ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. >> Can anyone stop Miss Iowa, who has mowed down competitors like so many rows of corn during this week’s preliminary competition in the 2016 Miss America pageant?
Or is there a surprise Miss America waiting in the wings, ready to be crowned during Sunday night’s nationally televised finale?
Taylor Wiebers won a preliminary talent competition Tuesday with a vocal performance of “Don’t Forget Me” from the TV show “Smash.” Two days later, the judges called her name yet again, awarding her a swimsuit victory in Thursday’s preliminaries.
She thus enters the final night of competition with an advantage; contestants accrue points in the preliminary competition toward their standing entering the finale. Yet the reigning Miss America, Kira Kazantsev, did not win a preliminary title last year, but won the crown on the final night.
The pageant worked overtime this year to bring back parts of its storied history. It includes the return of the pageant’s theme song with the line “There she is, Miss America,” and the return of one of the most famous women ever to wear the crown — and to give it up.
Actress and singer Vanessa Williams is returning to the pageant as head judge for the first time in more than three decades since she resigned the title amid a nude photo scandal. Williams, the first African-American Miss America, won the title in 1984 but resigned after Penthouse magazine published sexually explicit photographs of her taken several years earlier. She went on to have a successful career in film, television, music and Broadway.
The “Miss America” song, made famous by longtime pageant host Bert Parks, will return to the pageant after a five-year absence due to legal wrangling over rights to its use. The Miss America Organization paid an undisclosed sum to the estate of songwriter Bernie Wayne to enable its use this year.
Sunday night’s pageant, Miss America’s 95th, will feature contestants from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The U.S. Virgin Islands, which competed last year, could not field the minimum required amount of contestants, and is not eligible this year. Each will stand onstage and hope to hear their name called — after those of the runner-ups.
“It’s so surreal,” said Miss Vermont Alayna Westcom. “Standing up there, seeing all the lights and the sparkle and all the people in the audience is an amazing feeling. There’s a little bit of nerves. You want to hear your name called, but you don’t want it to be called first, because then you’re not Miss America.”
The finale comes after three nights of preliminary competition in the swimsuit, evening gown and talent categories. Swimsuit winners were Miss South Carolina Daja Dial; Miss Florida Mary Katherine Fechtel and Wiebers. Talent winners were Wiebers; Miss Louisiana April Nelson, and Miss Georgia, Betty Cantrell.
The Miss America pageant began in Atlantic City in 1921 as a way to extend the summer tourist season for a week after Labor Day. It moved to Las Vegas for six years before returning to Atlantic City in 2013.
It will be nationally televised on ABC at 9 p.m. EST.