Looking back, Bert Parks was a precursor to Regis Philbin, a marginally talented entertainer who became world famous for his corny jokes and slightly off-key singing voice. Since he was in prime time on Miss America, Parks was a household name, just like Regis during "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."
How times have changed. Miss America isn't what it used to be. Elvis' estate makes more money in death than he did with 141 gold, platinum or multi-platinum records. And Billy Graham has turned over much of his ministry to his son.
I have no problem with Elvis' heirs making millions and Graham turning over his ministry. I like Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley and love what they've done with Graceland in Memphis. I think Franklin Graham is a strong preacher, too, a chip off the old block.
I do have a problem with what has happened to Miss America. It has lost popularity because of an unfair negative stigma associated with pageants of any kind since the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in Colorado nearly 10 years ago. The image of the tiny beauty contestant playing over and over again on tabloid television created a horrific backlash. Miss America, once a guaranteed top 10 show on NBC, was relegated to cable's Country Music Television this year, a continuing slide for the American institution.
I bring up Miss America because of Sunday's Miss Illinois Outstanding Teen Pageant at John A. Logan College. Miss Illinois Outstanding Teen is affiliated with Miss America. Fifteen of the state's brightest teens, ages 13-17, will contend for the crown, competing in interview, casual wear and evening gown competitions.
Herrin's Karen Sala, executive director of the pageant, said two of the contestants have not told their friends about coming to Carterville for the state competition. They're a little embarrassed, she said, with the attention.
Personally, I have found the pageants to be a great way to melt away shyness and build confidence in young girls. It takes a degree of refinement, culture and intelligence to compete. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, to be ashamed of.
I had a cousin who went through junior high and much of high school with me as a shy, awkward teenager. Her braces, lack of makeup and long, stringy hair added to her nerdy reputation. By her junior year, she blossomed as a singer and leader after her involvement with Miss Teen USA. She won the Tennessee state title, to my astonishment, and made it into the national pageant from Mobile, Ala. After that, she was the most poised, most popular and proudest girl in our high school.
I'm not saying that pageants are for everyone. But they are an effective way of teaching girls to stand before an audience, speak their mind and show off talent and smarts. It helps them deal with butterflies and pressure that few experience. We should celebrate the best and brightest in our communities, not stigmatize them. So if you're thinking of attending the pageant Sunday, go ahead. You and the girls have nothing to be ashamed of. It should be a source of pride, just like the old days.
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