Talk about a birthday present. Miss Oklahoma Shawntel Smith turned 24 years old this morning and was crowned Miss America 1996 tonight.
Keeping with tradition, the 5-foot-3 1/2, green-eyed redhead had marched down the runway in a swimsuit less than one-half hour before she won the title. To the surprise of absolutely no one in the packed Convention Center, the American public voted overwhelmingly to include the swimsuit competition in the 75-year-old pageant. Close to a million people called to register a vote, with 79 percent for swimsuits in the pageant, 21 percent against.
In a poll of contestants released yesterday, Smith, along with 42 of the 50 contestants this year, voted to keep the competition, saying, "Personally, I feel the suit is modest enough so I don't think I'm compromising any of my beliefs or principles."
At her first news conference as Miss America, Smith also mentioned her platform issue, keeping kids in school.
"Our children need to be educated," she said. "That's it, plain and simple."
Smith was crowned shortly after the top five finalists were interviewed by co-host Regis Philbin on the live telecast, which was watched by an estimated 40 million people.
Miss Oregon, Emily Orton, 19, was named first runner-up. The second runner-up was Miss Arkansas, Paula Montgomery, 22; third runner-up was Miss California, Tiffany Stoker, 21; and Miss Illinois, Tracy Hayes, 22, was the fourth runner-up.
The new Miss America, who is pursuing a masters degree in business administration at Oklahoma City University, wins a $40,000 scholarship. The business degree should come in handy: The outgoing titleholder, Heather Whitestone, earned more than $250,000 during her reign.
Most of the top-10 finalists featured in tonight's pageant chose classical selections for the talent portion of the competition. Smith, however, performed a pop rendition of "Woman in the Moon."
The pageant's 75th anniversary celebration was co-hosted by Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford. The three-hour program, broadcast live nationwide for the first time, featured 40 former Miss Americas.
The first runner-up receives a $30,000 scholarship; the second runner-up $20,000; third runner-up $15,000; and fourth runner-up $10,000.
The remaining top-10 finalists, who each won an $8,000 scholarship, were Miss New York, Helen Goldsby, a 24-year-old graduate of Howard University; Miss Kansas, Amy Keller, 24; Miss Massachusetts, Marcia Turner, 21; Miss Mississippi, Monica Louwerens, 21; and Miss Alabama, Leigh Sherer, 22.
The new Miss America, who undoubtedly stayed away from all junk food in anticipation of the swimsuit vote, had a quick answer when asked what the very first thing she planned to do tonight.
"Eat some pizza," she said with a laugh. CAPTION: Outgoing titleholder, Heather Whitestone, crowns her successor, Shawntel Smith, Miss America 1996 last night at a nostalgic pageant in Atlantic City.