Would America Miss Miss America?

ByABC News
September 27, 2005, 9:10 AM

Sept. 20, 2005 — -- Just to prove that even beautiful people have troubles, it seems as though Miss America is suddenly dateless.

In years past, a new Miss America would be crowned this week in Atlantic City. The pageant was cooked up in 1921 as a ploy to extend the tourist season a week after Labor Day. Now, after 84 glittering years, the pageant has fallen on tiara-ble times.

In August, Miss America officials announced that festivities would be moving away from the New Jersey casino Mecca and would be pushed back to January -- requiring 2005 winner Deidre Downs to wear her crown just a little bit longer.

But as of yet, no host city or pageant date has been announced -- and that sort of uncertainty can wipe a smile off even the perkiest contestant.

"It's disappointing. I'd have loved to have been competing this weekend. But you've got to stay positive, especially if you want to win," says Kandice Pelletier, a 23-year-old college senior who was recently coroneted Miss New York.

"I'm preparing for January, because I know in my heart it's going to happen, and I want to do my best."

Many pageant watchers assume that the contest move and delay are to accommodate the pageant's new broadcast partner, Country Music Television. Orlando is said to be the leading candidate among several Southern cities, although Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Casino is said to be in the running.

But with time slipping away, and the massive Hurricane Katrina relief effort influencing nearly every aspect of American life, especially in the South, Miss America might be dateless for the next few months.

Calls to Miss America offices, still located in Atlantic City, were unreturned.

"Many of these girls look to this contest to pay for school, so they have to hold the contest soon, or they're doing a disservice to the people who spent all that time preparing," said a former contest competitor, who now volunteers with the organization and wishes to remain anonymous.

"Nobody doubts that they'll have a contest. But it does seem like they're having trouble getting their act together."

Luckily for Pelletier, staying in shape isn't a problem. Pelletier dances with Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes when she's not studying at NYU.

Pelletier's professional ambition: "To be the next Kelly Ripa."

The decline of Miss America would surely be celebrated in some corners of America. It could be argued that parading women around in swimsuits and high heels is out of step with the times, and that's why TV audiences have dropped from 25 million in 1995 to less than 10 million. But supporters say a Miss America contest is downright dignified compared to bug-eating, bachelor-chasing reality TV.

The Miss America Organization doesn't even see itself as a beauty pageant. Rather, it holds itself out as a scholarship competition, making $45 million in tuition assistance available to 18-to-24-year-old women. You can get $7,000 just for being crowned Miss Staten Island.

But whatever the cause, Miss America lost $1.7 million last year, and after a 37-year run on ABC and NBC, the pageant's future on TV was in doubt this year until CMT announced in July that it was stepping in with a multiyear deal.

Now we'll just have to wait and see what the future holds for Miss America and other pageants. If they are indeed fading, it should be noted that some of the country's most influential and accomplished women -- including Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer -- are pageant winners, and these contests played a part in their careers.

Here's a look at celebrity pageant contestants, not all of them competed as Miss America, but their experiences did help shape their careers.

Miss Fire Prevention 1971: Oprah Winfrey
Winfrey was 16 years old when she competed in Nashville's Miss Fire Prevention pageant. Oprah was the only black competitor but nevertheless won. When the judges asked "Who do you want to be when you grow up?" the future talk show queen told the audience, "Barbara Walters!"

Miss Crawford County 1976: Sharon Stone
Losing a bid to become Miss Pennsylvania in 1976 turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Stone. A judge insisted she contact the Ford Modeling Agency, she moved to New York, and now, she's probably happy that she had to settle on the beauty queen title of "Miss Crawford County." It sounds a lot more dignified than Marilyn Monroe's one-time distinction as "Miss California Artichoke Queen, 1946."

Miss Junior America 1962: Diane Sawyer
A 16-year-old Diane Sawyer was crowned 1962's Miss Junior America, and with the scholarship money she won, the future host of "Good Morning America" went off to Wesleyan College.

Sawyer is hardly the only newscaster to enter such a contest. CNN anchor Paula Zahn was a finalist in 1973's Miss Teenage America Pageant. And "Entertainment Tonight" anchor Mary Hart represented South Dakota at the 1971 Miss America Pageant, losing to another TV host, Phyllis George.

Miss Florida 1974: Delta Burke
Representing Florida in 1974's Miss America pageant, future actress Delta Burke famously blew her chances of advancing in the talent competition when she performed a soliloquy of a soon-to-be-executed Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London. The judges were not impressed with Delta's portrayal of the British queen with a Southern drawl.

Nevertheless, Burke took her scholarship winnings and brushed up her act at the London Academy of Music. She, of course, went on to play a washed-up beauty queen on TV's "Designing Women," earning two Emmy nominations.

Miss Chicago 1946: Cloris Leachman
For Mel Brooks fans who can't forget her as the hideous Frau Blucher in "Young Frankenstein," it's hard to think of Oscar winner Cloris Leachman as 1946's Miss America runner-up.

Leachman was a student at Northwestern University and was doing some modeling on the side, when her agent entered her in the Miss Chicago contest. "I didn't even wash my hair," Leachman recalled in one interview, but she still won, and went on to Atlantic City.

With her $1,000 pageant scholarship, Leachman moved to New York, studied acting at Elia Kazan's Actors Studio, and appeared in Broadway productions of "Come Back, Little Sheba."

In Leachman's most recent big-screen performance, she forced herself sexually upon an unhappy Adam Sandler as the prison warden's secretary in this summer's "Longest Yard."

Miss America 1971: Phyllis George
Winning can give you a swell head, and perhaps that explains why Phyllis George dropped her tiara as she took her victory lap as Miss America of 1971. "Rhinestones scattered everywhere," George later told Ladies Home Journal.

Of course, George regained her composure and went on to become the NFL's first female sportscaster, and the host of many shows, including several Miss America Pageants.

Miss Kansas 1948: Vera Miles

After winning the swimsuit competition in 1948, Vera Miles caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock, and eventually she tangled with Norman Bates in "Psycho." She returned years later to reprise her character and wreak revenge on the Bates family in "Psycho II."

Miles also appeared in such classics as "The Wrong Man" and "The Searchers." But for all her big-screen success, she didn't fair too well as Miss Kansas in the talent competition, losing to a marimba-playing farm girl from Minnesota.

Miss Illinois 1989: Jeri Ryan
Trekkies always knew that Borg babe Jeri Ryan, who played "Seven of Nine" on "Star Trek: Voyager" had a heavenly body. Winning Miss Illinois in 1989 wasn't the only way Ryan earned prize money for tuition. She was also a National Merit Scholar.

Ryan, now 37 and a regular on "The O.C." recalled her beauty pageant days in un-Borg-like fashion in a 2002 interview. "The beauty-pageant girls put Vaseline on their teeth, which I didn't, and duct tape on their boobs, which I never did either, because I'm not into pain," she told Britain's Mail on Sunday.

"But like the other girls, I did use athletic spray adhesive on my backside to keep my swimsuit in place. ... I entered to pay for my senior year at Northwestern University, which it did."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.