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ONE PIECE OR TWO? MISS AMERICA CONTESTANTS NOW HAVE A CHOICE

Not since President Clinton was asked on MTV if he wore boxers or briefs has there been such a garment controversy in television.

On the 77th Miss America Pageant, Sept. 13 on ABC, contestants will have the option of wearing a one-piece or a two-piece bathing suit in the swimsuit portion of the competition.

Leonard Horn, president of the Miss America Organization, made that announcement to critics here. He also announced that married "All My Children" stars Eva LaRue and John Callahan will be the new hosts and that there will be a new pageant theme: "Everything Old Is New Again."

That slogan certainly described the ensuing controversy. A swimsuit controversy is more than a bit old. It happens every year. A few years back, a telephone poll during the competition determined that most voters couldn't live without the misses parading in their suits.

Predictably, the two-piece choice was greeted by critical outrage. Well, all right, about five critics who haven't been spotted by the pool at the Ritz Carlton here were leading the revolution.

They were so angry, you almost got the sense that they believed that if any contestant wore a two-piece suit on Sept. 13, the program would have to get an "S" rating for sexual content in the new code.

Rate the controversy D for dumb.

Many of the same critics who think the new ratings content system is the forerunner of censorship wanted to ban the wearing of a tasteful outfit that can be seen on women with less, eh, attractive features daily on Lake Erie beaches.

One critic announced that she was a Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude graduate, and she didn't see how this new wrinkle was progress.

Of course, it isn't progress. It's TV. In truth, the Miss America Pageant isn't any more -- or less -- sexist than most of television.

The outrage was especially shocking because of all the reminders of how important good-looking women are to network television. Many were paraded before us days before the Miss America interview.

Jenny McCarthy (NBC's "Jenny"), Jenna Elfman (ABC's "Dharma & Greg"), Mario Bello (NBC's "ER") and Peta Wilson (USA's "La Femme Nikita") all have their looks to thank at least partly for their roles.

Of course, Horn and producer-director Jeff Margolis brought some of the controversy upon themselves. The session started unraveling on Horn early when he misspoke and said this year's show would have a "fleshy look" instead of a "fresh look."

The two men also had a tough time selling the idea that the Miss America Pageant isn't a beauty contest but just has one beauty element in it.

You didn't have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to realize that their argument that the pageant is a scholarship program was going to be viewed by this tough crowd as flimsy as some summer suits.

But Horn did acknowledge that the pageant needs to get ratings to be successful, and the way to get ratings is to parade beautiful women in public.

Its ratings weren't that hot last year, either. That's one of the reasons that the pageant is moving from NBC to ABC, which hasn't carried it since before the bikini was invented.

Undoubtedly, Horn is a realist who knows some skin may improve ratings, not that we're talking risque suits. After all, ABC is owned by Disney.

"It has to be a two-piece suit with a full bottom or whatever you call it," Horn said to laughter. "There are certain directions that were given to them so they know that the two-piece swimsuit has to be in good taste."

He quite correctly noted that TV and attractiveness go together like "Baywatch" and teen-age viewers.

"Whether we like it or not, attractiveness is a very important part of our culture," said Horn. "I have yet to turn on television and see an anchor in the morning news, the evening news or in the middle of the day, male or female, who is not pretty good-looking. The connotation of middle America is a reasonably attractive woman.

"So yes, beauty is a part of it, because that's part of the definition, but there's no specific category for beauty in the program. If you can get by the concept of exhibition of women, for the purpose of the goals, I think you might be better able to appreciate what it is that we bring to society."

Tara Holland, the reigning Miss America, sat idly by in a tasteful orange dress as the debate heated up.

Afterward, I asked her if she would have been a one-piece or two-piece contestant if the rules were changed last year.

"Because of my body style, my choice would have been the one-piece," said Holland. "That's what I look better in."

And just who told her that?

"I know my own body style," she said. "But I support having the choice."

Besides the suit choice, another new wrinkle concerns the format of asking questions to five finalists. Margolis revealed that a journalist yet to be decided upon will do the questioning.

Because the pageant is on ABC, the most logical idea is the journalist will be someone from its strong stable of newsmen and newswomen.

Let's see: Will it be Ted Koppel? Sam Donaldson? Diane Sawyer? Barbara Walters? Hugh Downs? Willow Bay?

If it's viewers ABC wants, may I suggest that Donaldson get the gig. And if he promises to wear a bathing suit, ratings should skyrocket.

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