There's no place like home, a dozen "Forever" Miss Americas said Thursday as they helped welcome the competition back to the city of its birth at an event at the Sheraton Hotel.
While they are grateful to Las Vegas for its hospitality, the women said they are delighted to be back in Atlantic City and believe it signals a resurgence for both the competition and its hometown. If the city needs cheerleaders, it has found them in the former winners.
"There's a certain charm here, a more family environment," said Donna Axum Whitworth, Miss America 1964.
"I said the first thing I'm going to do is kiss the Boardwalk and jump in the ocean," said Dorothy Benham, Miss America 1977, who admitted she hasn't had time to do either yet.
Phyllis George, Miss America 1971, said the announcement that the pageant would return to Atlantic City brought tears to her eyes.
Several former winners still work with the pageant, some serving on its board. During the discussion some revealed just how shaky the future of Miss America had become, and how much time CEO Sam Haskell and President Sharon Pearce have spent working to modernize the pageant and show America why it is still relevant.
"Sam Haskell came in and rescued the pageant from going down the drain," said Maria Fletcher, Miss America 1962.
The revived pageant includes not just a return to Atlantic City, but more promotion with ABC and more sponsorships and scholarships for the contestants.
Several former winners talked about how much the scholarships have meant to them, paying for a college education they likely never would have received otherwise.
They applauded a new round of scholarships, and the new emphasis on STEM, or science, technology, education and math education.
Thursday's event included the awarding of the first two $5,000 STEM scholarships, to Miss Mississippi Chelsea Rick, who is in medical school studying osteopathic medicine, and Miss California Crystal Lee, a graduate of Stanford University who plans to get an MBA and start a tech company. Lee's platform is Women in STEM.
"It's been too long that people haven't seen beyond the pageant," Lee said.
Regina Hopper, a former Miss Arkansas who worked on the STEM initiative, said the Miss America Organization has begun reaching out to more nontraditional sponsors and corporations, and is looking for ways to break the stereotype of the "beauty pageant" and regain the educational focus.
"We want to broaden our audience," she said to the pageant family in the audience. "We must remain relevant to an audience that is not looking at you."
Several former Miss Americas noted that the competition has changed with the times. BeBe Shopp, Miss America 1948, said there were no community-service platforms when she competed. But the $5,000 scholarship put her through music school.
Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, was the winner of the first pageant to be televised. She remembers the live audience did not get to see her win, because it was announced and televised backstage.
George, who went on to a career in television, said platforms are important because they live on long after a reign ends.
"Being Miss America is part of my legacy," she said. "No matter what else we do, what we are remembered for is being Miss America."
Thursday's event included the awarding of several community service scholarships.
The $2,000 Four Points Scholarship went to Miss Idaho Sarah Downs. Quality of Life Awards went to Miss Rhode Island Jessica Marfeo, who got $2,000; Miss South Carolina Brooke Mosteller, who got $4,000; and Miss Michigan Haley Williams, who got $6,000.
The recipients talked about their platforms, sometimes getting emotional.
"This is my soul," Williams said about her commitment to help children cope with grief. She recalled how hard it was for her to recover from her father's death when she was young, and how her platform identifies what her family stands for and a legacy in memory of her father.
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