In a move that has rattled the rhinestone world of Miss America, pageant officials have changed eligibility rules to allow women who have been married or had abortions to enter the competition.
The new requirements would shatter the half-century-old implicit requirement that Miss America's beauty is virginal, and yesterday state pageant officials and current contestants were squealing in anger.
"The word 'Miss' stands for something," Miss Delaware Kama Boland told the Associated Press. "It would be a shame if they allow it. It would change the image of Miss America, and not necessarily for the better."
The current contract, which all contestants must sign, stipulates that the competitor has not been married and is not cohabiting, is not or has not been pregnant and has never had a child. "Frankly, I think those are good rules if you are looking for someone of good moral character," said Jeanie Ashley, director of Miss Hampton Holly Days, a feeder program for the Miss Virginia title.
The new rules would require simply that pageant hopefuls sign a document saying "I am unmarried" and "I am not pregnant and I am not the natural or adoptive parent of any child." Miss America's executive director, Robert Beck, did not return calls for comment. Court documents indicate that officials fear the current policy leaves them open to discrimination lawsuits, according to the Associated Press.
State pageant directors have sued the mother organization over the change, which was first broached last month.
At stake is the very iconography of Miss America, "your ideal," as the classic runway anthem "There She Is" puts it. In Atlantic City, where the girls and their minions are preparing for Saturday night's contest, this new controversy made past pronouncements on two-piece bathing suits and pierced navels as unremarkable as school uniform policy.
"Miss America has a long history of high moral standards and traditions, and I'm opposed to anything that changes that," said Libby Taylor, executive director of the Miss Kentucky Pageant and president of the National Association of Miss America State Pageants.
Leonard Horn, who presided over the pageant for years until stepping down last year, said direly that such a relaxed eligibility requirement "will ultimately lead to the destruction of the Miss America program," which provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
"It's acceptable in today's society, but no one could argue that an unwanted pregnancy or an abortion is an ideal. A failed marriage is not an ideal. It's acceptable and it happens, but it's not an ideal," Horn said, according to the Associated Press.
The "no marriage" rule was imposed after Miss America 1949 Jacque Mercer got married--and divorced--during her tenure.
The eligibility rules have never been challenged in court or otherwise, according to Horn, a lawyer who served as general counsel from 1967 to 1987 and CEO from 1987 to 1998.
Even the lower-rent Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants have their prim requirements: "Delegates may not be married or pregnant, must not have ever been married, not had a marriage annulled nor given birth to a child," according to the rules.
That language might open the door to a contestant that had had an abortion, acknowledged Miss Universe spokeswoman Mona Shah, who added firmly, "That is personal. Obviously, we can't pry into them that much."