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East Timor Crisis: Storm greets Miss America's loosening morals

INNOCENCE AND beauty ain't what they used to be, at least in the rhinestone and glitter world of the Miss America pageant. First, they let the swimsuits get more revealing. Then they let a contestant through even though she had lied about her college education.

And now - to believe outraged traditionalists - the whole moral edifice of the contest is about to come crashing down. Starting next year, the organisers say, it will be OK for contestants to have had a divorce or an abortion. No longer will women have to swear that they have never been married or pregnant. All they will have to do is sign a document saying they are not married now, are not pregnant, and are not "the natural or adoptive parent of any child". Past indiscretions will be entirely overlooked.

In a contest that has traditionally liked its winners to be wholesome all-American beauties - a coded way of saying tall, white, blonde and virginal - the new rules are causing palpitations. "Miss America has a long history of high moral standards and traditions, and I'm opposed to anything that changes that," thundered Libby Taylor, president of the National Association of Miss America State Pageants.

"It will ultimately lead to the destruction of the Miss America programme," said Leonard Horn, Miss America's long-serving chief executive, who stepped down last year.

Theoretically, the change was prompted by tough anti- discrimination laws in New Jersey, where the pageant takes place. But Mr Horn does not buy that, arguing that no legal challenge has ever been mounted against the contest on those grounds. It also seems a bit convenient that the announcement comes just days before the telecast of this year's contest, generating gobs of publicity for an event that has been slipping inexorably in the ratings.

Like a fading beauty who tries to hide her wrinkles with ever thicker layers of make-up, Miss America's attempts to maintain an air of purity have grown increasingly laughable. This year's presenters are none other than Donny and Marie Osmond, whose teeth and hair may have wowed the nation in the Watergate era but have long since been consigned to obscurity.

Since the no wedding-bells rule was introduced in 1950 - after Jacque Mercer caused a stir by getting married and divorced during her reign - the competition has been dogged by mini-scandals. In 1984 the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was forced to resign after Penthouse magazine announced it was about to publish naked photos of her as a teenager. The 1998 winner, Kate Shindle, turned out to be the daughter of a former member of the Miss America board of directors.