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Sunday, September 19, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur

Here She Is, Miss America: Pageant Faces Reality And Recoils

Times Staff Columnist

There she is.

But where's she been?

That's been the question of the week as the nation geared up for last night's Miss America pageant, which could have been the last one spun like cotton candy. All froth. No substance.

Pageant officials announced they had lifted the ban on contestants who are divorced or have had an abortion.

So next year, I could have watched the Miss of my America parade down that runway. Someone who had taken some hard knocks from life but stayed steady in her pumps.

No such luck. Within days, the pageant was reconsidering that progressive step. Officials said they feared mass defections (what, no Miss Utah?); and that mixing girls who do with girls who don't would mar the "high moral standards" Miss America stands for.

None of this makes much sense.

For starters, the pageant that crowns our most chaste and pure is held in Atlantic City, the gambling mecca of the East, where some women play cards, other women deal cards, and still other women dance on stage wearing little more than smiles.

Even this year's Miss America contestants couldn't stay far from the immoral pool in which most of us have dipped a toe or 10.

Miss Louisiana, Julie Lawrence, once taught dance lessons to teen singer/pelvis-thruster/rumored breast-enhancer Britney Spears.

Miss Arkansas, Brandy Rhodes, wants to be a "feature-film producer" - hardly a job for someone with high morals, even if she works for Disney. (Where, I ask, were the fathers in "Toy Story" and "Bambi"?)

It would have been nice to let Miss America be a little more substantive than a singing, smiling, aspiring newscaster who looks way too made-up to be 20.

There's value and depth in a woman who has had to make some difficult life decisions, and still emerged from the ashes with enough chutzpah to smile and stroll in a swimsuit.

"Not everybody has the beautiful love story," said Monique Mullender, 36, of Duvall. "A lot of people I know have gone through those things and learned.

"It stands for power. You have the power to move on with your life and fight for yourself. Nobody does it for you."

Consider the possible contestants.

Maybe one married young, only to find herself miserable, or abused. She wanted a better life for herself and made the tough decision to let her marriage become one of the four in 10 that end in this country.

What better person to advocate for working women?

Maybe another was in a loving, physical relationship that resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. The situation was thought through, and she became one of the 20-in-every-1,000 American women between the ages of 15 and 44 to have a safe abortion - just as the United States Supreme Court has allowed for 25 years.

What better person to advocate teen-pregnancy prevention?

And why do we have to wait until the crown comes off for Miss America to show us what she's made of?

Miss Americas have struggled with alcoholism, drug abuse, incest - and naivete.

Vanessa Williams (1984) posed nude with another woman. Beth Myerson (1945) was brought to trial on divorce-fixing charges and was later convicted of shoplifting. Marilyn Van Debur (1958) was sexually abused by her father from age 5 to 18. Lee Meriwether (1955) starred in "Barnaby Jones."

All lived to tell, and rise above it.

Of course, there are those who maintain that Miss America remain chaste, pure and untouched.

"Miss America must be perfect, because she's a symbol to other young people," said the singularly named Jolie, of Jolie's Hair Salon in Bellevue.

"Divorce, abortion . . .," she said, wrinkling her nose. "Just makes it kind of . . . shaky."

Paul Custard thinks Miss America's wholesome image has insulted a lot of women.

"You can't relate to her," said Custard, 32, and - shhh! - divorced.

"They put Miss America up on a pedestal, and women think that that is what they are supposed to achieve, while they're the ones struggling day-to-day to make America what it is.

"It's stupid," he said of the policy. "It shouldn't matter."

My Miss America would have mistakes to share. Her talent would be keeping her head, and her humor, while doing her best. If she's beautiful, along with all that, crown her.

And there she'll be. Maybe not ideal - but real.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in The Times. Her phone number is 206-464-2334. Her e-mail address is nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. 36-24-Nevermind.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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