Mesa Community College graduate Nicole Turner knows the knocks against beauty queens: Too much hair spray, too much makeup, too many sequins and not enough brains.
“That’s what America thinks of Miss America,” said Turner, who leaves Thursday with her Miss Arizona crown to represent the state in the national pageant Jan. 26. “You just say the word pageant and it has a stigma to it.”
Network producers know the knocks against beauty queens, too. American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, America’s Got Talent and other reality shows have all pushed Miss America to the sidelines of pop culture.
About 27 million Americans watched the pageant during its television debut in 1954, and the number swelled to more than 50 million viewers by 1988. But only 2.4 million viewers tuned in for the 2007 crowning.
Now TLC owns the rights to the Miss America franchise, and the cable channel has vowed to push the pageant into the modern era with an infusion of reality.
The makeover started in November, when Turner and other beauty queens from across the country spent four weeks in a Los Angeles mansion with style coaches who urged them to let go of old pageant notions.
TLC cameras captured the drama for “Miss America: Reality Check,” a four-part reality series shown Friday nights in January leading up to the pageant finale at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Viewers at home can vote for their favorite beauty queen online, and the winner will be guaranteed a spot among the 16 national finalists.
“This is about a new Miss America,” an adviser on the show told one beauty queen afraid to try a new hair style. “Don’t be a cookie cutter Barbie Doll.”
Turner, a 24-year-old dental hygienist and dance instructor from Phoenix, welcomes the changes. But she doesn’t think “makeover” is the best way to describe the overhaul.
“Instead of giving it a makeover, they are giving it a make-under,” she said. “The pageant needed to be toned down – less rhinestones and less makeup.”
Turner said the new Miss America will be contemporary, stylish, up-to-date and approachable. Girls will relate to her, and people will know her name.
“I think this next Miss America will be the Miss America that everybody remembers,” she said.
And Turner hopes she will be that person.
She already knows the other contestants from her experience in the mansion with pageant winners from 49 other states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“The mansion isn’t much of a mansion anymore once you have 15 women to a bedroom,” Turner said.
A celebrity stylist, an editor from Us Weekly and a celebrity photographer formed an advisory board that coached the women through a series of challenges designed to help at least one contestant emerge as an “it girl” for contemporary society.
The advisers didn’t bother calling Miss America a scholarship pageant or dwelling on the contestants’ public service platforms. They simply called Miss America a beauty pageant.
That didn’t bother Turner.
“It’s scholarship, it’s beauty,” she said. “It’s everything all in one.”
Turner also isn’t bothered with the minimal exposure she received during the first two episodes of the reality show. She said the producers explained at the beginning that 52 stars would make for a crowded cast.
“If you get shown you’re kind of lucky,” she said.
Or maybe not.
Viewers of episode two saw Miss Florida squirm before jumping into a pool because she didn’t want her makeup to smear. Miss District of Columbia had a less than glamorous asthma attack, and Miss Alaska let out a war cry that turned heads after a stylist chopped off 18 inches of her hair.
TLC declined to release ratings for the first two episodes because the company is in a “quiet period,” channel spokeswoman Shannon Martin said.
Regardless of the TV audience, Turner said the changes at the national pageant will likely trickle down to the state level once local pageant organizers gather in Las Vegas and catch the vision.
“I think after this realty show filming in November, it will start a new era,” Turner said. “It’s time to modify things.”
Pageant organizers in Arizona aren’t so sure.
“We do not anticipate any changes,” Miss Arizona Scholarship Foundation board president Stephen Rich said.
Even under the old format that hasn’t changed much since 1921, Rich said the state pageant has managed to attract women such as Turner — who already exemplifies the contemporary qualities Miss America wants.
“She’s an impressive woman,” Rich said.