September 14, 2015 / 12:55 AM / 2 years ago

Georgia contestant Betty Cantrell crowned 2016 Miss America

3 Min Read

Miss Georgia Betty Cantrell reacts after being crowned Miss America 2016 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 13, 2015.Mark Makela

(Reuters) - Georgia contestant Betty Cantrell was crowned 2016 Miss America on Sunday in a pageant that was overshadowed by events from three decades ago.

Singer, actress and former Miss America Vanessa Williams received a public apology from the pageant organization that famously ordered her to give up her crown amid a nude photo scandal in 1984.

"I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be," said Sam Haskell, CEO of the Miss America Organization.

Williams, the first African American woman to wear the crown, has maintained that the photos published by Penthouse Magazine in 1984 were unauthorized. Williams served as the pageant's chief judge during its 95th anniversary on Sunday in Atlantic City.

"I think this was something in the back of her mind that she also wanted to do at some point," said 1989 pageant winner and Fox News Host Gretchen Carlson, speaking on the red carpet before the event.

Sunday's pageant came as it struggles to maintain its relevance after it was dropped by ABC in 2004 following a steep ratings decline. It returned to ABC in 2011 after years on cable television, but its ratings have remained below what they were in 2004.

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 inflated the totals. This year, officials are out with a new figure, saying the pageant awards $5.5 million in scholarships.

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

Cantrell was crowned to the song "Miss America," the first time the song has been played at the pageant since 2012 amid a licensing dispute with the estate of the song's author.

The new winner will inherit a lifestyle that could see her log 20,000 miles of travel per month. Kira Kazantsev, the 2015 winner from New York, said she can make as many as nine appearances on behalf of a charity per day.

Reporting by Daniel Kelley; Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Brendan O'Brien and Andrea Ricci

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