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Miss California USA pageant is rocked on its high heels

Miss California USA organizers say Carrie Prejean hijacked the event to spread her views on marriage.

May 12, 2009|Carla Hall

Ever since Miss California Carrie Prejean declared onstage last month at the Miss USA Pageant that she believed gay people should not have the right to marry, she has battled her critics in TV interviews, been championed by groups opposed to same-sex marriage and pretty much eclipsed the woman who beat her to become the reigning Miss USA.

(Does anyone even remember what state the winner was from?)

But that's nothing compared to what Prejean did to the Miss California organization. She hijacked it, the organizers said, for her own message.

"Up to now, we've just been riding along as a passenger on this runaway train," Keith Lewis, co-executive director of the Miss California USA pageant, said Monday morning at a news conference at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. "But that ends today."

And with that, the organizers labeled her a rogue Miss California and, well, ostracized her. They don't have the authority to dethrone her. That power lies only with Donald Trump, the owner of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageant system. He is scheduled to weigh in on the brouhaha today at a news conference in New York.

Instead the organizers installed the Miss California first runner-up as a kind of shadow Miss California. Tami Farrell, a gleamy-eyed, long-haired blond in a short one-shouldered dress, beamed and took her place on the dais when she was introduced as the "official Beauty of California ambassador" by Shanna Moakler, executive director of the state pageant.

The controversy began nearly a month ago, when Prejean was asked about her views on same-sex marriage during the nationally televised Miss USA pageant. Although she said she believed people were entitled to do as they liked, she said marriage should only be recognized as an institution between a man and a woman.

Prejean lost the pageant (she was runner-up to Miss North Carolina, Kristen Dalton). But her statement quickly became fodder for the ongoing culture war over same-sex marriage. Gay-rights activists criticized her, while her backers said she was being unfairly attacked.

Yes, there's also some controversy over recently revealed semi-naked photos of Prejean (clad in panties, her arm draped strategically over her chest with nary a nipple in sight) and chortling over a breast enhancement job the local pageant helped finance. ("The majority of women who are titleholders have breast implants . . . I didn't think breast implants were shocking," Moakler said, chuckling.)

But pageant officials said that when Prejean became the darling of the anti-same-sex-marriage movement, she began shirking her duties as Miss California. They say she missed appearances, including the filming of a public service announcement the pageant put together featuring former and current Miss USA, Miss California and Miss California Teen winners speaking about the beauty and diversity of the people of California. Organizers said she was generally unreachable by pageant officials -- technically a breach of her contract, they said.

"Up to now, it's been very difficult to get in touch with her," Moakler said. Asked if she had Prejean's cellphone number, Moakler added: "We do. She doesn't answer her phone. Her pastor does."

And that wasn't all. Pageant officials said their sponsors have been getting hate mail because of Prejean's stand.

They had nothing but scorn for the National Organization for Marriage, a group opposed to same-sex marriage that used in one of its commercials video of Prejean's now infamous pageant answer.

"Shame. Shame, shame, shame," Lewis said. "Shame for taking this young woman and exploiting her to further your own agenda."

Prejean's backers insist she is being unfairly vilified by pageant organizers for a viewpoint that is far from extreme (California voters last year approved Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage).

Officials with the National Organization for Marriage say Prejean is not a paid spokeswoman. She did attend the Washington, D.C., news conference at which the group unveiled the ad featuring her Miss USA pageant clip. And she lent her voice to a recorded call the organization used to thank supporters and solicit contributions.

"Carrie has always been a spokesperson for herself. She believes what we believe," said Brian Brown, the group's executive director. "We're proud of her. . . . She's standing up for marriage and against the bullying we heard at this press conference today."

Quite a maelstrom for a 21-year-old (going on 22) at a Christian college, whose goal was to become a Victoria's Secret model. Prejean, although invited, did not attend the Beverly Hills news conference. She reportedly was on a plane for New York.

In this post-beauty pageant era, none of these women get much national recognition unless they go astray in some carnal or substance-abusing way -- which makes Carrie Prejean even more unusual.

In this case, her real recognition is over a stand on an issue. It's not the message the California pageant had in mind. "You have to understand we never want to take away a girl's beliefs or her voice," Lewis said. "But when you wear the title that says 'I represent everyone,' you can't then polarize the people you represent."

Pageant officials say all would be forgiven if she came back and returned to the business of beauty -- attending red-carpet events, charity gatherings, appearances for sponsors.

"We just need to get back to business," Lewis said. "We want her to fulfill her contract."

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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