LAS VEGAS – Miss Michigan Kirsten Haglund, a 19-year-old aspiring Broadway star, was crowned Miss America 2008 on Saturday in a live show billed as the unveiling of the 87-year-old pageant's new, hipper look.
Haglund, of Farmington Hills, Mich., sang "Over the Rainbow" to clinch the title. She beat Miss Indiana Nicole Elizabeth Rash, the first runner up, and Miss Washington Elyse Umemoto, the second runner up for the $50,000 scholarship and year of travel that comes with the crown.
Haglund, who studies music at the University of Cincinnati, grew up in a pageant family. Her mother is an active volunteer, and her grandmother Iora Hunt, competed for the crown as Miss Michigan 1944. Hunt was in the audience Saturday.
Haglund, a cheery, classic blond, wore a revealing silver sequined dress and black bikini during the evening gown and swimsuit portions of the pageant. As her platform issue, she promised to advocate for awareness of eating disorders, an illness from which she has recovered.
The crowning at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip was aired for the first time on TLC. It capped a four-week reality series, "Miss America: Reality Check," which followed the contestants as they were pushed to shed the dated look of Miss Americas past and adopt a more updated style.
The show was the latest in a series of attempts to find an audience with a younger demographic after more than a decade of declining ratings.
The 52 newly made-over aspiring beauty queens who sought the top tiara sported updated hairdos, sassy attitudes and red carpet-worthy fashion throughout the competition.
Usually tame by modern TV standards, the swimwear competition kicked it up a notch. Most contestants wore black bikinis, and some struck provocative poses and twirled as the audience howled. Contestants also wore blue jeans and added a bit of humor to the traditional opening number, the parade of states.
Producers had hoped a new confident attitude would show through on the catwalks, and Miss Utah, Jill Stevens, an Army medic who served in Afghanistan, didn't disappoint.
"Home of the country's highest birth rate — as long as the Osmonds don't move," she announced.
Stevens made it to the final 16, selected as "America's Choice," based on voting via text messages from viewers of a reality show that was designed make over the beauty queens and attract a new generation of fans. Judges chose the other finalists.
Miss Utah didn't make it to the final 10, but she took the disappointment with pluck. She dropped and gave the audience push ups before joining the other losers.
Producers added a twist to the interview portion, as well. They asked people on the street to pose questions, and the results were edgier than usual. Contestents were asked about binge drinking, HIV and Britney Spears' pregnant younger sister, Jamie Lynn.
"No I don't think she should be fired," Miss Indiana Nicole Elizabeth Rash said. "They're still people, they're still human beings. We all deserve second chances."
The long-struggling pageant had promised a new look for this year's beauty battle. "Entertainment Tonight" reporter Mark Steines was the master of ceremonies of the show. Clinton Kelly of TLC's hit "What Not to Wear" also helped with the hosting duties. Kelly had instructed the girls on how to update their looks during the reality show.
The pageant sounded different, too. A deejay spun dance music from turntables set up on stage. Contestant danced and waved to the audience during commercials breaks. The losers were seated on risers on one side of the stage, while the parents of the finalists, in black tie, were seated on the other.
The show was the latest in a series of attempts to find a new audience after more than a decade of declining ratings. The fading institution was dropped from network television in 2004. It spent a two-year stint on Country Music Television before being picked up last summer by TLC, a cable channel reaching 93 million homes in the U.S.
TLC added the pageant to its reality-TV stable, and announced plans to reinvent the look of the show and find an "It girl" ready for modern celebrity.
In addition to the $50,000 scholarship, Haglund will embark on a year of promoting the pageant, her platform issue and the Children's Miracle Network, a pageant partner.