LAS VEGAS - She's been dressed up, dressed down, relocated and updated. Now she's being mocked. The latest chapter in Miss America's ever-evolving search for viewers and cultural relevance finds the heroine at the butt of the joke.
Her hair is too big, her hairspray totally '80s. Her makeup is clownish. Her gown belongs on an ice skater.
This year's 52 Miss America contestants haven't just been getting judged, they've been getting zinged in "Miss America: Reality Check," a four-part reality series leading up to Saturday's 8 p.m. EST crowning on TLC.
The series, whose final installment airs Friday, has tracked the transformation of beauty queens from old-fashioned "Pageant Pattys," as some in the pageant world say, to modern "It girls."
It's out with the bouffant hair, the canned smile and the parade wave. Time to knock the beauty pageant on its sash, the show's tag line goes.
The live crowning also attempts to introduce a bit of edge. "Reality Check" viewers have been asked to vote via text message for their favorite contestant, who will automatically become one of the top 16 finalists. The losers will be asked for their commentary on the finalists, perhaps a chance to fire some zingers of their own. The contestants will wear jeans (gasp!) during the venerable opening act, the parade of states.
It's long past time for some new style and new sass, some say. The 87-year-old Miss America Pageant has seen a slow and steady decline of viewers for more than a decade. Discovery Channel-owned TLC is its second cable network since ABC dropped the pageant from its lineup in 2005. It moved from its longtime home in Atlantic City, N.J., to Las Vegas in 2006 in an attempt to build some momentum. It's already tried a menu of reality TV gimmicks, dropped the sashes, brought back the sashes and promised a return to old-school glamor.
But it rarely laughed at itself.
"I don't think the past attempts were enough; they were little Band-Aids," said Sam Haskell, Miss America Organization chairman. "In order for us to survive - and I want us flourish, not just survive - we need a younger generation to support it and find it entertaining."
That means competing with reality television and, producers say, finding a Miss America who can go toe-to-toe with the Britneys and the Parises on the red carpet - though not at the night club.
"It's someone who doesn't go out and get drunk, but goes out and makes people laugh and has fun on the red carpet," said Sarah Iven, editor in-chief of OK! Magazine and a pageant judge, describing her choice for the tiara. "Not a young woman stuck in an old woman's suit."
Producers also are taking a cue from the YouTube phenomenon that was Miss Teen USA South Carolina. Video of the geographically challenged beauty queen struggling to find her way out of an on-stage question rocketed around the Internet in August. Many, many were entertained - at her expense.
So, along with receiving makeover advice, the contestants in "Reality Check" were quizzed about history and science in a segment called "Are you smarter than a Miss USA Girl?" Those who weren't were made to take a dive in a pool.
It failed to produce a YouTube moment, although Friday's episode in which some hopefuls struggle to remember the words to the "Star-Spangled Banner" has potential.
Setting the contestants up for potential humiliation and cracking jokes at their expense, however tame by reality TV standards, has ruffled the feathers of some longtime pageant devotees.
Born of a bathing suit revue on Atlantic City's Boardwalk, the pageant is fueled by a vast web of earnest and devoted volunteers who put on and judge pageants in small towns across the U.S. State "prep committees," often made up of middle-aged women, pick out and pay for their contestant's ensemble, perhaps an explanation for the stuffy suits. They've schooled their contestant in a tradition and a look - and it doesn't have much to do with red carpet style.
"I want them to be professional ladies," said Lois Elaine Smith-Zoll, a 70-year-old pageant volunteer from Vancouver, Wash., with 41 years of judging behind her. "They are mocking the old system. This young woman is going to represent our country, we want to be proud of her."
Jill Massee, whose niece is Miss Georgia Leah Massee, said more than a dozen family members traveled to Las Vegas to see the competition. Massee's hometown of Fitzgerald, Ga. has been sporting "Good Luck, Leah!" signs in shop windows. Pageant fans aren't fans of the reality show.
"I don't think it's going over so well," Jill Massee said. "I personally think it's a little bit degrading to the Miss America Pageant."
Haskell dismissed such complaints. The old school crowd may be the soul of the pageant, but it can't become the only television audience if Miss America is to have a future.
"If I brought Bert Parks back from the dead to host it, some people would be unhappy about that, he said.
Entertainment Tonight's Mark Steines will host the pageant from the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.
The winner takes home a $50,000 scholarship and embarks on a year of steady appearances and charity work on behalf of her platform issue and the Children's Miracle Network, a pageant partner.
On hand for the crowning will be Miss America 2007, Lauren Nelson. The former Miss Oklahoma has spent the past year traveling the country to promote Internet safety, and appeared on the TV show, "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth-Grader." Like so many other contestants, she wasn't, though she did manage to win $175,000 for the Miss America Organization scholarship fund.
On the Net:
Miss America Pageant: http://www.missamerica.org/