The Miss America people don't know quite how to refer to the whole mess. Sometimes they call Vanessa Williams' resignation as Miss America 1984 the "recent events," sometimes simply "circumstances." Mr. Miss America, pageant board chairman Albert A. Marks, prefers the almost wistful phrase "unforeseen events."
No one says "nude photographs." No one says "pornography." No one says "sex." But the euphemisms aren't just shorthand references to the now-familiar Vanessa Williams story. They're the latest additions to Miss Americaspeak, to the vocabulary of selfless enthusiasm that will smile its way into America during the first post-Penthouse pageant Saturday night.
"There was a wire story a couple of days ago that really burned me," says Marks. "One of our members referred to his contestant -- he's the director of the state pageant -- as having 'all the body parts.' That is sexist and way out of line.
"I spend half of my waking hours with the media denying that we are sexist. Irritating is hardly the word for it. It's stupid."
Marks says he is known as "the unflappable Albert Marks." The 71-year-old stockbroker is a soothing sort of man to have around. His deep voice flows along smoothly, rolling over crises and conflicts like a stream of warm milk. He's the kind of man who answers your phone calls, who's given to repeating he's going to be straight with you. He's the kind of man it's hard to dislike.
But this is his pageant, and when someone makes a mistake that might hurt it, you can hear the anger creeping in around the edges.
He is sitting in a cavernous space in Convention Hall that serves as temporary pageant headquarters and garage. The office can be distinguished from the garage because the cement surroundings are decorated with hand-colored clown faces, flags, flowers and a huge map of the United States signed by all of this year's contestants with appropriately cheery greetings -- big hellos and all that.
It's like everything at the pageant: furiously good-natured. Bathing-suited contestants jumped and splashed and beamed for the photographers on the beach on Monday. You would never know from their giggles that it was a rainy day. It never rains when Miss America comes to town.
For a little while the bright smiles flickered at the news that Miss Ohio, Melissa Bradley, had pleaded no contest to shoplifting charges in 1982. The Miss America machine went into action. Calls were made and a press conference held. No problem, a pageant lawyer said. All charges had been dropped and the case never went to trial. "The pageant should continue to welcome her with open arms," the lawyer said.
Albert Marks' face was stern as he told the reporters, "I hope you let her alone." The pageant has no new rules this year to ensure that there is no new Vanessa Williams, though the judges pointedly are asking contestants if they ever posed nude. But Marks said the Miss Ohio case does not suggest the pageant's screening is too loose. The Ohio pageant knew all about it, and that's that.
Everyone was a little edgy around here even before that. About 450 members of the press are said to be covering the pageant this year (last year there were about 300), and they're not all here just to see what color dress the winner wears.
"The hue and the cry are the same," says Marks, who has been volunteering for the pageant for 33 years and is a veteran of the hue and cry: " 'We're exploiters. We're sexist.' They cut out the racist part after two black Miss Americas and six blacks in the pageant this year."
The past few weeks have not been easy for Albert Marks.
"When the story broke, we were on the hook pretty good," he says of the time -- seven weeks ago -- when Vanessa Williams' explicit nude photographs first surfaced. "All the media could and did show was head-and-shoulder shots. Nothing. So how could we possibly be that upset just because of something like that? Then of course, when Penthouse hit the stands and 5 million people or more saw the things, a feeling of revulsion set in, and took us off the hook. We weren't the mean men, and women I might add, people thought we were."
The hook, once escaped, may acually have helped the pageant. Ticket sales for the three nights of preliminary competition are up 20 percent, and Saturday's show is just about sold out. Ratings have declined, but Marks expects this year's will be at least 20 percent higher than 1983's, when about 20 percent of Americans tuned to the pageant. A lot of it, he adds, is curiosity rather than devotion to the pageant, but Marks is a pragmatist. He can live with curiosity when it adds millions to his audience.
The pageant, he says, may seem something of an anachronism to big-city skeptics, but to most Americans, it's still one of the best shows around.
"Yes, in the sophisticated markets, New York, Chicago, Washington, we're regarded as 'Ehh, there goes that pageant again,' " he says. "But in grass-roots America, in so many locations, we're the event of the year."
Marks also claims the pageant, with an audience that has more women than men, is increasingly popular among woman 18 to 24 years old.
"In the last five, six, seven years, we've made a return in the audience we lost," Marks says, adding that the pageant shared the fate of many traditional American instituions.
No longer, he says.
"Some of it is a wave of nostalgia. I don't like to think we are entirely nostalgic, but there is a wave, there are good values in this country, motherhood, apple pie, the flag. Not that we represent those things, but we fall in that general category."
So maybe it's not Albert Marks and his 51 potential Miss Americas 1985, but all those pundits who are behind the times?
After all, Marks has made some changes over the years. He fired Bert Parks, didn't he? And, in the midst of a royalty dispute, he got rid of that old song, the one that talked about "Miss America . . . our ideal."
"The ideal person does not exist," he said. "And 'face and form,' that was the next line."
But Face and Form are still around, if not musically, certainly in the event people around here simply call "The Swimsuit." The Swimsuit came up again this year when critics of the pageant said that the presentation of women's bodies gave the event a spiritual kinship to Penthouse. Albert Marks has been defending the Swimsuit for years, decades.
"Just for the record," he said, "I asked some very intelligent ladies of my acquaintance here and elsewhere, and also some former contestants, what their opinion would be if I suddenly came out and suggested that the swimsuit be eliminated, with no thought in my mind that it would be, I'm careful to add.
"All 15 said, 'Do not.' "
The women told him, as friends of the pageant have been saying for a long time now, that "The Swimsuit" is merely a way for the pageant to acknowledge the contemporary woman's interest in physical fitness.
"After all," he said, "does a gymnast, like what's that kid's name from West Virginia -- Mary Lou Retton -- she hasn't got very much on when she does that.
"It's the old story of what you see is in the eye of the beholder. And you can look on any beach and see it far worse.
"I maintain sincerely, and there's nothing wrong with this, that the greatest spectator sport in this country is not football or baseball. It's girl-watching."
But Marks has been through all this before. Like a feistily persistent grandfather who knows no one else remembers how remarkable his cherished darling is, he'll tell you one more time. The pageant is non-profit. More than 250,000 volunteers are involved nationwide. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships are given out. It's a real door-opener for the contestants. Enough of this swimsuit stuff.
Just outside the garage-cum-headquarters, past a friendly guard (everyone with the pageant seems friendly) a less-than-uniform line of slightly-befuddled contestants is struggling through a rehearsal.
Albert Marks glances at his watch; he needs to get back to running the show, the tradition, the pageant that seems to have taken the advice Miss Americas always offer to "all the young girls out there." Stick to your dreams, they say. Albert Marks, through it all, has.