By Sarah Owen
Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers
OSHKOSH — It's a moment some young women spend their childhoods chasing after, or dreaming about ...
Shhhh. It's on!
Sitting in her parents' living room as a little girl, Janelle Larie watched each year as a new Miss America was crowned on TV.
"There was always excitement in the house when it was on," she said.
The women were so beautiful, so talented, she thought. "I hoped that I'd grow up to be someone little girls looked up to … a representative and role model girls emulated."
Fifteen years later, the 20-year old is the current Miss Oshkosh, and one of 28 girls vying for the Miss Wisconsin title at this week's 2006 scholarship competition. The organization will hand out between $20,000 and $25,000.
"It's so phenomenal, all the money that's out there just for women who compete in this program," said 2002 Miss Wisconsin Jayme Dawicki, 26.
"I had student loans, and they're completely done, paid for. I'd have barely been making a dent in them right now."
It's not a beauty pageant?
Miss America began as a swimsuit contest in 1921 as a gimmick to keep tourists in Atlantic City past Labor Day, said Sue Captain, Miss Wisconsin executive director. In 1954, Miss America moved to TV, bringing beautiful bodies, gowns and dreams of a crown into living rooms.
Miss Oshkosh and Miss Wisconsin are franchised under Miss America.
And those swimsuits?
The swimsuit part of the organization now promotes physical fitness and confidence, not having perfect dimensions, Captain says. But, in reality, there are still critics.
"There are so many pageants that it's easy to confuse Miss America with others," Larie said.
New image, more support?
Today Miss America is noted for awarding more than $40 million in cash and tuition scholarships annually. But it too has opted to make changes in an effort to turn around dwindling public interest. "They're trying new things with the pageant, to make it more appealing to audiences," McNett said.
There's the transfer from ABC to CMT, moving to Las Vegas from Atlantic City this year and giving talent more weight in judging. There's also the pressure to add more "reality TV" to it, Captain said.
"I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing," she said. Locally, she added, Miss Wisconsin battles for attendance, coverage and support with events such as Country USA, though she said thousands come to Oshkosh for the pageant.
If the Miss America pageant loses momentum, scholarship funding from public donations could be affected.
"Right now everybody you ask will say, 'we could always use more money.' And because (the economy) is on the lean side, we're fighting everybody else," Captain said.
What's in store
Interest in the organization by contestants is growing. Women who never considered themselves "the pageant type" have found it rewarding.
Miss Wisconsin 1992 Stephanie Klett, who was raised with nine brothers, was always a tomboy. When she won her title, she became vocal about both pageants and being a feminist.
"You can do both," she said. "If you know the program, that's exactly what it is. You can be anything."
Contestants hope the public is starting to see "with the Miss America Organization it's really about the platform and making a difference," McNett says.Sarah Owen writes for the Oshkosh Northwestern.
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