With UF student as contestant, Miss America moves to cable
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 11:05 p.m.
Octavia Reese had just graduated with honors, earning her college degree in classical and French studies. She wanted a doctorate in linguistic studies, but her mother, who had raised Reese in unimaginable poverty, couldn't afford to pay for graduate school.
Miss America is tonight
What: The annual Miss America pageant moves from ABC to cable TV.
When: 8 p.m. tonight
Where: Country Music Television (Cox cable channel 50)
There was, however, another way for Reese. It involved putting on a bathing suit, but it might lead to some serious scholarship money. And besides, compared with scenes from her childhood - living in a frigid apartment in urban Detroit, going without utilities so the family could afford private school - how humiliating could a beauty contest be?
And that's how Reese became Miss Michigan 2005, one of the contestants in the 2006 Miss America Pageant that airs at 8 p.m. Saturday on Country Music Television, and will feature a University of Florida student Mari Wilensky, representing the state of Florida.
Reese is exceptional (how many women have had to turn down a Fulbright Scholarship so they could run for Miss America?), but all these ladies are exceptional. Miss America 2005, Deidre Downs of Alabama, deferred admission to medical school after winning the title. Miss California, Dustin-Leigh Konzelman, wants a Ph.D. in psychology. Miss Ohio, Marlia Elisha Fontaine, adores "The Daily Show" and says her career ambition is to work for the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
For these ambitious women, taking part in a contest that had its heyday 50 years ago is a choice driven mainly by cash. On the local, state and national levels, the Miss America competition spreads around $45 million yearly. That's more money than any other scholarship program in the world, according to former oilman Art McMaster, the pageant's CEO. Miss America 2006 will win $30,000, an amount comparable to the payouts on cable TV reality shows. For that, in fact, is what Miss America has become.
Moving to cable
After the 52 state winners were crowned last spring, ABC announced it was parting ways with the 85-year-old competition. It took six months for McMaster to reach a deal with CMT.
"I promised all of our state delegations," McMaster said, "that we were going to take our time and find the perfect television partner for us."
CMT, which is owned by MTV Networks, is spending big to promote the pageant, something a broadcast network today wouldn't think of doing. As part of its publicity blitz, the channel had a caravan of luxury buses spirit the 52 contestants from L.A. to Las Vegas last week. The buses' exteriors were painted with images that recalled the pageant's glory days.
By going to a niche cable channel, Miss America is effectively kissing off large parts of the viewing public. But its broad appeal had faded years ago, as indicated by its long slide in the ratings. And cable's leading country station attracts a small but select audience - not too old, not very coastal, a little old-fashioned - that might be a perfect fit for the contest.
Especially now that CMT has made it clear it's going old-school for the 2006 telecast.
"This year we're returning the pageant to its traditional roots," said the network's Paul Villadolid. "We're also placing a greater emphasis on personality and creating emotional connections."
Lee Meriwether, the 1955 Miss America, former star of "Barnaby Jones" and "Batman," will once again serve as the contest's celebrity matron. James Denton, the stud who appears on the hit show "Desperate Housewives," is the new emcee.
"I have a real soft spot for CMT, being from Nashville," Denton said.
UF student competes
Wilensky will represent both the state and the University of Florida in tonight's pageant. Wilensky is a UF student in exercise and sport sciences.
Originally from Jacksonville, where she lived with her parents, Dan and Cathy, 21-year-old Wilensky has been participating in pageants since she was six years old. She is the founder and president of Literally At Risk Inc., a non-profit organization that provides personalized books for children.
Wilensky, who was standards vice president and community relations chair for UF's Kappa Delta Sorority, won the Miss University of Florida crown last spring. In July, she placed first runner-up for Miss Florida, a title she assumed in September after Miss Florida 2005 Candace Cragg stepped down.
The Aladdin Resort & Casino is the kind of stage that Stacie Cooley, Miss Missouri 2005, has been dreaming of since she was 3.
"I love performing, I love being on stage," said Cooley. She entered as a Truman State University student in 2004, mainly because she could earn scholarship money by dancing. "Dance is something that, because I love doing it, it's a breeze," Cooley said. "I know this may sound strange, but I also enjoy the swimsuit competition. It's fast, it's fun and it makes me a stronger person when it's over. Plus, it endorses the concept of physical fitness, which is my platform."
Ah yes, the swimsuits-for-fitness line. I heard that a few times from pageant officials and contestants. But you might as well talk about abolishing Miss Congeniality and the tiara.
"We've been around for 85 years," McMaster said. We've gone through world wars, we've gone through Vietnam, we've gone through the feminist movement. It's an evolution, and that's what it is. And quite honestly, Miss America is going to be around for another 85 years."
For contestant profiles and more, see www.cmt.com.
UF grad is Miss Florida
Jacksonville native Mari Wilensky is a student at the University of Florida studying toward a degree in exercise and sport sciences. A leader both on and off campus, Wilensky most recently served as the standards vice president and community relations chair of Kappa Delta Sorority prior to becoming Miss Florida 2005. She was awarded the Successful Role Model Award for leadership, scholarship and community service by El-Beth-El Divine Holiness Church and the Exemplary Community Service Award by WTLV-TV in Jacksonville. Wilensky is the founder/president of Literally At Risk, Inc., a not for profit corporation. She developed her Give-a-Book Program in 2002 and most recently partnered with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a program that currently mails over 180,000 books to children each month. Since becoming Miss Florida, Wilensky has made appearances across the state promoting her platform and the Miss Florida Pageant.
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