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Four state pageants dropped by Miss America

Illinois is fighting back in court
/ Source: The Associated Press

Already scrambling to find a new TV network, the Miss America pageant is engaged in an intramural squabble after pulling the franchises of four state pageant operators, one of whom is fighting back in court.

The Miss Illinois Scholarship Pageant persuaded a judge last week to bar the Miss America Organization from letting a new group take over the Miss Illinois pageant, pending resolution of a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of it.

The operators of state pageants in Colorado, Indiana and Montana were also ousted by the Atlantic City-based national organization, which refused to renew their franchises after they expired Nov. 15.

Miss America Organization CEO Arthur McMaster would not say Monday why the franchises were pulled. He said it was a decision of the organization’s franchise committee.

“There was no reason given. The contracts expired and the franchise committee decided not to renew the franchises,” McMaster said.

The franchises have been awarded to new groups, but neither McMaster nor pageant attorney Jack Plackter would say why the others — including longtime Miss Illinois Executive Director Fran Skinner-Lewis — were ousted.

Skinner-Lewis, who had run the Illinois pageant for 15 years, referred questions to lawyer David Walters.

“They gave no reason,” Walters said. “And they insisted over and over again that it was ‘without cause,’ meaning they didn’t have to give a reason. We’re saying that under New Jersey law, they have to give the cause for the termination and have good reasons for that termination.”

After hearing arguments Thursday, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur in Chicago issued a temporary restraining order barring the national pageant from letting the new group take over. Shadur ordered the two sides to submit to arbitration to settle the dispute.

Illinois has been among the more successful pageants in the annual Miss America competition, with three winners since 1990 — Marjorie Vincent in 1991, Kate Shindle in 1998 and Erika Harold in 2003.

But the state pageant has also been criticized for adopting an anti-youth violence platform as an organization and forcing its winners to carry that platform when they compete in Atlantic City. In most states, a contestant uses the platform she competed under in the state pageant when she appears in Miss America.

The Miss Montana Scholarship Program was notified that its franchise was pulled in a two-paragraph letter sent by mail, former board Chairman Jack Lawson said Monday.

“It was like getting hit in the head with a hammer,” he said. “They’d assured us and reassured us they were totally behind us.”

The squabbling comes at an inopportune time for Miss America, which is searching for a new TV network following ABC’s decision in October to drop it because of low ratings. The crowning of Miss America 2005 Deirdre Downs drew only 9.8 million viewers, a 500,000-viewer drop from the previous year.

Now, the Miss America Organization is pitching the annual beauty pageant to other networks and cable operators, hoping someone will step in to fill the void. In contrast to years past, the date for the 2005 Miss America pageant has yet to be set, owing to the uncertainty.

The pageant has an offer from a “major cable company” on the table, but McMaster would not identify it.

“I think it’s going very well. I’ve spent two or three days a week each month in Los Angeles, meeting with the networks. We’ve met with almost all the major networks and some cable networks as well,” McMaster said.

Former Miss America CEO Leonard Horn called the timing of the franchise moves strange, given the bigger problems facing Miss America.

“To be fighting these franchises and fending off a federal suit while they try to find a network, I don’t know how they’re handling it,” said Horn. “I know I wouldn’t want to be there running it.”