Frozen in time, the fresh-faced young American women smile dreamily. Strewn below them in the hall are boxes containing a clutter of discarded pageant programs and Old Navy boot-cut jeans.

A week ago, the 48-year-old pageant held its last national final. You might not have seen it -- the live broadcast was local-only and the national feed went out a couple of days later, on PAXTV.

Somewhere along the way, America lost its enchantment with the wholesome young woman.

In an era when flawed contestants scheme against each other on reality TV shows such as "The Bachelor," "The Swan" and "Survivor," America's Junior Miss has decided to bow out in a dignified, orderly manner.

"The networks tell us they want swimsuits," sighed Lynne Bellew, executive director of America's Junior Miss, as she contemplated the faces of former pageant winners. "Can you imagine classical singers in swimsuits?"

Neatly attired in a lime-green top, denim skirt and gold sandals, Bellew exuded the poise of a pageant contestant as she explained the program's challenge: how to adapt to changing times without compromising its traditional values.

"We didn't want our girls eating bugs or taking their clothes off," Bellew said. "We decided to draw a line in the sand."

America's Junior Miss was a pageant meant to honor an age of innocence. Its contestants were girls just graduated from high school -- not the more worldly women you would find over in, say, Atlantic City, at the Miss America contest. None of its winners had to turn in her crown after nude pictures popped up somewhere.

Yet the show's popularity has dwindled since its heyday in 1965, when it began a 23-year run on national television and was sponsored by Coca-Cola and Kodak.

This year, Junior Miss relied heavily on local taxpayer support, with the city and county of Mobile providing a third of the program's $1-million budget.

After experimenting with a behind-the-scenes "reality" TV concept last year, the program was told it needed more cutthroat competition.

"They tell us they want more backstabbing," Bellew said, "but ugliness and viciousness is a problem for us. Those things would have to be staged."

The contestants, she said, delivered the best reality they could.

Yet even the program's most devoted fans admit the show's format was stilted.

Last week, as Bellew was watching the televised show, a volunteer turned to her and said: "If I didn't know the girls, I wouldn't watch that for two hours." Every former Junior Miss and volunteer in the room agreed.

America's Junior Miss is not the only distressed pageant.

Miss America, perhaps the nation's most historically successful pageant, was dropped by ABC last year after its television audience fell below 10 million. Last week, the 84-year-old show, which had 85 million viewers in 1985, announced it was moving to a cable channel, Country Music Television.

Traditional competitions are flailing behind more sensational contests such as Miss USA, which teamed up with "Fear Factor" this year to show bikini-wearing contestants covered in gallons of live worms and fish oil.

The Miss USA program, which is owned by Donald Trump, attracted 8 million viewers in April.

"Donald Trump has a different product," Bellew said. "He doesn't try to change what Miss USA is. Part of that is a smart move: to embrace who you are."

At America's Junior Miss headquarters, "pageant" is a sensitive word. Executives seem to grimace every time they hear it. "We don't call ourselves a pageant," said Bellew, "although we are formatted in a pageant fashion."

America's Junior Miss prided itself on its differences from conventional pageants. Beauty was not one of the judging criteria. Instead, contestants were judged on interview technique, talent, scholastics, fitness and self-expression.

Contestants could apply only once to become America's Junior Miss. They had to win their local and state contests so they could get to the national finals in Mobile within six months of graduating from high school. Most contestants made the decision to apply before or during their sophomore year to make that timeline.

Junior Miss competitions have awarded about $90 million to participants across the country. "When we began, there were no opportunities for women for scholarships," Bellew said. "We like to think we pioneered that thought."

Originally conceived in the 1920s as a traditional Southern beauty pageant to promote Mobile's azalea blossoms, the event grew in the post-war years. In 1957, local businessmen established a national scholarship program, and the first national competition was held in Mobile the following year.

In the past 48 years, more than 700,000 young American women -- including Diane Sawyer, Kim Basinger and Debra Messing -- have taken part in Junior Miss programs across the country.

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