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Miss Pathetica  
Sure, the Miss America pageant is in dire need of an overhaul. But how did things get this desperate?  

    Aug. 20 —  There’s another way to view the much-ballyhooed changes in this year’s Miss America pageant: with pathos.  

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  INDEED, WHAT IS more pathetic than the sight of a broken down 81-year-old institution so devoid of creativity and spunk that it must seize upon gimmicky “reality TV” techniques to drum up viewers in the coveted “Below 90” demographic?
        Virtually every newspaper in the country had the story last week: In the face of decades of declining ratings, the Miss America pageant would add a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”-style current events and history quiz, would take a page from “Survivor” and allow non-finalists to convene a tribal council (albeit one with a lot of hairspray) to vote for whom they think should win, and even mimic “Big Brother” by having cameras film the supposedly candid “behind-the-scenes deliberations.”
        “We will be ushering in a new era of high-stakes reality TV,” gushed pageant president and CEO Robert Renneisen. Oh, if that were really true! Who wouldn’t want to see Miss California—always so popular with her surfer-girl looks and her 54 electoral votes—get voted off the island? Who wouldn’t want to see Miss Texas—with the overblown Lone Star ego—dubbed “The Ugliest Link” and dispatched with an icy sneer from that bitchy British woman in that ridiculous black duster?
        And who wouldn’t love to see Miss New York say what she really thinks of that dress Miss Wisconsin is wearing?
        Ain’t gonna happen—and that’s the pathetic part.
        But who could blame Miss America for trying to get “reality TV” ratings? In a nation where Britney Spears is teaching 12-year-old girls how to tease boys with a flirty “oops” or an exposed navel, the Miss America pageant is a throwback that’s as far removed from today’s mores as Strom Thurmond is from actual sentience.
        Renneisen said the changes were the result of a survey indicating that America wants to see more competition and get to know the contestants better. Of course, judging from the fact that porn is our nation’s biggest industry, the country really wants what Renneisen is obviously unwilling to provide: a fully nude Miss America pageant. No wonder ratings hit an all-time low last year.
        In reality, the changes are more likely the result of the appointment of former Fox executive Bob Bain as executive producer of the pageant’s broadcast. Bain also produced “Britney Spears in Hawaii!” and Fox’s New Year’s Eve show. (Like I always say, when in doubt, get the guys who did “When Animals Attack!” and “Who Wants to Marry a Guy with a Restraining Order?”)
        Changes, of course, are a standard ploy at the Miss America pageant. Seemingly every year, and always during the slow news period of the summer, the Miss America Organization makes some sort of “big” announcement. In 1997, the pageant allowed two-piece bikinis (but, alas, no thongs) and eliminated high-heels. In 1993, the contestants were required to do their own hair styling to prevent them from looking like “a Stepford wife,” according to one pageant exec. Even back in 1938, the pageant added a talent component (which, you could argue, was eliminated in 1978).
        Researching this story, I noticed that I’ve written at least four stories on the “big” pageant changes during my years at the New York Post, where I worked, apparently, as a re-writer of press releases. The only reason the Miss America Organizations makes these “big changes” every year is so the words “the pageant will be broadcast on ABC on Sept. 22” will appear in every newspaper in the country.
        Renneisen said that the changes were not only intended to spice up the show (which, by the way, will be broadcast on ABC on Sept. 22), but to allow viewers to view the contestants as “real people with real lives.” (Wait a minute. Since when is “reality TV” about “real” people? None of those people are real! Have you ever met a guy like “Survivor” Richard Hatch or any of those people on “Fear Factor”?)
        Funny thing is, I’ve actually covered the Miss America pageant a couple of times in Atlantic City. (Full disclosure? My room was paid for by the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, but the statute of limitations on my prostitution is over and I can reveal all!)
All around you are little kids wearing little cocktail dresses and bearing sequined sashes. Some of the sashes read: “Miss Junior Cobalt County.” Others read, “Miss Pre-Teen Asheville.”

       As a veteran of the pageant, I know as a fact that the contestants are not real people at all. You see this as you walk around Convention Hall during the pageant. All around you are little kids wearing little cocktail dresses and bearing sequined sashes. Some of the sashes read: “Miss Junior Cobalt County.” Others read, “Miss Pre-Teen Asheville.”
        And that’s when it hits you: These are not real people, but a breed of humans who exist solely to populate beauty pageants, a mini-society of JonBenet Ramseys, a twisted eugenics experiment run not by scientists, but by TV programmers.
        Even contest people see themselves in this way. Indeed, after the changes were announced last week, Joe Sanders III, the longtime president of the Miss South Carolina contest, told The New York Times that he favored adding spice to the contest, if only because the lives of millions of “real people” depend on it.
        “I’ve been in this business for 41 years,” he said. “I have to admit, the telecast could use a little shaking up.”
        But you don’t have to believe ol’ Joe Sanders. There are plenty of academics who agree that Miss America is falling apart.

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       “There are two television shows I can’t believe are still on: ‘The Price is Right’ and the Miss America pageant,” Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, told The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
        Forgive for a second that Thompson is an academic, forget that there is even something called the Center for the Study of Popular Television and ignore that Thompson indirectly disparaged Bob Barker. The man does have a point.
        “The Miss America pageant is so incredibly old-fashioned, they need to get a little bit of the sleaze factor in,” he added. “It could succeed as a reality show [if] there’s some back-biting.”
        For an academic who analyzes the destructive nature of popular television on the American mind, Thompson was beginning to sound more like just another yahoo with his finger on the remote.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for the New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House). His website is at http://www.gersh.tv

Gersh: Vacation Time

       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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