By Belinda Goldsmith
Tuesday, January 30, 2007; 9:17 AM
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Aspiring Broadway actress Lauren Nelson was crowned Miss America 2007 in Las Vegas on Monday, with pageant organizers vowing she would lead a clean life after a string of scandals in recent months about misbehaving beauty queens.
Miss USA, Tara Conner, almost lost her tiara in December for underage drinking and partying at nightclubs around New York but promised to mend her wild ways and spent a month in rehabilitation instead.
Two other titleholders have fallen recently, with property mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA and Miss Universe contests, firing Miss Nevada, Katie Rees, after racy photos of her surfaced online. Miss New Jersey, Ashley Harder, quit after she announced she was pregnant.
Nelson, Miss Oklahoma 2006, beat about 13,000 other contestants and 51 other finalists to take the crown.
Chairman of the Miss America Organization board, Sam Haskell, said all contestants were required to sign a morality clause as they entered the pageant.
"The Miss America pageant represents a dream machine, something to dream about, and Miss America is a role model, someone for little girls to look up to," Haskell told Reuters in a telephone interview.
One Miss America who did breach this clause was Vanessa Williams, the first African-American titleholder, who had to resign in 1984 after sexually explicit photographs of her appeared in the magazine Penthouse.
But Nelson, 20, a music theater student whose prize was a $50,000 scholarship, might not have the chance to veer off course. Organizers of the Miss America pageant have hired a chaperon to be with the titleholder around the clock.
This tradition started with the contest in 1921 to assure parents that their daughter would be looked after as she traveled the country. It remains today, as Miss America travels about 20,000 miles a month to various charity, corporate and fund-raising events.
Although the scandals of recent months have left some people in the beauty pageant world fuming, media commentators have remarked that nothing has given beauty contests as many headlines in years - which could boost flagging TV ratings.
Interest in beauty pageants, once top rated television shows, has waned with the rise of racier reality TV shows and the contests have struggled to reinvent themselves.
Miss America, whose TV audiences slumped from 25 million in 1995 to 9 million in 2005, has moved to Las Vegas from Atlantic City, shifted to MTV Network's CMT cable channel, and introduced viewer voting to try to razz up the show.
But former Miss America 2002, Katie Harman, was concerned that the controversies of recent months would be a black mark on the industry impact of the standing of beauty queens.
"These negative events are very disappointing for us in the pageant community and the public," Harman, an opera singer who is about to release her debut classical CD, told Reuters.
"We are role models and we need to get this image back."