Smiling for a bank of photographers and glowing in a strapless dress, Miss Georgia is having a moment. She earned it. Ten minutes ago on this Wednesday evening, Danica Tisdale bested 16 other contestants in a preliminary talent competition at the Miss America pageant, nailing a rendition of "Please Send Me Someone to Love" that made every other vocal performance sound like ho-hum karaoke. Now, cradling a Lucite trophy, she's in a green tent where the winners of the night are whisked before the media.
"I'm just so honored to be given this award and honored just to be here overall," she gushes to reporters who have gathered around her. "I just think it's a wonderful opportunity for me."
Tisdale is a tall, mocha beauty with otherworldly composure and a smile so bright it seems lit from her molars. With each answer she closes in on a new indoor world record for graciousness in victory. But you can't set a record unless the bar is high.
So: Hey, Danica. Didn't you think that everyone else, you know . . . stank?
She hardly pauses.
"Oh no. I thought everyone was wonderful and so many of us have worked so long on our talents," she says, evenly.
Sure. But seriously, weren't you sitting backstage thinking, "I own this."
"No," she says. "I'm sitting backstage and I'm thinking how difficult it is to get in front of thousands of people to display a talent you've worked all of your life to hone. That's the thing I'm thinking about."
Ask it any way you like -- Miss Georgia will tell you she's thrilled, touched, awed and perhaps humbled, but she won't relish her win as a triumph over anybody. I came in first place but I'm not better, is her position, and the amazing thing is that she means it. Strap her to a lie detector and she'll pass.
Through five days of pre-tiara competition that ended yesterday, this sort of superhuman politesse was as common as lip gloss. It will be just as prevalent tonight when the finals of the pageant air live at 9 on ABC, the same tone of civility that has defined this iconic production since it began crowning young ladies in 1921. There will be no losers even if there is just one winner.
Which is a problem. Miss America, at its officious little heart, is a television show, and as it celebrates its 50th anniversary broadcast, it is spectacularly out of vogue, and losing viewers. Top-rated programs like "Survivor" thrive on rabbit punches and the dark art of betraying friends and gutting enemies, skills that aren't encouraged by a competition that still features the occasional baton twirler. Winning at the reality TV game takes precisely the talents that state beauty pageants work hard to filter out. Just try to imagine Miss Ohio looking straight into a television camera and hissing, "The chick from Baton Rouge -- total slut."
Many more people know the name Omarosa, the noxious villain of the first season of "The Apprentice," than Ericka Dunlap, last year's Miss America. Reality TV shows are the country's new pageants, it's just that they winnow the field of competitors to one and turn them, very briefly, into semi-celebrities by rewarding treachery and naked ambition instead of manners and curves.
"Every one of us has already won," says Evangelina Duke, Miss Montana, sitting for a quick chat at lunch time Thursday. "We do want to do our best, but we don't want the other girl to trip and fall. It's very genuine. There's nothing fake about it."
It's just this kind of exemplary attitude that has brought the pageant so much woe. Ratings are down -- just 13.5 million people tuned in last year, as opposed to 85 million in 1960 -- and the fear among the pageant's devoted followers is that Miss America's relevance is in a death spiral. The question is what to do about it. Sore winners are in, back-stabbing is the rage, so all this front flattering looks old-fashioned. How do you package Good when the market wants Wicked?
"If we don't relate to this generation, we're lost," says Bob Arnhym, a dapper gent who heads an association of state pageant organizers. At a bustling cocktail party Wednesday night, he was eating Swedish meatballs off a tiny plate and soberly strategizing about the future. "We either move forward or we fall behind. There is no standing still."
So "Miss America," the show, is moving forward. Dragging it into modernity is the all-consuming and ongoing job of Bob Bain, the show's executive producer for the fourth year running. Bain has a perfectly trimmed beard, thick brown hair and the slightly exasperated air of a man who is trying to dress up his grandmother for a rave.
On Thursday, at an under-attended news conference in Boardwalk Hall, he outlined his latest incremental tweaks to the program, continuing to shape it in the image of the reality TV model. Most notable: The whole thing will be over in two hours instead of three, principally because the talent segment, a mainstay of the show but also its draggiest component, has been whittled to two contestants. It's intended, Bain says, to feel like a face-off. "Talent still has a prominent place in the show," he assures, "but one thing we know is that the drama attached to talent will go up substantially."
The bathing suits, brought to you by new corporate sponsor Speedo, have also been trimmed. Now, they are so skimpy that they would have flunked the rules as they were written a few years ago.
The show will be hosted by Chris Harrison, the goading chaperon of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette." He'll be seen early in the night in the ladies' dressing room, giving the sort of rule rundown/pep talk that has become a staple of every "Survivor" knockoff.
This, it turns out, is as far as Bain could push it. He pitched the idea of a three-night elimination epic that would culminate in an hour-long finale. ABC wasn't interested.
He wanted the show to turn live to the set of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," for running commentary from the Fab Five. But that show is part of Bravo, which is owned by NBC, and promoting a rival's product didn't appeal to ABC either.
As ever, resistance came, too, from Miss America's elders -- an armada of former winners, gay men and elderly volunteers who work on the pageant and who guard this franchise like an only child.
But if Bain wants to truly update "Miss America," he'll need to tinker with more than just its format. He'll need women with nothing in common with Allison Porter, Miss Washington state, whose resume sounds like the work of a career counselor on opiates. She's a Harvard grad who has worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She's also a boxer and a violinist, and for good measure she is amazingly self-possessed and beautiful. And she is devoid of killer instinct, or at least that's what she claims.
"I really like competing, but I don't necessarily thrive on winning," she said during a one-on-one chat Wednesday. "My record as a boxer is 5-5, and even when I lose I'm totally pumped for my next fight. Can't wait for the Chicago Golden Gloves!"
Would you, Miss Washington, be willing to strangle a guy to win?
This stopped her for a moment, which quickly passed. "No," she said.
What if he was really old?
"Why would that make a difference?"
Well, he wouldn't have that long to live.
What if he had done something really horrible, like committed a serious crime, and society would thank you for strangling him?
Porter shook her head slowly, smiling and certain. "I'm not going to strangle anybody."
That seemed pretty final. Okay, how about this: You find out that the pageant is rigged for you to win and you also learn that nobody would ever possibly learn about the rigging. What would you do?
"I would protest. Big-time. I want to win fairly. I want to win on my own merit."
Obviously, this is the wrong answer. All week long the same themes were heard from every contestant. Like Miss California, Veena Goel, a tiny woman with an on-message glint in her eye and real gifts as a jazz dancer.
"I think it's wrong," she said, when asked the rigging question. "You should always take the best applicant. It's great when it's in favor of you. But it's not fair. I'm a big advocate of fair."
The search for "the fairest of the fair," to quote the Miss America winner's song, started Monday, the first of three nights of preliminary competition in which all 52 contestants -- including, for the first time, a representative of the Virgin Islands -- were divided into three "sororities." The women rehearsed their moves during the day and then performed them in front of the seven judges at night. By Wednesday, everyone had strutted around in casual wear, evening wear and a swimsuit, and all of them had a chance to perform their talent and answer a question about their "platform," a good-works cause that they are championing.
The prelims are packaged as shows, with former Miss Americas hosting before a few thousand onlookers, mostly locals and family and friends. On Wednesday, the night began with a performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Tara Dawn Holland, Miss America 1997, who wrung soap-operatic emotion from the song, discovered a new verse and sang the word "brave" for what seemed like 15 seconds.
Then the festivities began. The contestants first paraded down the runway, en masse, wearing nearly identical black dresses. After a break, 18 of them came out individually in their casual outfits, which meant lots of blue jeans and capri shirts. Some, like Miss Idaho, made a point of looking right into the judges' eyes, or trying to, at least. Miss Michigan did a Betty Boop knee dip. A few, like Miss Missouri, spun so fetchingly that you wanted to hand over a dollar bill.
The perky Shawntel Smith Wuerst (Miss America '96) then asked a question of 17 competitors, one at a time. Half the fun was watching the women argue emphatically for something that is beyond any reasonable dispute -- children shouldn't be abused, no American should starve.
There was a lot of talk about "goals" and "tools." Miss Michigan, whose platform is called "Speech, Language and Hearing: Foundations for Life" -- nearly all the platforms have titles like spiritual guidebooks -- was asked how people with communicative disabilities can be taught to advocate for themselves.
"That's the most important job that we have as speech language pathologists and audiologists and that all of you have as citizens. I can give tools as a speech language pathologist, and someone who has a communication disorder can work so hard to achieve his or her goals, but it's also very important for us to understand how to best help them and to also have them understand that if they have what they need inside of themselves to communicate and that they are number one. And that communication is number one and that they, too, can have a quality of life and they are important citizens to all of us."
She took a breath and then waved.
"Thank you so much. God bless you all!"
"Miss Michigan!" shouted Wuerst.
This is the pageant at its tender, earnest, well-intentioned best. It's a place of happy endings, where communication is No. 1 and nobody stinks even if they stink. There is nothing like it anywhere else and it doesn't seem particularly real.
Then again it is no more fake than the painstakingly crafted episodes of "The Apprentice." A bright, thick line now stands between the pageant and the sort of reality shows from which it borrows, and you can't help but hope the line is never crossed. We've got plenty of humiliation TV now and very few fairy tales.
Bain seems to get that. "The first thing that anyone says when I tell them that we're introducing some reality elements in the show, is 'Oh my God, you're going to get the girls to talk [poop] about each other,' " he says when the Thursday news conference is over.
"That's not what reality TV is, the way we're doing it. We're talking about real emotion, real opinions, whether that's fear, or anxiety or elation. No one was forced to say over the last two weeks, 'I can't stand Miss North Carolina.' "
"Miss America" represents who we'd like to be but aren't. "The Apprentice" represents who we fear we are and hope we're not. In terms of ratings, the latter will always out-perform the former for the same reason that Satan stole the show in "Paradise Lost." What we're riveted by and what we aspire to are two different things.
But we're full up on televised humiliation. There must be room on the airwaves for that single night every year when you can hear a speech by a woman wearing a sash and grinning an ideal grin, urging young people to vote because voting is what makes our nation great and we have a lot of issues facing young people and voting can make a big difference in our nation.