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Miss America rethink on `women with a past'

A DESIGN STUDENT from Kentucky was crowned Miss America at the weekend amid continuing fierce controversy about proposals to change the rules of the 79-year-old contest.

As well as her crown, Heather Renee French, the daughter of a disabled Vietnam veteran, won a $40,000 (pounds 25,000) scholarship for college fees and the obligation to travel the country promoting her chosen cause: the plight of homeless war veterans. Last year's Miss America, Nicole Johnson, a diabetic, raised more than $12m (pounds 7.4m) for diabetes research.

The swimsuit rule had been relaxed to allow two-pieces of the contestants' choice - previously, the swimsuits were selected by the organisers to maintain a certain modesty standard, and last year's winner expressed concern that this year's crop verged on being too revealing.

But the swimsuit controversy was a mere spat compared with the row generated by the decision of the Miss America Organisation to drop a 50-year-old ban on divorced women and those who have had an abortion.

The announcement, a week before this year's contest, was met by a torrent of protest. Miss America, they said, was supposed to represent an ideal and, as Nicole Johnson said: "Miss means Miss."

Some of the most outspoken opinions were expressed by the organisers in Kentucky, one of the more socially and politically conservative states in the US, which produced Ms French, 24, this year's winner. Threatened with legal action, the organisers have now placed the rule change on hold.