A story in some editions of the Sept. 19 Style section incorrectly reported the university from which Deidre Downs, the new Miss America, graduated. She has a bachelor of arts degree from Samford University, not the University of Virginia. (Published 9/21/04)
In the end, it was red state vs. red state -- and Alabama won.
Deidre Downs prevailed at the 2005 Miss America pageant Saturday night, beating out Miss Louisiana Jennifer Dupont. Downs, who described herself in the pageant's directory as a "future pediatrician, history buff and volleyball player," is 24, from Birmingham, and boasts a luminous smile, a killer figure and an impressive singing voice. She's also got brains: She was a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship who graduated with honors from the University of Virginia.
"This is incredible," Miss Alabama said as the tiara was placed on her head, looking surprisingly unruffled by historical compare. Asked if she'd ever imagined this moment, she replied, "In my dreams but not really. This is wonderful, this is wonderful."
It was also enriching: In addition to earnings from appearance fees, Downs will receive a $50,000 scholarship to further her education.
The show was an extended effort to trick out this vintage production with contemporary touches of reality TV. It started with a video montage and plenty of rehearsal-time testimonials. After the contestants were unveiled behind an enormous curtain -- a "kabuki reveal" is what it's called in the biz -- host Chris Harrison of "The Bachelor" read a list of the 10 finalists, quickly ending the night for 42 ladies. (That included Miss D.C., Miss Maryland, Miss Virginia and Miss Virgin Islands, the last a first.) Harrison drew out the reading of the list so long you'd assume he was getting paid by the minute.
"Ladies, we're halfway there. Five more to go!" he said, halfway there, with five more to go.
When at last he finished, left standing were Miss North Carolina, Miss California, Miss Oklahoma, Miss Georgia, Miss Kansas, Miss New York, Miss Louisiana, Miss Alabama, Miss Arkansas and Miss Texas.
All then faced off in casual wear, then in swimsuits, which this year starred Speedo bikinis so revealing that a few of the contestants complained about their cut. But you couldn't see anything but enthusiasm from these competitors, who in short order were cut to five: Alabama, Louisiana, California . . .
"Seven of you left," Harrison said, with ominous reality-TV music playing in the background. "Two spots remain!"
They turned out to be Miss Arkansas and Miss North Carolina.
On to the evening wear, with musical accompaniment by "American Idol" singer Clay Aiken. Most of the five remaining contestants were escorted by their fathers, who gave them a kiss and then left them to sashay alone onstage, making it look as though the ladies were being given away at their weddings. Miss Alabama managed to wear a two-piece gown, which might have clinched the competition, and was nearly enough to make you forget, at least momentarily, that Clay Aiken was singing.
Up next was a quiz, which was fashioned to look like an episode of "Jeopardy!," with Harrison asking multiple-choice questions of the five finalists. They were given five seconds to answer questions like "What year were women granted the vote?" (1920) and the location of the next Summer Olympics (Beijing). The crowd, which seemed to be divided into rooting sections for different states, tried to collectively murmur the right answers. Whatever help the whispering provided didn't matter much, since the contest ended in a three-way tie.
One more elimination round later, just Miss Alabama and Miss Louisiana were left, and as a result of a major renovation to the format of the program, only these two had the chance to demonstrate their respective talents. Downs won a coin toss and opted to perform second. After Dupont performed a jazz dance, Downs let fly a version of "I'm Afraid This Must Be Love." It won the day.
Security at Boardwalk Hall was a vivid shade of Code Orange. Before the show, the lobby was filled with dozens of state winners of teen pageants, and they, like every other ticket holder, were wanded with metal detectors. Even the tiaras got a quick wave. Bomb-sniffing dogs and military personnel with machine guns prowled the venue.
The show, even though pared down from three hours to two, still seemed a little padded. There was a tribute to Miss Americas past, including Harrison's unscintillating interview with Lee Meriwether, who won the title the first year the show was broadcast, 50 years ago. That was followed by the traditional final walk of the previous year's Miss America, in this case Ericka Dunlap, who made a pitch for the highly unlikely country music singing career she hopes to have soon.
It was hard, at moments, to make sense of the production's priorities. Then again, any show which includes the sentence "Speaking of talent, Clay Aiken is here" has a fairly idiosyncratic notion of what constitutes entertainment.