National Sweetheart Pageant soldiers on with 28 contestants

National Sweetheart Pageant soldiers on with 28 contestants

HOOPESTON — Miss America 1997's mouth still waters any time she thinks about Hoopeston's sweet corn — "the best I had ever eaten, and I ate my fair share" as a kid in Kansas.

Miss America 1982 remembers how much Cornjerker Country reminded her of her own small southern hometown — Ozark, Ark., where she got her beauty-pageant start.

And four decades later, Miss Nebraska 1978 recalls the pile of gifts that awaited her and the rest of the out-of-staters who descended upon Vermilion County for the National Sweetheart Pageant, where a win often led to a spot in the Miss America pageant.

The show will go on as part of Hoopeston's 73rd annual National Sweetcorn Festival, which begins today and continues through Monday.

But for the first time since the 1950s, the local Labor Day weekend tradition won't offer patrons the possibility of seeing a future Miss America onstage, as has happened nine times since 1970.

Earlier this year, Miss America Organization officials notified contestants that they would be severing their longtime ties with the Hoopeston pageant. Starting this year, runners-up in Miss America state competitions would be prohibited from participating in Hoopeston's Sweetheart pageant, an opportunity to pick up more experience before another run for their state's title.

Local pageant officials say the news came without warning — or explanation — and was similar to rules that already existed for other local and state pageants, like county fairs.

So Sweetheart Pageant organizers had just six months to reinvent a pageant that has been essentially the same for decades.

"It's not what we're used to doing," said Cliff Crabtree, who co-directs the pageant with wife Michelle.

After getting the disappointing news in February, Michelle Crabtree said the local committee quickly delved into uncharted water — having to recruit contestants from all over the country to Hoopeston for an open pageant.

"That was one of our biggest struggles," she said.

Twenty-eight young women, from 28 different states, said yes. They rolled into Hoopeston on Wednesday for orientation and an evening dinner.

The basic format of the two-day pageant will be the same, with the Saturday night prelims featuring evening gown, swimsuit, talent and onstage questions. On Sunday night, 15 finalists will compete in swimsuits. The winner will be decided from the final 10, who will be judged on evening gowns and talent.

A new twist to this year's pageant: parade wear, worth 5 percent of each contestant's preliminary score. Michelle Crabtree said they'll all dress in costume — basically, anything that symbolizes their home state — for Saturday morning's festival parade.

"So we're kind of excited to see all of the creative costumes they've come up with this year," Crabtree said.

What the future holds for the pageant, beyond 2016, remains uncertain, she said.

Hoopeston's show has always been a little different from others on the Miss America circuit.

After all, it isn't every pageant where the pre-weekend activities include a corn-on-the-cob-eating contest, says Tara Dawn (Holland) Christensen, whose 1995 win in Hoopeston was a springboard to her Miss America coronation two years later.

"We really enjoyed the free pass at McDonald's all week, too. It was certainly challenging to remain pageant-ready with all the food there," she said. "I loved the small-town atmosphere in Hoopeston, where everyone knows each other and is working together to make the pageant a great experience for all.

"Being there was great preparation for my year as Miss America, where I had the pleasure of visiting towns of all sizes, as well as meeting my husband, who is from a small town in rural Nebraska."

Since Pam Eldred's crowning in 1970, 1 in 5 Miss Americas have been National Sweetheart pageant alums.

"I loved my time in Hoopeston," said another of them — 1980 Miss Sweetheart, 1981 Miss Arkansas and 1982 Miss America Elizabeth (Ward) Gracen. "I come from a small town in Arkansas, so it felt like a local pageant in so many ways — except the other young women were also first runners-up from around the United States. Very competitive, as I recall."

Guylyn (Remmenga) Cummins, a Top 10 Miss America finisher in 1979, can still recall the welcome wagon that greeted her in 1976 — from the sponsors to the host family that housed her.

Jordan (Krinke) Blais can, too. It's only been three years since the woman once crowned Miss California Outstanding Teen won in Hoopeston, but she won't soon forget the families who put her up or all the fried Twinkies she and her fellow contestants scarfed down.

"The Totheroh family, the Crabtree family, the Crouch family," she said, rattling off the names. All "provided an experience unlike any other."

"Coming from California, Hoopeston was a beautiful change of scenery and pace."


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