ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - With its bags packed for Vegas and its bank balances sagging, the Miss America pageant is asking former winners to donate money for the scholarship that goes with the crown.
In an unprecedented step, Miss America Organization CEO Art McMaster appealed to former winners to kick in for the $50,000 scholarship, citing the pageant's new push for fundraising.
In a Nov. 3 letter obtained by The Associated Press, he noted the pageant's loss of network television revenue and said donations were needed to underwrite the Miss America scholarship. "I am asking that all of you make a donation towards this scholarship and support the organization that helped to shape all of your lives, just as you would support your alma mater as alumni," McMaster wrote.
McMaster, who announced this week that the next Miss America will be crowned in Las Vegas, did not return several telephone calls seeking comment.
The closely knit group of former winners had mixed emotions about the plea.
"I knew this program was at a critical time and, in many ways, in dire straits," said Miss America 1990 Debbye Turner. "It didn't make me think things were worse than they are. It confirmed my worst fears that we really are at a crossroads and that something powerful needs to happen."
Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999, said the request was "a little odd."
"The formers, we're all in a very precarious position," she said. "You can't find bigger supporters of this organization than us, but when called on at the eleventh hour, it makes it a little difficult. We're trying to plan, as a group, to see what the best course of action is."
The Miss America Organization bills itself as the world's leading provider of scholarships to young women. It makes $45 million in scholarship aid available annually, including $50,000 to the winner.
Money from the pageant's TV partner has historically funded the scholarships and the organization's operations, providing up to $6 million annually.
But ABC pulled the plug on Miss America 13 months ago after record-poor viewership for the 2004 pageant, which was watched by 9.8 million people. Last year, the Miss America Organization lost $1.7 million, and in August, McMaster announced the plan to move the pageant out of Atlantic City in search of cheaper digs.
Cable outlet Country Music Television has since picked up Miss America, but the broadcast rights are believed to be far less than before.