Vanessa Williams and the Miss America song return to the pageant

Sun Sep 13, 2015 2:38pm EDT
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By Daniel Kelley

(Reuters) - When the contestants for the 2016 Miss America pageant take the stage in Atlantic City on Sunday night, they'll be greeted by two blasts from the past -- and a new social media feature.

Singer and actress Vanessa Williams, the first African American to be crowned Miss America, will be the contest's lead judge 31 years after she was forced to resign her title over nude photos of her published in Penthouse magazine.

Williams went on to become the pageant's most famous winner and her cultural cachet has arguably exceeded the contest that brought her to the national spotlight. Earlier this week she tweeted a photo of her crown, which she kept.

The pageant's iconic song -- the one that opens "There she is, Miss America" -- will also return to the show for the first time since 2012, when its use was suspended due to an ongoing dispute with the estate of its author, Bernie Wayne.

For the first time this year, the public was allowed to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to vote for the "America's Choice" winner.

The social media innovation comes as the 95-year-old pageant struggles to maintain its relevancy. Miss America returned to ABC in 2011 after years on cable television.

Last year, comedian John Oliver used a segment of his show Last Week Tonight to lambaste the Miss America Organization over its claim that it had provided $45 million in scholarships. As it turned out, the organization was counting scholarship offers made to contestants, not those that the contestants actually accepted, a discrepancy that wildly inflated the totals. This year, officials are out with a new figure. They say the pageant awards $5.5 million in scholarships.

Pageant judges score contestants from the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands based on a talent competition, a personal interview, answers to an on-stage question, and appearance in gowns and swimsuits.   Continued...

American singer Vanessa Williams performs during the opening ceremonies at the U.S. Open Championships tennis tournament in New York, August 31, 2015.  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri