ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Miss Kansas Tara Dawn Holland was crowned Miss America on Saturday night in a nationally televised ceremony where viewers got to help select the winner.
For the first time, viewers could call in and vote on which of the 10 semifinalists they liked to narrow the field to five finalists. The final decision on the winner was solely up to the seven celebrity judges.
When the name of first runner-up Miss Louisiana Erika Schwarz was called, Holland's jaw dropped in disbelief. She then received the crown from outgoing winner Shawntel Smith before giving giant waves to the crowd - mouthing "I love you" in between - as she made her way down the 92-foot runway in Convention Hall.
Holland, a tall brunette, said afterward that she wanted to be Miss America since she was a child, but couldn't believe her fairy tale had come true.
"I don't feel like Miss America yet," she said at a news conference. "I know that's going to sink in once I have time for it to."
She's the third Miss Kansas to win the crown, following Deborah Bryant also of Overland Park (1966) and Debra Barnes of Pittsburg (1968).
Holland, 23, of Overland Park, won the Miss Kansas title on her first try after moving from Florida, where she unsuccessfully sought the state crown three times.
A 1994 music education graduate of Florida State University, she is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She hopes to teach music some day.
Holland's platform - the issue she will speak on during her year as Miss America - is illiteracy prevention.
She said existing illiteracy prevention programs serve less than 5 percent of the illiterate population. "I need to be a national spokesperson for illiteracy prevention," she said in an interview when the contestants arrived in Atlantic City on Labor Day.
She sang opera, "Ou va le jeune Indoue," for her talent segment.
Born in Mobile, Ala., her family moved six times by the time she was 5 years old and six times since then.
Miss Oregon Patricia Leines was second runner-up, Miss Alabama Alison McCreary third runner-up and Miss Missouri Kimberly Massaro fourth runner-up.
Other semifinalists were Miss Hawaii Melissa Short; Miss Indiana Shani Nielsen; Miss Kentucky Veronica Duka; Miss Mississippi Kari Litton and Miss Texas Michelle Martinez.
The call-in poll was the latest innovation for the contest, an annual fixture in this beach resort since 1921.
The viewers, in effect, sat as the eighth judge in picking the finalists. Their collective votes were added to those of the seven celebrity judges, who picked the winner.
Last year, viewers were asked to vote on whether the swimsuit competition, criticized as sexist, should be held at all. The vote was nearly 4 to 1 in favor of the swimsuit parade.
The longtime practice of having contestants wear spiked heels during the swimsuit competition was scrapped in 1994.
In 1989, the pageant began requiring contestants to have an issue on which they could speak if chosen Miss America. That was done to underscore the pageant's evolution from beauty contest to scholarship program.
Last year, the Miss America Organization made available more than $29 million in scholarship grants to women at the local, state and national level.
The last two Miss Americas also have earned more than $250,000 each on their 20,000-mile-a-month appearance tours.
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