Pop quiz: Name the current Miss America.
Surely you know that Carrie Underwood is the newest "American Idol" and Katie Holmes the next Mrs. Tom Cruise. Betcha you'd recognize Paris Hilton and her little dog, too. But ever hear of Deidre Downs?
Downs was crowned Miss America 2005 last September, a fact only dedicated fans seem to know. The two-hour pageant received such low TV ratings that ABC dropped it -- and no other broadcast network picked it up. No show, no sponsors, no scholarship money.
There she goes, Miss America.
And that is why the 84-year-old pageant is desperately trying to reinvent itself once again with a new look, a new date and a new deal on Country Music Television. The show will be more reality than rhinestone, move from September to January and kick it up on basic cable. Is this a glamorous extreme makeover or the death knell of the scholarship-beauty-talent competition?
"I think that the Miss America pageant has run its course," says Lisa Ades, director of "Miss America," a PBS "American Experience" documentary on the pageant. "I wish I could say that the audience has waned because there are so many opportunities for women and we don't need beauty pageants as a way to get ahead. But the truth is that interest has waned because it's simply not sexy enough."
Or maybe not "reality" enough. Tammy Haddad, a veteran network and cable producer who sits on the Miss America Organization board, says the deal with CMT is the perfect move because it will turn a one-night program into a heavily promoted, multi-night competition event with a traditional values audience. "I think it's an A-plus deal business-wise, and the pageant will be the hit it used to be. In some towns, it is the Super Bowl," says Haddad.
But what if the problem isn't sex or ratings, but identity?
"The leadership and philosophy in Atlantic City has over the past few years been so bad that they're lucky to be on television at all," says Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. "The problem at the core is the Miss America Organization not knowing what it is. You can have a pageant on the boardwalk, which would appeal to a lot of people, or a multimillion-dollar scholarship corporation. But you can't have it both ways, and they've been trying to for the past few years."
It started out simply enough: In 1921, Atlantic City looked for a way to extend the tourist season beyond Labor Day. It came up with a beauty pageant and crowned Margaret Gorman the first "Miss America." It was silly and fun and slightly risque. It was a way for a pretty young girl with ambition to make some money, and maybe catch the eye of a Broadway producer.
The pageant became more respectable, adding rules and scholarships and talent. In 1944, it crowned Bess Myerson, the first Jew to hold the title. But it wasn't until 1954 -- the first year the pageant was broadcast on television to an audience of 27 million -- that Miss America became an overnight celebrity and made Lee Ann Meriwether an icon of American womanhood. During the late '50s and early '60s, the pageant was one of the top-rated televised events of the year.
"I grew up watching it in the '60s with my family and it was a huge event," says Ades. "I was allowed to stay late to see who the winner would be."
Despite protests in the late '60s, jeers from early feminists in the '70s, charges of racism in the '80s, Miss America inched herself into the present and survived if not thrived. It was headline news in 1983 when the pageant crowned its first African American, Vanessa Williams, and even bigger news when she was asked to resign months later once nude photos of her were published in Penthouse. By the '90s, contestants were sharing their platforms -- social issues, not shoes.
In an effort to boost sagging ratings, the pageant has tried lots of tricks: Cute videos, audience call-ins, bare feet in the swimsuit segment! None of it worked. After eight years broadcasting the pageant, ABC drew only 9.8 million viewers to last September's show -- the smallest turnout ever. The typical viewer was a 50-plus female (who probably watched as a little girl), but very few teenagers bothered to tune in. Apparently, America isn't interested in a parade of all-American girls who are sort of pretty, sort of talented, sort of smart. Not when they can watch a conga line of hot babes, diva singers or bitchy reality queens.
The rap on Miss America is that it's always been full of "Pageant Patties": Always smiling, always sweet, never smokes, never swears. In short, phonies.
"We are a beauty pageant, and we're not afraid to say we're about beautiful women," says Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, which presents the Miss USA pageant. "The women who participate in our pageants are more natural. It's easier for the viewing audience to relate to them. . . . They're absolutely gorgeous, but somebody you feel you could talk to."
Shugart says the move to a reality format will probably help Miss America. "That's their effort to make some of these girls real, because they realize they missed the boat on that," she says.
Another problem: Bridging the gap between the traditional beauty pageant and an educational and political platform. Miss America gives out more scholarships to U.S. women than any other organization. "No one believed it was a scholarship program," says Jim Jones, a pageant judge in 2002. "Nobody buys that. It has a huge branding problem. . . . 'Survivor' knows what it is. Miss America was never really clear. Well, it probably was clear in the '50s and '60s, then it lost it."
No, the problem isn't the pageant or the contestants, says Art McMasters, acting president and CEO of the Miss America Organization. It's television.
"We've been on television for 50 years," he says. "We noticed in the last couple of years that the whole climate changed in the TV business. A lot of these reality shows started developing and became very successful. America wanted to get to know who was on television. I said to our network partners, 'We've got to be on television more than one night a year.' They did not see our pageant as part of their future."
Ten years ago the pageant would never have considered going on cable, he says. But the two-year deal with CMT will allow broadcast of behind-the-scenes moments, preliminary contests and cross-promotions with other Viacom-owned properties: VH1, MTV and CBS. The country channel averages just 300,000 viewers in prime time, and only 3 million for its star-studded "CMT Music Awards" show. But McMasters estimates that Miss America has a base of 10 million fans who will tune in to CMT, and even bigger numbers with proper promotion. " 'American Idol' is not that much different from Miss America in the sense that they are looking for the very best person to win the title."
All the disadvantages Miss America had as a one-time event on a network are advantages on cable, says Haddad. "In this day and age, people want to get to know the girls better. The show got too long. You have to remake yourself."
The broadcast will move from September to January to give organizers time to rethink the production. No word yet whether it will remain in Atlantic City. "I don't know," says Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. "Nothing has been said, but I know there's a good amount of speculation." The pageant has two years remaining on an agreement to stay in Boardwalk Hall. Vasser is meeting with pageant officials this week.
The news was welcome in local pageants, which can continue for at least two more years. Jennifer Endsley, a former Miss Baltimore, Miss Greater Annapolis, Miss Montgomery County and executive director of the Miss Harford County pageant in Maryland, has mixed feelings about the move to CMT.
"One of utter relief that the program will still be televised, continuing in a great tradition of the country," she says. But "if it becomes more of a reality-type show, then the integrity of the program will be compromised." As in: Making it too much like the Miss USA system. "We need to get back to the well-spoken, talented girl-next-door, instead of this sexy, blond, big-chested kind of girl."
Carol Clulee, executive director of the Miss Cumberland and Miss Queen City pageants in Maryland, is excited. "I think the entertainment aspect and the value of the Miss America pageant will be strengthened and definitely be a plus," she says. "We've had too many TV executives with their hands in the pie and who perhaps have not done the pageant justice. They have continuously squashed the talent portion and reduced it to some minimum level."
Maybe none of it matters. Maybe the time for Miss America -- her swimsuit, her tiara, her Vaseline smile, her earnest platform -- is past. Maybe there are better ways for a young woman today to get a scholarship.
"Personally, I can't wait for the day when the pageant's all over -- not banned, but disappeared," says Olga Vives, vice president of the National Organization for Women. "These shows don't really do anything for society."
But those who love it aren't prepared to give it up entirely.
"I love Miss America," says Shindle. "It's one of my greatest achievements, and it's heartbreaking to see how misguided it's been. They just need to get their act together. I'd rather see them spend a couple years figuring out what they are. It says something when former Miss Americas, who have a vested interest in seeing the pageant do well, say to each other, 'This is it.' I'd rather see it go away than continue to exist with an identity that I can't be proud of."