Miss Georgia Carly Mathis strolling through the Pier Shops at Caesars? Miss Iowa Nicole Kelly screaming on the Freedom Flyer at the Steel Pier?
Both are likely during the next two weeks as the Miss America Competition returns to Atlantic City.
The 53 contestants, from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, arrive Tuesday. Between then and the crowning of the next Miss America on Sept. 15 at Boardwalk Hall, the women will be seen around Atlantic City and the region as they take in the sights between rehearsals, the parade and the competition nights.
Anticipation about Miss America’s return has been building since February, when state officials announced the competition was returning.
The pageant began in Atlantic City in 1921 as a way to draw visitors to the resort and increase newspaper circulation among a collection of Northeast papers that sponsored what was once only an intercity pageant.
The first winner was 16-year-old Margaret Gorman. She became known as “Miss America” in 1922, when the term was coined, and it stuck.
Since then, the event has evolved from an intercity beauty contest to a national competition that includes academic pursuits and community service.
But this year’s competition is especially significant because it marks a return to Boardwalk Hall and the city where it all began.
Miss America was last held in Atlantic City in 2004. The following year, officials asked to leave their contract with Boardwalk Hall, citing labor and production costs, and took their chances with another gambling city, Las Vegas.
There, the pageant carried on, but the tradition so closely linked with Atlantic City was missing.
And it is that tradition that fans welcome back.
Jerry Alford serves on the board of the Miss Tennessee pageant, but thinks of Atlantic City as a second home. Alford has attended every Miss America contest since 1986, when Kellye Cash won the title and was crowned at Boardwalk Hall.
“And I haven’t missed one since,” Alford said, adding he even made the trip to Las Vegas each year from 2006 to 2013.
But Alford, like many fans, wanted the competition to return to Atlantic City.
“It’s an American tradition, like apple pie and baseball,” Alford said. “I can’t wait to go back to Convention Hall, and of course the Boardwalk parade.”
Guiding the contestants are 30 volunteer hostesses, all women from South Jersey, who are available to help them through the hectic schedule ahead of them.
Mary McGinnis Blackburn, chairman of the Miss America hostess committee, said the volunteers come from all walks of life, and most served as hostesses when the competition was last in Atlantic City.
“These are women who so graciously put their lives on hold for two weeks,” Blackburn said of the commitment the hostesses make.
Their job is to help the contestants whenever needed as they follow a busy schedule of activities right up to competition night.
“They are a support team. They’re cheerleaders,” Blackburn said.
The volunteers, Blackburn added, “have a heart and passion for the program.”
Blackburn was Miss New Jersey in 1979 and competed at Miss America. She later worked in television and for the Miss America Organization before leading the hostess committee starting in 2012.
“We prepare big time,” she said of the work needed to ready the hostesses for the contestants’ arrival Tuesday and the days ahead.
Gov. Chris Christie said last week that he didn’t know whether he would attend the competition, but he said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadango, who, along with local and Miss America officials, announced the competition’s return in February, would attend.
“It’s a great tradition in our country, and it’s always been associated with Atlantic City,” Christie said.
The state is giving Miss America $7.3 million over the next three years and free use of Boardwalk Hall, among other incentives to return. In exchange, the newly crowned Miss America will become the official spokeswoman for Atlantic City, promoting the city across the country.
Alford serves as a host for the former Miss Americas while they are in town, spending time with some of the many women who have held the coveted title.
“I think it’s the magic of it,” Alford said of Miss America’s appeal. “It changes lives overnight, and the title stays with the winners forever.”
Sam Haskell, CEO of the Miss America Organization, promises the event will live up to its history.
“The months of planning have all paid off as our 53 contestants are making their much awaited arrival this Tuesday at Kennedy Plaza on The Boardwalk. I cannot express how thrilled we are to be back in Atlantic City. Our contestants are beyond excited about this historic return to the birthplace of Miss America,” Haskell said. “Starting with three thrilling nights of preliminary competition, followed by a spectacular Boardwalk parade, all culminating in the final night of competition on Sept. 15 on ABC with a level of production that we have never done before, I can promise the next two weeks will provide an unforgettable experience.”
The new contestants and former misses will take part in the Show Us Your Shoes Parade on Sept. 14, a highlight of the competition in many ways because it involves interaction with the fans.
Parade producer John Best, of Orlando, Fla.-based JM Best Entertainment, said the parade is expected to draw an estimated 200,000 people to the Boardwalk.
The contestants will travel in convertibles down the Boardwalk, starting at Revel Casino-Hotel and ending at Albany Avenue past the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel.
About 4,000 participants and 15 floats are included in the parade lineup, more than in previous years.
But the parade is all about the shoes, Best said.
Noted shoe designer Phil Laduca, who designed the footwear for the Broadway show “Kinky Boots,” will provide commentary on the colorful, creative shoes the contestants display.
The parade features 10 production numbers, hundreds of local schoolchildren and a performance by Kool and the Gang.
“There definitely is an excitement building,” Best said as he sat in Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk across from Boardwalk Hall. The plaza is where television cameras will be placed to broadcast the parade.
Best produces parades across the country but said the Show Us Your Shoes event is unlike any other.
“This has tremendous tradition. There’s a uniqueness, because it’s on a Boardwalk and it really has ties to the local community,” he said.
Best stressed that while some new features are being added, such as an emphasis on children’s choirs, the parade is still supported by years of tradition.
Best said the floats, which cost about $8,000 to build in most cases, will be more elaborate than in the past, in keeping with the times and the desire to put on a quality show.
The competition, meanwhile, features hosts Lara Spencer, a “Good Morning America” co-anchor, and Chris Harrison, host of reality dating shows “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”
“It’s an honor to come back to host Miss America as it returns to Atlantic City,” Harrison has said. “Hosting Miss America is one of the most iconic hosting jobs in television, so I am thrilled to host it on this historic return home.”
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