Miss Illinois Erika Harold, who put Harvard University law school on hold so she could compete in the Miss America pageant, won it all tonight.
Harold, 22, an opera singer from Urbana, Ill., wowed judges with "Habanera," an aria from the opera "Carmen," and performed ably on a newly-added contemporary culture pop quiz given to the five finalists.
She gasped, covered her mouth and bent her knees in disbelief when she was announced as Miss America 2003, then she ducked her head to receive the crown from outgoing Miss America Katie Harman.
Miss Alabama Scarlotte Deupree was first runner-up; Miss Oklahoma Casey Preslar was second runner-up; Miss Nevada Teresa Benitez was third runner-up; and Miss Maryland Camille Lewis rounded out the field of finalists.
Harold, a University of Illinois graduate who wants to practice public policy law and run for national office someday, was supposed to start at Harvard this fall. She delayed her enrollment after winning her state pageant and a shot at the Miss America crown.
A year with the crown will help her pay tuition: She earned a $50,000 scholarship for winning tonight, and thousands more in winning her state crown and the Miss America preliminaries.
The pop quiz, which was aimed at showing the contestants' brainpower, added a pinch of "Jeopardy" to the staid old beauty pageant, with host Wayne Brady quizzing the five women on contemporary culture and American history.
Harold correctly answered 10 of the 16 multiple choice questions, which was second best among the finalists. Deupree answered 11 right.
Harold's crowning may boost the Miss America Organization's never-ending crusade to be taken seriously as something other than a bathing beauty festival. The organization is the largest provider of scholarships to women in the world, but its swimsuit competition and emphasis on beauty have hampered its efforts.
Contestants representing Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Washington state were among the final 15 before the field was narrowed to five.
The pageant capped a rocky year that included a tussle over who was to represent North Carolina.
The annual beauty contest, which started as a publicity stunt in 1921 by Atlantic City businessmen hoping to keep summer visitors around past Labor Day, is still relying on its 81-year-old old formula for choosing "the fairest of the fair," but the show promised some distinctly 21st century touches.
Viewers had the chance to vote for their favorites online at www.abc.com after the swimsuit, talent and evening wear competitions, even though the votes wouldn't count in the selection of Miss America 2003.
Contestants, too, could vote: For the second year in a row, the 46 women voted out of the pageant by judges were allowed to cast ballots for their favorite. In that vote, which counted 10 percent toward the overall score, Miss Maryland and Miss Illinois tied for second runner up, and Miss Alabama was first runner up.
In another nod to viewers' appetite for reality TV, an expanded "pop quiz" tested the beauties' brainpower. The five finalists were grilled on 16 multiple choice questions by host Wayne Brady, who cracked jokes about being the first black host of the pageant ever.
"I'll be Regis, just a little more tan," he said.
For a time last week, it appeared there would be two women representing North Carolina in the contest. Rebekah Revels, 24, who won the state pageant, later resigned after an ex-boyfriend told Miss America officials he had topless photos of her.
First runner-up Misty Clymer got the job, but then Revels sued to be reinstated, contending that pageant executives forced her to quit in the first place. When the women arrived in Atlantic City on Sept. 8 to begin pageant preparations, there were 52 in all -- one for each state and the District of Columbia and two for North Carolina.
Ultimately, a judge sided with the pageant, the photos never surfaced and Clymer got to keep her crown.
Miss America 2002 Katie Harman, a college student from Gresham, Ore., crowned her successor about 11 tonight.
The Miss America Organization, the non-profit scholarship organization that runs the Miss America Pageant, endured a rocky year even before the North Carolina controversy.
Its former CEO, citing rising costs for staging the annual production at Boardwalk Hall, threatened to move it if city or state leaders didn't ante up with new subsidies. The threat was averted for this year, at least.
And Harman, 22, made news when word leaked out -- in a letter written to pageant officials by her parents -- that she was unhappy over a lack of personal appearance bookings and plans for a Miss America-themed slot machine.