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The world of American pageantry has taken a torrid turn this year. Beauty queens have been behaving more like "girls gone wild" than purported role models for little girls. But Lauren Nelson, crowned this year's Miss America on Monday, vowed she would lead a clean life. The aspiring Broadway actress intends to redeem the pageant industry after the string of scandals in recent month's involving misbehaving beauty queens.
Nelson, Miss Oklahoma 2006, beat about 13,000 other contestants and 51 other finalists to take the crown. She was also required to sign a morality clause before entering the pageant - and if such antiquated beauty contests intend to maintain any semblance of respectability, it's not a bad idea.
Two months ago, Miss USA, Tara Conner, nearly lost her tiara for her rowdy nightclub behavior prior to the pageant. The exact details of her debauchery weren't publicized, but Miss USA and Miss Universe contest owner Donald Trump decided to pardon her behavior - this time - under the condition she mend her wild ways and undergo rehabilitation (apparently it's possible to receive rehabilitation for partying).
Trump was less forgiving with another titleholder. He fired Miss Nevada, Katie Rees, after racy photos of her surfaced online. Miss New Jersey, Ashley Harder, preemptively quit after she announced she was pregnant.
One Miss America who did breach this clause was Vanessa Williams, the first African-American titleholder, who had to resign in 1984 after sexually explicit photographs of her appeared in the magazine Penthouse.
But Nelson, 20, a music theater student whose prize was a $50,000 scholarship, might not have the chance to veer off course. Organizers of the Miss America pageant have hired a chaperon to be with the titleholder around the clock.
This tradition started with the contest in 1921 to assure parents that their daughter would be looked after as she traveled the country. It remains today, as Miss America travels about 20,000 miles a month to various charity, corporate and fund-raising events.
"I watched Miss America as a little girl since I was 2 years old, and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be one of those girls on that stage, and never did I think that I would be Miss America," said Nelson following her win.
Shilah Phillips, the first black Miss Texas, was first runner-up, and Miss Georgia, Amanda Kozak, was second runner-up. Miss Mississippi, Taryn Foshee, and Miss Alabama, Melinda Toole, rounded out the top five. Viewers named Toole as Miss Congeniality.
Mario Lopez, of Dancing with the Stars and Saved by the Bell, hosted the show, its second year at the Aladdin Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
But Nelson wasn't the viewers' favorite, according to a text message voting system instituted this year.
Phillips, a singer and choir director's daughter, was the fan favorite in the talent competition. Miss California, Jacquelynne Fontaine, was the viewers' pick for her turn in a blue bikini, and Mississippi's Foshee was voted the favorite in the evening gown contest. The viewer vote did not count toward the winners.
Former pageant queens fear that all the controversy surrounding the latest scandals will taint the "respectable image" of beauty queens. But for pageant owners who have struggled to reinvent their pageants, the revived ratings make it all worthwhile.