Jan. 26, 2008 -- Miss America's image has taken a beating lately, but this year an unlikely hero may be coming to rescue of the beleaguered pageant: "GI Jill."
Among the contestants who will parade their talents, poise and beauty before the judges tonight in Las Vegas is Miss Utah -- Army Sgt. Jill Stevens, from Kaysville, Utah, who will trade in her cammies for haute couture.
During its peak, the Miss America pageant drew 30 million viewers for its national television broadcasts and the winners were seen as models for young womanhood. But with changing attitudes and the scandals surrounding some winners, the pageant no longer draws the audiences it once did. Last year, when it was broadcast on Country Music Television, just 2.5 million people watched. This year it will air on The Learning Channel.
If the judges are looking for someone to give the pageant new credibility, Stevens, 24, could be just the ticket.
Before facing the pressures of pageant life, she was saving soldiers' lives in a war zone, working as a combat medic at Bagram Airfield near Kabul, Afghanistan.
"The life of a soldier really prepares you and teaches you to think on your feet and for a stressful situation. It's really prepared me for the pageant," she said. "You have to dodge those bullets. It's a whole new combat zone."
But she's found that the pageant does have its own special challenges that all her military training couldn't prepare her for.
"One of the most difficult things is walking in high heels because me, all I have is combat boots," she said.
Not to mention the reaction from all the men she works with adding,
"One of them almost had a double-take," she said. "The soldiers' reaction when they found out I was in a beauty pageant -- they were like, 'Stevens, what are you doing?'
"It was just kind of fun they got to see this different side of me," she said. "When they would see me in the civilian side, they'd be like 'Whoa, OK, what happened with the no makeup messed up hair look?' and I've really been taught how to bring out this woman inside of me."
Stevens' fellow soldiers gave her some advice for how she could differentiate herself from the competition: "Disassemble your M16 for your talent," one of her Army friends offered.
"It's been great that the soldiers have really wanted to be involved and it's tapping into a whole new group of people all across the nation -- even the world. Soldiers are interested and intrigued with what I'm doing," said Stevens
Stevens, who now works as an Army recruiter, says win or lose, her greatest accomplishment will always be serving her country.
Now she's just excited to show young girls that Miss America isn't just about bathing suits anymore.
"To anyone in America I say, 'Lock and load. This is your one life, your one opportunity to show what you're capable of, make every shot count, go after your dreams,'" she said.
Dozens of soldiers are expected to be in the Las Vegas crowd tonight "hooah'ing" Stevens when she serves America on a different stage -- one with a little more makeup.