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Pageant fans find a lot to love in Las Vegas

‘This town is more alive,’ says one Miss America fan
/ Source: The Associated Press

The casinos certainly look pretty much the same on the inside, but the cities around them are quite different, and for the die-hard Miss America fans who’ve been trekking to Atlantic City, N.J., for years, the pageant’s move to Las Vegas is a breath of fresh air.

There’s shopping and Celine Dion and Barry Manilow shows and the bustle of the neon-trimmed Strip to keep busy with during the weeklong buildup to Miss America (8 p.m. ET Saturday, Country Music Television), far more than the aging honky-tonk boardwalk in Atlantic City has to offer.

Finally, someone is showing a little love for down-on-her-luck Miss America, between the advertisements plastered all over the host Aladdin Resort & Casino, the exhaustive promotions sponsored by CMT and the warm reception given pageant folks here.

“I think it’s been a great change,” said Mary Lou Lewis, 69, of Oshkosh, Wis., who’s been attending Miss America for 40 years. “This town is more alive. There’s more youth and excitement here, and the people have been hospitable and much more friendly than some people in Atlantic City,” said Lewis, a board member for the Miss Wisconsin pageant.

Fans from New Jersey have also made the pilgrimage, with mixed emotions. Like those whose children found happiness — 2,550 miles away.

“It’s so hard to take it away from Atlantic City,” said Betty Chandler, 78, of Ocean City, N.J., fighting back tears as she talked about her 28 years as a volunteer Miss America hostess. “I hated to see it leave, but I had to come out and see it. It’s a shame.”

Cast off by ABC in 2004 for its low viewership, its bank balances dipping dangerously low, the nonprofit Miss America Organization announced plans last August to hit the road. The idea was to cut production costs and resuscitate interest in the show, which was a network staple for 50 years and drew 33 million viewers a year as recently as 1988 before bottoming out at 9.8 million in 2004.

Unlikely partnersThe selection of Las Vegas caught many pageant watchers by surprise, in part, because of the contrast between prim and proper Miss America and the anything-goes culture of a city that boasts “What happens here, stays here” and views debauchery as an art form.

The marriage of these unlikely partners, accompanied as it’s been by the switch to a cable network whose demographic appeal aligns more closely with Miss America, is starting out like a honeymoon.

Promoting her like a new star, Country Music Television has run commercials, taken out billboards — including one in New York’s Times Square — and talked up Miss America in a way no one has for years.

“ABC viewed us as a one-time-only event,” said Tamara Haddad, a Miss America Organization board member. “CMT is one of the most highly rated cable channels, and you’ll see Miss America at every CMT event.”

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The trade-off is that the network, which was founded in 1983, reaches only 78.7 million homes and is hard to find on the dial.

In Las Vegas, the welcome mat for Miss America has stretched beyond the official events. The usually jaded locals are even taking notice.

On Thursday night, as gussied-up pageant fans, former winners and others filed into the Aladdin’s 7,000-seat theater for the final night of preliminary competition, 33-year-old Angie Jackson stood watching with her 6-year-old daughter, Deanna.

“Maybe you’ll see some more ladies,” Jackson told her. “Hold still! There’s another lady. She looks so pretty.”

Jackson, who works as a gas station attendant, brought her daughter to the casino just to see the Miss America contestants.

“I’m thrilled it’s here. It’s the first time I get to see it up close,” Jackson said.

“How come I can’t be in the show?” Deanna asked.