Miss USA

TODAY   |  May 11, 2010

Racy lingerie photos cause stir at Miss USA

A sexy photo shoot intended to promote the annual pageant is revealing more than the contestants' personalities. And, as NBC’s Miguel Almaguer reports, some say the images are sending the wrong message to young women.

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MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back at 8:11 with the Miss USA Pageant under fire a bit over racy pageant-approved photos of this year's contestants. NBC 's Miguel Almaguer has the details and the pictures that are causing the controversy.

MIGUEL ALMAGUER reporting: Miss USA contestants have always been beautiful, but this year's photo spread reveals so much more than just pretty new faces. Out are the evening gowns, in are lingerie, garter belts, fishnet stockings and two women with no bra. This year, less is more.

Ms. PENNY NANCE (CEO, Concerned Women For America): This level of tawdriness is not what is helpful for our culture.

ALMAGUER: Penny Nance is the CEO of Concerned Women for America .

Ms. NANCE: As the mom of a 13-year-old daughter, I worry about the fact that these women are held up in front of our young girls as symbols to be emulated, and it's certainly a concern for American moms.

Mr. BERT PARKS: Miss New York, Tawny Godin.

ALMAGUER: It seems beauty pageants , controversy and questionable photos have a long, tangled history. In 1984 , Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America , but later the same year she was forced to resign over unauthorized nude pictures . Back in 2007 , this was the image that Miss Nevada , Katie Rees , wanted the world to see. But when these provocative photos came to light, she too was dethroned. And just last year, there was Carrie Prejean .

Ms. CARRIE PREJEAN: A marriage should be between a man and a woman . No offense to anybody out there...

ALMAGUER: After controversial comments on same-sex marriage, she was ultimately stripped of her Miss California crown. Semi-nude photos she posed for didn't help her case.

Ms. TAMIKO NASH (Consultant, Pageantready): These photos definitely have gotten -- have gotten an audience.

ALMAGUER: Tamiko Nash is a former Miss California who defends the photo shoot and says the pageant has to keep up with the changing times .

Ms. NASH: You know, I don't want to say this is what we should expect to see, but I think what we are seeing is relevance. We're seeing beautiful, smart, intelligent, classy women who just so happen to be sexy.

ALMAGUER: It's a new look for Miss USA . But if a picture's worth a thousand words , this year's photos are leaving some speechless. For TODAY, Miguel Almaguer, NBC News, Los Angeles.

LAUER: Paula Shugart is the president of the Miss Universe Organization which runs the Miss USA Pageant . And we should mention, the organization is a joint venture by Donald Trump and NBC Universal . The pageant airs this weekend on NBC . Paula , good morning to you.

Ms. PAULA SHUGART (President, Miss Universe Organization): Good morning.

LAUER: Congratulations, it worked. I feel as if that's the way I have to -- I mean, you're laughing, but that's what this was all about. This is marketing, isn't it?

Ms. SHUGART: Well, yes, to some degree, it's marketing. Obviously, everybody is talking about the photos. But, you know, we've always been the cutting edge pageant. Obviously we are co-owned by Donald Trump and he's very fashion-forward and he -- we certainly do push the envelope. But...

LAUER: But it is about controversy, too. I mean these pageants tend to get the most attention when someone -- a contestant says something controversial, gets caught doing drugs or alcohol, or takes their clothes off, and here you've found an officially sanctioned way to generate the same kind of buzz, haven't you?

Ms. SHUGART: Yes, I will say that everybody's talking about it. And yes, I -- you know better than anyone, the media is the first to jump on controversy, and we have gotten the attention from some of the things that have happened in the past, I'm not going to deny that. But also this is a photo shoot that -- with a very well-respected, renowned fashion photographer , and we were able to provide something able to provide something that all of contestants really -- it pushed their envelope, but they really enjoyed this and...

LAUER: I remember last year during the whole Carrie Prejean controversy. We were told she did not lose her title because of the statements she made, and that one of the problems was some of those photos she posed for. So did she lose her crown for photos that were very similar to the ones that are now official photos of these contestants?

Ms. SHUGART: Just to be clear, and I don't want to get too far into Carrie . As you recall when the photos came out, she actually kept her crown at that point because you actually interviewed her the next day about it.

LAUER: Right.

Ms. SHUGART: So...

LAUER: But eventually she lost her crown and that was one of the reasons given.

Ms. SHUGART: Actually, no it wasn't and I really don't want to go back and revisit that. I think this is about what we're doing about the show Sunday and about these photos. But Carrie is not something I think we need to bring up again because I think we've all been there quite a bit.

LAUER: Can you -- how do you go back here? I mean, how far do you push the envelope now? You can't put this horse back in the barn, can you? You can't go back to the kind of conservative evening gown photos from this point on, can you?

Ms. SHUGART: Well, honestly, we haven't -- we've always had the evening gown section. Last year we had an homage to '40s glamor and it was evening gowns. This year the theme was waking up in Vegas , and actually they're wearing more clothes than they wear on swimsuit on stage. And honestly, two years ago it was another -- it was a very sexy cocktail outfit. We've always had a theme. This is -- a lot of these women aspire to be models. They aspire to be Victoria -- the dream job for them would be to be in the Victoria's Secret fashion show . And this was -- that's basically the theme that we -- that we planned for this shoot.

LAUER: All right. And again, the pageant airs this weekend. Paula Shugart , thank you very much .

Ms. SHUGART: OK, thank you.