Miss America pageant 'changes,' but sex still sells

ROGER SIMON

September 17, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Let's say you're in charge of the Miss America pageant and you have a little problem:

The TV audience has been shrinking, and you have to get it back.

You can't revamp the whole show -- throwing out the 50 contestants, for instance -- but you can make some changes in a telecast that each year is slow-moving, bumbling and dull.

So what do you do?

Well, this year you go out and hire a new producer. And not just any producer. No, you get the producer of the Academy Awards telecast!

That other slow-moving, bumbling and dull TV show.

OK, you have a second chance: The hosts.

Since the contestants are in their late teens and early 20s, why not get hosts who appeal to this young, hip and happening generation?

So who do you get? That's right: Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford.

Huh?

OK, last chance. Maybe a change in the rules will help, a change that will show everyone that the Miss America pageant is not a creaky anachronism.

So what rule do you change? You make all the contestants do their own hair!

Sort of makes you want to sit down in front of the TV set right now doesn't it?

The Miss America pageant, which will be broadcast at 10 p.m. Saturday on NBC, is floundering. Freed from the iron grip of long-time chairman Albert Marks Jr., who died in 1989, the pageant finally has the ability to change itself, but doesn't know how.

As a cultural icon, it must change carefully. But it must change. Why? Because the competition has become stiffer.

Though nobody associated with the pageant likes to admit it, the whole show is about sex.

I know whereof I speak. I have not only covered the pageant as a reporter, but I have also been a judge. I sat in my rented tuxedo right next to Gavin MacLeod, captain of the Love Boat, and waved to the cameras on cue.

There is no "sex" category on the judge's ballot. But if the show is not about that, why were all these young women standing above us in bathing suits and high heels doing these quarter turns to the left, quarter turns to the right, and full turns with a pause to let us see their backsides?

The sex in the Miss America pageant is supposed to be subtle, demur, even virginal. But it has to be there.

(No, you don't actually have to be a virgin to compete. The rules state that the contestants must never have been married, divorced or had a marriage annulled. And in the old days, the organizers figured this meant the contestants had to be virgins. Ha-ha. Times change.)

Every year the pageant talks about dropping the swimsuit competition, but it never seems to get around to doing it.

Why not? Because the pageant organizers know the swimsuit segment is why people, especially men, watch the show.

This year, NBC is going to let you call in and vote on whether you want to keep the swimsuit competition (as if you cared), but if it is dropped it probably would be replaced with something like a "sportswear" segment featuring leotards or bicycle pants or something that keeps sex in the show.

Because no TV network is going to allow sex to be removed from the telecast. It can't afford to. It used to be that the Miss America telecast was one of the sexier shows on TV. Now, however, we have cable TV where sex is up close and personal and broadcast TV with shows like "Melrose Place" and "Angel Falls."

We also have other pageants that even allow -- gasp! -- two-piece swimsuits.

And how can Miss America compete with that? The pageant faces a dilemma. It claims to be a scholarship pageant and not a beauty pageant, but it knows that beauty (another name for sex) is what puts people in front of their TV sets.

So it struggles: Too sexy and it becomes politically incorrect. Not sexy enough and it gets eaten by the competition.

This year, the ads promise us: "The Miss America Pageant

unveils a whole new look! You have to see it to believe it!"

OK, I'll see it. But I don't think any show with Regis and Kathie Lee can make me believe it.

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