On Saturday, September 21, millions watched 51 young women compete in the Miss America pageant. I was invited to attend the final night and crowning by a good friend and former Miss America contestant, Rashida Jolley of Washington, D.C.
After graduating from college, Rashida became the D.C. field representative for Project Reality, an abstinence-centered education group in Chicago. Rashida and her coworkers were going to the pageant to support another one of their Project Reality colleagues, Miss Illinois 2002, Erika Harold.
As the contestants were whittled down, it became apparent that Erika had an excellent chance of being crowned Miss America 2003. Headed for Harvard Law School, Erika was dubbed the "smart one" early on, but she also blew everyone away with her talent performance and personality. And, of course, her stunning good looks-a multi-ethnic palette of black, American Indian, Russian, Greek, German, Welsh and English.
The moments after Erikas crowning as Miss America were a blur. In the backstage area, family and friends crowded into a small ballroom where each state had its own table.
Miss Alabama and first runner up, Scarlotte Dupree, had a huge crowd and a lot of fanfare at her table. Later that night one former D.C. judge confided that "Miss America is never going to be a Scar-LOT."
It is predictable that so much of the press coverage on Erika has focused on her multi-ethnic background rather than on her community service and four-year involvement in abstinence-centered education.
When Erika competed for Miss Illinois, her platform was abstinence education among teenagers. This platform was somewhat controversial among the judges. After her third try, Erika was crowned Miss Illinois. But the Miss Illinois organization had decided the year before that all future Miss Illinois winners must use its state platform, prevention of youth violence, in the Miss America national competition.
The Miss America organization also wants to steer Erika towards discussing youth violence prevention, a more politically correct platform.
It is curious that this seemingly traditional organization with a mission to educate and empower women would not embrace the important message of abstinence among teenagers. Rashida said, "The Miss America organization promotes positive role models who are passionate about their platforms. Miss America is the perfect vehicle to promote abstinence education."
The Miss America organization has also tried to downplay Erikas conservative views. Her official Miss America bio does not mention her involvement in abstinence education nor does it mention her volunteer work on the Illinois gubernatorial campaign of Patrick OMalley, a pro-lifer and defender of home schooling.
"Erika is a strong person who is not afraid to stand up for what she believes is right. Abstinence is one of the issues she is passionate about because it has been such a positive and healthy choice for her," said Libby Gray, public relations director of Project Reality.
Some have countered that Miss America is not a political platform and therefore Erikas political views are not newsworthy. But we have been exposed to the political views of many past and wannabe Miss America contestants. Miss Nevadas performance of Dennis Shepards statement in the 1999 murder trial of his son, Matthew, was simply awkward and "cringe-worthy," as one Salon columnist put it.
Since Erikas crowning, many conservative publications and organizations have embraced her. Unfortunately, this has made it increasingly difficult for people to learn more about her. One insider told me that my phone calls probably would not be returned from the PR firm hired by the Miss America organization since I am writing for a conservative newspaper.
It is unfortunate that the Miss America organization, which boasts that their contestants are well-rounded young women who are intelligent, talented, poised and physically fit, are shrouding and in some ways silencing their new Miss Americas conservative views. I hope this isnt a return of the "seen and not heard" view of women that the pageant has tried to escape.
Thankfully, many of us dont have to dig too deep to know that Erika is a young woman who is genuinely passionate about her conservative views.