The Miss America pageant is no stranger to controversy, and this year a small Washington storm has started to work its way up the coast to Atlantic City.
Three weeks ago, the new Miss District of Columbia was crowned, but already one of the losers has written to Miss America pageant officials and the District government alleging "many irregularities surrounding the pageant."
The most serious of the complaints, lodged by Althea Sweet, are that the entire five-judge panel was white in a city where the overwhelming majority is black, and that during the contestants' interviews judges directed questions about blacks to the black contestants but not to the white ones.
Al Marks, the unflappable chairman of the Miss America pageant for 25 years, said, essentially, girls will be girls. But he also said he would discuss the panel's racial composition with the organizers.
"I think it would have been highly prudent to have a black or two on the panel considering the District's population," Marks said. "We do that at the national level and it's not tokenism."
Sweet also complained that the winner, Cheryl Anne Chapman, was "previously acquainted" with two judges. In addition, Sweet said pageant officials "did very little to assure that residency requirements were fully met by the contestants." And the crowning insult: Sweet declared that the pageant was "ineptly stage-managed" and "lighting and sound problems abounded."
This will not win Sweet any Miss Congeniality awards.
Winner Chapman, a 21-year-old George Washington University junior who is white, said she knew two judges only because they had judged her in previous contests and she had called them for feedback.
Four of the five judges contacted have defended their integrity and one, Murray Wohlfarth, when told of Sweet's letter said that after a pageant, "you always find disgruntled girls."
"I think Cheryl had every right to win -- as much as anyone else did," said a black contestant who asked not to be named. "Basically I think it was run fairly. It's just starting out. You have to expect some pitfalls."
"As often as not, 10 or 15 times a year, we get letters of this nature from various quarters of the country," Marks said of the local and state pageants that lead up to the climactic Miss America pageant in September.
"There's no way we can sit in judgment on the specific complaint of any one contestant in any one pageant," Marks added. "The executive director of any pageant has the responsibility to make sure things are done according to our rules and regulations and if he and his organization certify Miss Whoever as a proper winner, we accept her. Otherwise I would sound like the House committee I've been watching all morning."
Bob Wagner, the executive director of the D.C. pageant, could not be reached in Roanoke, Va., where he's a judge in the ongoing Miss Virginia pageant. Marks said that a pageant official would contact Wagner to discuss the racial balance of the panel. "You can make book on it," Marks said.
Though Sweet also complained to the D.C. government, Mary Wilmot, director of special projects in the office of the secretary of the District of Columbia, said, "We're not in the business of running pageants, but we do want things to be run fairly."
On the ladder of the state and local pageants that young women must climb to get to the Big One in Atlantic City, the District's is a rather modest affair.
This year, there were nine contestants (six black, three white). Eleven registered, but two never showed.
"It was a disappointment to walk into the Miss D.C. pageant," which was held at the Duke Ellington Center for the Performing Arts, said judge James Powell, referring to the turnout. But Powell, like the other judges interviewed, expressed sympathy for Wagner, who has told people that his task in putting on the Miss D.C. scholarship pageant is complicated in the District by a lack of both corporate support and media interest.
"The people in D.C. could care less," said Wagner's wife June, who will be Miss D.C.'s traveling companion (the new phrase for chaperon) when she goes to the Miss America pageant.
"It's a struggling pageant," said Marks, "and we encourage the struggle."
The Miss D.C. contest -- eliminated in the 1950s when the Miss America contestants were pared down to only representatives of states -- was reinstated three years ago. This past contest was the fourth since then. The first two winners were black; the last two have been white.
Allegations of prejudice centered on the questions asked the contestants. Sweet said the six black contestants were asked about Mayor Barry's current problems and former Miss America Vanessa Williams' past problems, while the three white contestants were not. The judges said they can't remember all the questions they asked. June Wagner said she remembers a white contestant being asked about Vanessa Williams.
"If this is supposed to be about current events, that happened three years ago," Sweet said of the Williams scandal. "Why don't they ask us how we feel about Bess Myerson?"
"I think if the black girls were asked that, let's face it, Marion Barry is black, and there's a sensitivity there," said Wohlfarth, who added that asking a white contestant about Williams would be "irrelevant. If you reversed the situation, if there had been an all-black pagaent and one white girl and she'd won it and messed up -- see what I'm saying?"
Cheryl Chapman said she can't remember if they asked her about Barry. "But they asked me about a lot of other political issues -- equally controversial," she said. "They asked me about Kurt Waldheim."
"I can assure you that in my judging, race, color and creed has nothing to do with it," said Powell, who remembers one judge in particular asking all of the contestants about Barry. "I had a favorite question that I asked each of the nine girls . . . 'Has TV changed your life and if so, in what way?' "
Chapman said that her own ties to two judges -- John Rosson, The Washington Times' food editor, and Ernest Myers, chairman of the Miss Northern Virginia pageant -- amounted to two brief phone calls in which she asked for advice after she lost the Miss Northern Virginia pageant this spring for the third year in a row.
"Girls write to judges all the time, there are parties after pageants and girls will go up to judges and the judges will say, 'You need to work on this, this and this,' " Chapman said. "I have faith in the integrity of the judges. I know they wouldn't have picked me if I wasn't the right girl."