ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., SEPT. 19 -- Miss Michigan, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, who performed a hip-swaying Hawaiian-Tahitian dance routine, was crowned tonight with the rhinestone tiara of the 61st Miss America and the title of the nation's unofficial sweetheart.
Rafko, 24, who was named after a Hawaiian friend of her mother, received the traditional diadem from her predecessor, Miss America 1987, Kellye Cash of Memphis.
The 5-foot-10, 131-pound green-eyed brunette from Monroe, Mich., opened her reign with a tear-filled stroll down the runway of Atlantic City's Convention Hall and a wave to a television audience estimated at 60 million.
Rafko, who holds a nursing degree, wore an authentic Tahitian electric-pink grass skirt trimmed with mother-of-pearl, a matching bandeau-style top and an exotic headdress trimmed with flowing feathers in a demanding dance performance in the pageant's talent segment.
Asked if she had been concerned about how the judges would react to her expressive dance and midriff-baring outfit, Rafko said: "Not at all, because under the judging for talent performance, they look for creativity, uniqueness and style, personality and stage presence."
The new Miss America hopes to obtain a master's degree in oncology, the study of tumors, and eventually wants to manage a hospice program for the terminally ill.
Nine other finalists included the first black Miss Mississippi, Toni Seawright of Moss Point, the fourth runner-up. First runner-up was Miss Louisiana Patricia Brant, second was Miss Nevada Stacie James and third was Miss Colorado La Tanya Hall. Other finalists were Miss Virginia Heidi Lammi of Alexandria, Miss Missouri Robin Riley, Miss Florida Jennifer Anne Sauder, Miss Texas Jo Thompson and Miss Maryland Tammy Alaine Walker of Kingsville.
The winner receives a $30,000 scholarship and a chance at more than $100,000 in appearance fees during a jam-packed one-year reign.
Atlantic City police, concerned about possible disruptions by striking NBC technicians represented by the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, had stationed about 250 officers outside the hall and at key spots inside. No problems were reported.
The Miss America Pageant produces its own television special, but normally hires NBC technicians. This year, the pageant employed union freelancers.
The NABET picketers chanted "Two-four-six-eight, NBC negotiate," and carried signs with the Miss America crown saying "Dethrone NBC" and "Beauty and the Beast."