Miss New Jersey

Miss New Jersey Cara McCullum waves to the crowd during the Miss America arrival event at Kennedy Plaza in front of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City two weeks ago. A new Miss America will be crowned tonight in Boardwalk Hall. The finale will be broadcast on ABC beginning at 9 p.m.

Ben Fogletto

Everyone can watch as the contestants for Miss America perform their talents, cross the stage in swimsuits and evening wear, and answer an onstage question.

But it may be what is not seen that really determines who wins the title of Miss America 2014.

"I believe Miss America is found in the interview room," Miss America Organization CEO Sam Haskell said.

During a news conference with the seven preliminary judges Wednesday, Haskell and the judges spoke about the task of choosing the winner.

Stephanie George, former executive vice president of Time Inc., said the 10-minute interviews are crucial because they give the judges a chance to meet the contestants and speak to them in a small group setting.

"They have to have a deep understanding of current events," George said of what she is looking for in the interview. "They all have a platform they're passionate about, and we want to know why."

She said they also get to talk about why they're competing and what brought them to Miss America. "We want to know about their passion for the organization," George said.

George said the panel is consistent, ensuring the process is fair.

Nita Whitaker Lafontaine, a former Miss Louisiana and another of this year's judges, said they are trying to determine how the next Miss America will handle life in the spotlight.

"Can they handle themselves in front of all of you?" she said to a room full of reporters inside Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa's media room.

Stylist Oscar James, also a judge, said the winner has to be ready to go for an entire year.

"I wanted to find out how this woman would stay motivated," he said.

Writer Richard Dyer said some of the interviews, which were conducted earlier this week, were very in-depth, and "some of the sessions were quite emotional."

The goal, said judge and Miss America 1975 Shirley Cothran Barret, is to learn who this person is.

"Can she be true to who she is for a whole year?" she said of the job that took her across the country during her reign.

In addition to the interview, the contestants are judged on talent, swimsuit, evening wear and on-stage questions.

Cori Wellins Lagao, senior partner and television literary agent at WME Entertainment, said she grew up in a pageant family, and talent has changed over the years.

She recalled past talents that included trampoline acts and an occasion when a contestant conducted an orchestra.

"It's more streamlined now," she said.

Barret said the style of the talent performances has changed since she won the crown in 1975.

"The more unusual variety show-type acts are not as prevalent," she said.

Karl Jurman, musical director of Broadway's "The Lion King" and a judge for the fourth time, said the competition remains relevant today because the contestants are ambitious, accomplished young women.

Jurman added that they represent "everything that's right about America."

Haskell said the swimsuit portion remains the most controversial aspect of the judging, but it isn't going to go away anytime soon.

Judging, George said, is not about who is the thinnest. She said poise, posture and the overall feeling they demonstrate is key.

It's the "confidence factor," she said.

Contact Trudi Gilfillian:



The judging

The seven preliminary judges will determine who moves on to the top 15. On Sunday, a panel of seven celebrity judges will determine who will become the next Miss America. The celebrity judges' criteria include composite scores from the preliminaries, which are worth 30 percent, swimsuit 20 percent, evening wear 20 percent and talent 30 percent.

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