If the Miss America competition wants to goose ratings next year, chairwoman Gretchen Carlson should turn over the telecast to some fellow Minnesotans.
“Are these judges drunk?” said Jina Duchnowski, letting loose when Miss Idaho slipped into the top 15 during the live broadcast. Duchnowski, who was a contender for Miss Minnesota in 2002, was one of nine local viewers with pageant ties who gathered Sunday to watch the pageant, fueled by Champagne, red velvet cake, pizza and lots of laughs.
“My husband likes his Super Bowl,” said Duchnowski, sporting pajamas and costume jewelry. “I have this.”
The new rules for the 97-year-old competition — no swimsuits and a stronger emphasis on talent — were hot topics throughout the evening. But the main agenda was trying to pick the winner as early as possible.
The party was thrilled that Miss Minnesota Michaelene Karlen made the top 15, but they decided that the clear front-runner during the first hour was Miss Massachusetts Gabriela Taveras, who nailed the evening’s first onstage interview, which accounted for 25 percent of contestants’ scores.
“Who wouldn’t want her to be Miss America?” said attendee David Shepardson, a former executive director for the Miss Minnesota Foundation. “She’s already won.”
The tide turned during the talent portion, however, when Taveras fell short of some high notes during her vocal rendition of “Rise Up.” She ended up finishing as fourth runner-up.
“We wanted to love you!” said former Miss Minnesota contestant and party host Jacquelyn Vranicar, after a chorus of groans filled her Chaska living room.
The biggest cheers of the night were reserved for Miss Connecticut Bridget Oei after she punctuated her Irish step dance with a moonwalk.
“She just blew Massachusetts out of the water,” Duchnowski said. Oei would finish as first runner-up.
During commercial breaks, Vranicar read pageant-related trivia questions and awarded door prizes of mugs and candy dishes. Her husband and two of her sons stuck their heads in for a brief moment but, despite the goodies on the kitchen table, quickly made their exit.
Vranicar insisted that her former evening gown, on display in the foyer where everybody shucked their shoes, would be coming down the next morning.
“If I kept it up, my kids would think I’m nuts,” she said.
The mother of four had spent the previous evening helping to judge the Miss Moorhead competition. While she said she has some problems with the direction Carlson is taking the competition, she was still clearly proud to be part of the tradition.
“It was refreshing last night to see all these young people giving back to the community and getting educated,” she said. “They get a bad rap sometimes,” she said of pageant contestants.
No ratings bump
Sunday’s two-hour event, which aired on ABC and was hosted by the overly enthusiastic Carrie Ann Inaba, did everything in its power to show that strength counted more than sex appeal, filling the screen with words such as “Strong,” “Passionate” and “Fearless” as contestants strutted to Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” and Kate Perry’s “Roar.”
What wasn’t new was how rivals cheered one another on, even if they themselves weren’t moving on to the next round.
Attendee Carisa Rasmussen, who competed at the state level more than 15 years ago, insisted that the enthusiasm wasn’t fake. “I lost a lot, so I know,” she said.
No one seemed upset when Miss New York Nia Franklin took the crown (her Met-worthy performance from “La Boheme” seemed to seal the deal), but reviews on the new path to the crown were mixed.
“I would have much rather have seen the swimsuit competition than so much talent,” said Allison Crandall, the current Mrs. Minnesota.
“I liked hearing more of their voices,” said 2010 Miss Minnesota participant Liz Burd, who kept her own private score sheet throughout the evening.
The new approach didn’t seem to give the ratings for the annual competition much of a bump. Viewership was down 19 percent from last year, when 5.6 million tuned in. (For comparison, the audience was more than 8 million in 2013.)
And cutting the swimsuit segment seemed to be a sticking point, at least with some Minnesotans.
“Gretchen made much ado about nothing,” Shepardson said. “I don’t think talent is any less impressive than someone rocking it in a swimsuit.
“Miss New York is going to have a tough year. It’s going to be all about Gretchen trying to save her reputation. Monday morning, they are all going to be sitting in a room somewhere and saying, ‘OK, here’s the plan.’ And that’s OK. That’s what Miss America signed up for.”
However New York’s Franklin handles the title, you can bet the local gang will gather once again for next year’s title.
Especially if there’s red velvet cake.