Beauty Pageant Waffles On Sex

The head of the Miss America Organization said Tuesday the pageant may back off plans to begin allowing women with divorce or pregnancy in their background to compete.

In his first public statements about the change, pageant CEO Robert Beck said the pageant's board had agreed to defer implementing the new rules pending talks with state pageant operators furious about the change.

"I don't know what the outcome of the dialogue will be," Beck said. Asked if it was possible that the old rules banning such women would remain intact, he said: "That's always a possibility. I don't know what the endgame will be from the process."

He said there was no underlying reason for the change beyond a review of the contestant contract that showed it needed to be updated and brought into compliance with applicable laws.

In a surprising turnabout, the Miss America Pageant board voted in June to lift its ban on women who have been married or had abortions.

Leanza Cornett: shocked by plans to change rules

"I was shocked when I heard it," said Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett. "I was like 'What?' Out of all of the things I could have expected, that is one I wouldn't think of in a million years."

The board of the Miss America Organization, which runs the pageant, voted to drop the requirement that contestants be never married and never pregnant.

Fear of violating New Jersey's discrimination laws spurred the change, according to court documents obtained Monday.

Since at least 1950, contestants have had to swear they had never been married and never been pregnant in order to vie for the rhinestone crown and thousands of dollars in scholarship money.

The new ruling would require simply that they sign a document saying, "I am unmarried" and "I am not pregnant and I am not the natural or adoptive parent of any child."

That would open the door to divorceées, women who had had abortions or who had given birth but their child had died.

Pageant officials declined comment on the flap Monday.

Beck, who took over the top job last fall, told the state pageants to have contestants in this year's pageant - scheduled for Saturday at Convention Hall - sign the new contracts as a condition of competing for the title of Miss America 2000.

The state pageants went to court to fight the change, and the Miss America Organization agreed to back off for this year. The board, which had already approved the change to take effect next year, has deferred action pending talks with the states.

The state pageants ae expected to continue their fight.

"Miss America has a long history of high moral standards and traditions, and I'm opposed to anything that changes that," said Libby Taylor, executive director of the Miss Kentucky Pageant and president of the National Association of Miss America State Pageants.

Leonard C. Horn, the long-time CEO of the pageant who stepped down last year after 30 years with the organization, said the rules change was a mistake. Allowing women who have had abortions or divorces will lead to state pageants quitting the Miss America system, he said.

Sponsors, too, will rethink their participation in the program, which makes available more than $30 million in scholarship aid annually to contestants and others, according to Horn.

"It's acceptable in today's society, but no one could argue that an unwanted pregnancy or an abortion is an ideal. A failed marriage is not an ideal. It's acceptable and it happens, but it's not an ideal," Horn said.

The "no marriage" rule was imposed after Miss America 1949 Jacque Mercer got married - and divorced - during her tenure.

The eligibility rules have never been challenged in court or otherwise, according to Horn, a lawyer who served as general counsel from 1967 to 1987 and CEO from 1987 to 1998.

In an affidavit filed on behalf of the pageant, Beck said state pageants would remain free to keep their eligibility rules the same.

A state organization that refused to go along, however, might risk losing its franchise because the national organization determines who gets to run the official state pageants.

The changes were deemed to be "reasonably necessary" by the Miss America Organization board, Beck said. "These changes reflected MAO's conclusion that applicable laws prohibited the continuation of these requirements at the national level," he said.

But contestants in this year's pageant had reservations.

Miss West Virginia Lucy Ours said the number of women seeking the crown would probably drop off as a result. "The most important thing Miss America does is she's a role model. If she's been married and divorced by age 24, people might not look at her as a very good role model."

Cornett agreed. "There are still little girls out there who have who held Miss America and others like her up on a pedestal."

"When you're sitting around the dinner table with your daughter or your little niece, it'll bring up so many questions," she said.

"I'm shocked. Why? Why would they do this? What is it that inspired someone to make this decision?" she asked.

By John Curran