LAS VEGAS – A 22-year-old aspiring teacher from Oklahoma was crowned Miss America on Saturday night, the first time the storied but struggling pageant was held outside Atlantic City, N.J.
Jennifer Berry, a student at the University of Oklahoma, outlasted 51 other women to become Miss America 2006, earning a $30,000 college scholarship and a yearlong speaking tour in the process.
Miss Georgia Monica Pang was first runner-up and Miss Alabama Alexa Jones second runner-up. Miss Virginia Kristi Lauren Glakas and Miss District of Columbia Shannon Schambeau rounded out the top five. Miss Hawaii Malika Dudley won Miss Congeniality.
Berry, an advocate for the prevention of drunken driving, wowed the judges by dancing ballet for her talent routine.
Berry, who competed for five years in Oklahoma's state pageant, finished as third runner-up twice before winning last year and getting a shot at the national title.
"This is an honor, this is surreal," she said. "I don't believe it right now. Hopefully, it will sink in, maybe tomorrow. It's a dream come true but more importantly it's a job that I'm honored to have."
Berry said she looked much different in sixth grade: "I had big huge glasses, frizzy hair and I was about 5-foot-8. And I remember being in music class and a girl came up to me and said, 'Why did you have that picture taken with those horrid glasses?"'
She said she was "heartbroken" by the comment, but that it ultimately helped her "become the woman that I am by accepting the person that I am."
She succeeds Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs, who ended up wearing the crown 16 months because this year's pageant was postponed by four months.
An Atlantic City institution for 85 years, the pageant traded the Boardwalk for the Strip this year in a bid to revive interest. Without coverage from a major television network for the first time since 1954, it aired on Country Music Television.
The pageant, which dabbled in reality TV-style gimmicks in recent years as it tried to lure viewers back, struck a more old-fashioned theme this time out, despite the move to Sin City.
Video clips from old pageants were aired on the telecast, and two traditions that had been absent since the 1980s were revived: The women wore sashes naming their states and elected a Miss Congeniality.
And when it came time for "There She Is, Miss America," it was a real flashback — a recording of late Miss America host Bert Parks singing it. He emceed the show for 25 years before being replaced. James Denton from ABC's "Desperate Housewives" handled the duties Saturday night.
For problem-plagued Miss America, the proceedings at the Aladdin Resort & Casino were a high-stakes affair.
Spurned by network television because of declining ratings, the pageant announced plans in August to move out of Atlantic City. Normally held in September, the event was postponed as organizers scrambled for a new TV outlet, ultimately settling on Country Music Television, a cable outlet with some 78 million subscribers.
Women have paraded at the pageant — wearing swimsuits and smiles — since a 16-year-old girl from Washington, D.C., won an eight-way bathing beauty revue in 1921.
The hokey seaside publicity stunt blossomed into an American icon, its Cinderella trappings and girl-next-door appeal becoming a television staple.
But its luster has been fading for years, the result of fragmented viewership and its airing on Saturday nights, historically a date-night dead zone for television.
The pageant was jettisoned by ABC after the 2004 crowning of Deidre Downs was watched by 9.8 million — 500,000 fewer than tuned in the year before. The move literally pulled the runway out from under Miss America and led to a cascade of problems threatening its future.
The loss of revenue from the TV rights contributed to a $1.7 million deficit for the Miss America Organization, a nonprofit charity that runs the pageant.
Gambling that a move from Atlantic City would help revive interest, pageant organizers cast their lot with Las Vegas, no stranger to pretty faces and glitzy stage shows.