FORGET ARTIFICIAL SMILES AND SWIMSUITS: These days, the Miss America Pageant is all about "the issues." The annual televised glam-fest, aired this year on September 19, has become a bit more high-minded since 1989, when pageant organizers started requiring contestants to articulate a "platform" featuring "socially motivated activism."
Last year, the emphasis on social responsibility produced Kate Shindle, who ran on AIDS activism and held progressive views. Shindle gave her support not only to AIDS research but also to needle exchanges for intravenous drug users, condom distribution in schools, and same-sex marriage. This year, the pageant righted itself: The new Miss America is Nicole Johnson of Virginia, a born-again Christian, graduate of Pat Robertson's Regent University, and crusader for diabetes awareness who has already suggested that President Clinton should resign.
Although Johnson considers the president's behavior "so sad," she does not wear her politics -- or her religion -- on her beaded sleeve. She mentioned her faith only glancingly in the contest interviews. Those who know her, however, stress the depth of her commitment. Elinor Malendoski, admissions director at Regent and a friend of Johnson's, says most of the students who choose Regent "do so because there is a Christian base. They combine their spiritual beliefs with their academic work." Malendoski often asked the future beauty queen to entertain groups of prospective students. "She would sing for them and then talk about how she felt she was led by the Lord to attend Regent."
Malendoski says that Johnson "lives her faith," adding, "I'm sure she would speak a word of encouragement if it were appropriate, but she would never try to evangelize." Donald Piper, who taught some of Johnson's courses in journalism, agrees: "Faith will always be the foundation on which she builds. You will see the Christian values played out in her life, but they won't be spelled out."
Susan Richmond, a former roommate of Johnson's and now a staffer for conservative senator John Ashcroft, says she and Johnson chose to live together because they wanted to encourage each other spiritually. "She has a relationship with God," says Richmond, "rather than just a separate or compartmentalized 'religion.'" In times of pain caused by Johnson's diabetes, Richmond recalls, "faith would get her through. . . . She always turns to prayer. We have prayed together and for each other."
When asked about her politics, Johnson's friends say her religion comes first. Former classmate Kristen Vischer puts it this way: "Wherever the Bible is on an issue, that's where Nicole would stay." Notes Richmond, "She's not a centrist, but not an extremist. There were things that Kate Shindle was pushing that Nicole would not condone." Could media criticism cause her to adopt more popular views? Malendoski says Johnson "wouldn't compromise what she believed in her heart just to be politically correct."
Johnson earned a masters degree in broadcast journalism, then interned at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Later she helped produce a "women's issues" segment of the 700 Club -- coincidentally, co-hosted by Miss America 1973, Terry Meeuwsen. In 1996, she attended the Broadcast Journalism School at the Leadership Institute, Morton Blackwell's training ground for young conservative troops. "About 99 percent of the students we train from Regent are conservatives," says Mark Montini, vice president for programming. Asked at the pageant whom she would most like to interview, Johnson named Elizabeth Dole -- who repaid the compliment with a congratulatory phone call during Johnson's first press conference.
Along with religion and politics, Johnson's "passion is her platform," says former co-worker Linda Vulcano. During her year as Miss Virginia, Johnson was a tireless spokesman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the America Diabetes Association. Diagnosed with the disease at 19, she learned to regulate her intake of insulin and eat meals on a rigid schedule. Last year, she started using an automated insulin regulator, which she wore during all pageant events except the swimsuit competition. Much was made of the pager-sized black box at Johnson's hip, to the undoubted dismay of contestants with platforms like "Privacy Rights for Public Figures" or "Basic Life-Saving Techniques Education" or -- most orthodox of all -- that of the second runner-up, Miss Florida, "Celebrating Cultural Diversity."
Since the introduction of platforms, the judges have been on strict orders to disregard the subject matter. They are to focus instead on the contestant's sincerity and ability to articulate her position. Leonard Horn, chief executive officer of the Miss America Organization, is adamant that judges must keep their political opinions out of their decisions. "You can't ask these independent women to advocate something and then censor them." The section of the contest in which the candidates make the case for their platforms accounts for just 30 percent of the overall score, but Horn says it dominates the judges' view of the women.
Nicole Johnson is not the first born-again Christian for whom the band has played "There She Is." Others include Kellye Cash (1987), Debbye Turner (1990), and Terry Meeuwsen. But the contrast between Johnson and the condom enthusiast who immediately preceded her highlights her religious-conservative profile. This year, American girls will look up to a Miss America who, whether they know it or not, tilted the tiara from left to right in one short walk down the runway.
Pia Nordlinger is a reporter for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.