There's more to Miss America than meets the eye

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The Independent Online
EVERYBODY knows beauty pageants are about sex, but Kate Shindle, who until last night was the reigning Miss America, has given that a twist. She spent her year in office talking about safe sex, shocking some former incumbents but giving the title a radical new look that has won her plaudits across the US.

There is bound to be cynicism when beauty parades turn to politics and social issues, but every Miss America these days takes up a cause. Miss Shindle adopted the prevention of HIV and Aids, a field in which she had already worked, stirred by the death of a university teacher. If there was any doubt that she was serious, it should have evaporated well before now. She has faced considerable controversy and public criticism - one North Carolina school district barred her from speaking - but she has made unpopular decisions, changing her mind and advocating needle exchange programmes, for instance, which she had previously opposed.

"I wouldn't have entered if it was just a typical beauty pageant," she said in an interview. She had only worn the crown three times before last night, upsetting traditionalists for whom the glamour and the sparkle is precisely the point. Venus Ramey, Miss America 1944, wrote a highly critical article in the ultra-conservative Weekly Standard, questioning her motives. "Principals tacitly intimate to students that young bathing suit bimbos are cognisant of life's intricacies," she sneered. "Does winning a college scholarship with the bod suddenly make one all-knowing?" In Ms Ramey's day, the contest was about beauty and nothing else.

But the advocacy part of the work is clearly very important to Kate Shindle, much more so than the catwalk. As part of the job, she chose Sharon Stone as this year's Miss America Woman of Achievement because of her work for Aids charities. "She's been really active, especially recently, in Aids fundraising," she said.

Miss America is an organisation, not just a title, and it has changed over the last few years. The latest head, for instance, is the former boss of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an advocacy group. Though the swimsuit parade still matters, the organisation is gradually repositioning itself to deal with different, and more modern, ideas of womanhood. "The changes were there before I came along," Miss Shindle emphasises.

"My issue happens to be a bit controversial," she said. It worried her that to some extent, "the attention has been focused on the controversy" rather than the issue. She was "not necessarily" prepared for the attention that she got. Although the criticism stung at first, "I've developed a thicker skin. It's a choice between pleasing people and saving a life."

Miss Shindle is bright, modest and clear-headed about her position. It had been a very positive experience, but "most of me is really looking forward to a life beyond this," she said. She will return to university near Chicago, where she is studying theatre, and hopes to be able to move on to an acting career. Doors will open because of her national fame, but "there will be other doors that will be closed. People view [beauty pageants] in a condescending fashion."

There are some intriguing hints, though, that a political career might not be entirely distasteful. She has won the admiration of Sandy Thurman, head of Aids policy in the White House, and managed to persuade Senator John Kerrey to use her arguments in favour of needle exchange programmes. Recently she told the Washington Post that she liked the city, saying: "I liked it more every time I came there." Perhaps she may find a permanent home in the capital, on a different stage.