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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2002/ 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Out of the Miss America closet | There she goes, out of the closet and ahead of the curve(s). Who says an Atlantic City bathing beauty is all looks, legs and perfect teeth? Erika Harold is all of that, and then some. But Miss America 2003 has a little attitude, too.

She became Miss Illinois and on her way to Atlantic City with a "platform" of advocating sexual abstinence for teens. This put her in a unique category, particularly in a sex-drenched youth culture, and that was too much for the old folks, yearning to be hip, who run the beauty pageants.

They told her to change her platform to be more "pertinent" for a national audience. She should make prevention of youth violence her cause. This didn't make sense to her. Sexual abstinence and prevention of youth violence seemed intertwined issues.

"I definitely think that when a young person engages in one destructive behavior it makes it much more likely that (she will) engage in other destructive behavior," she says. "So I think that if a young person is engaged in a promiscuous lifestyle it makes (her) more vulnerable to other risk factors."

Miss Harold, a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Illinois who has put her acceptance at Harvard Law School on hold for a year, wowed the judges at Atlantic City and she came to Washington last week for her first press conference in the nation's capital. Her handlers told her not to promote chastity for teens. She wasn't told to promote promiscuity, exactly, just to zip it up if anybody asked anything about sex.

The officials of the Miss America Pageant, originally invented to sell the idea that the Jersey shore was awash in pretty girls, have always pretended that nobody notices that Miss America is, well, sexy. (We only watch to get Miss Idaho's views on peace and Miss Rhode Island's take on the environment.)

But America's feisty girl next door did it, anyway. She knows what the polls continue to show - that lots of teenagers crave the abstinence message. They yearn for someone of star status to counter the sexual messages the media pounds on them, as well as the lines of the boys who hit on them. She notices that abortion rates and births to teenagers are declining, suggesting that young women are increasingly aware of the consequences of playing with fire (and early passion).

Virginity, in the face of staggering odds, is staging a comeback. In one new study of 10,000 high school students, virgins outnumbered those who were not by 54 percent to 46 percent. A decade ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those numbers were reversed. The study is based on self-reports by teenagers, who - like everyone else - have been known to lie about sex. Even so, the survey demonstrates a change in attitude. Not so long ago, virgins were the ones who felt compelled to lie, so embarrassed were they to admit that they were chaste in a sex-saturated culture.

Miss Harold sensed that abstinence was important to and for teens, that to zip it up was to betray her young audience and her own principles. She prizes a letter from a fan in the Chicago inner city, who wrote: "You changed my life because of what you said and now I made the decision to be abstinent because of what you said and I think it can change lots of others."

Miss Harold's original platform was simple and direct: "Teenage Sexual Abstinence: Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself." You might wonder why the pageant officials would be squeamish about that. But there might be more here than meets the eyes of the casual beholder.

Erika Harold is the multiculturalist's dream. Her mother traces her ancestry to black slaves and her great-great grandparents were Choctaw and Cherokee. Her father tells of traces of Greek, German, Welsh and English forbears in the melting pot from which he sprang. When she joked in her first press conference that her background was so mixed she (like Tiger Woods) checked the box for "other" on her college applications, not everyone laughed. She had to explain that she was just kidding, that she actually felt closest to her African-American heritage.

Nevertheless, conservative activism lurks in the closet with her high-heel shoes. She was home-schooled to the fourth grade, and last year she was the volunteer youth coordinator for an anti-abortion candidate for governor of Illinois. (He lost.) She told one interviewer that she once feared her conservative views would keep her from winning the Miss America title. But it didn't. She wowed official Washington just like she wowed the judges at Atlantic City. The consensus from those who have met her: She'll go a long way, baby.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS