Not Just a Pretty Face : Socially Conscious Feminist Wins Ms. Santa Monica Pageant

Times Staff Writer

A 22-year-old advertising copywriter with a well-developed social conscience triumphed over more than two dozen other contestants, including a 50-year-old mother and a woman who claimed to have been Queen Anne Boleyn in a previous life, in the new Ms. Santa Monica Pageant.

Denise O'Brien was chosen for her ample commitment to social causes and her ardent feminism. She said that she was drawn to the contest by TV news reports showing feminist Gloria Allred, an attorney and pageant official, symbolically destroying a bikini.

"I thought that the theme was great," O'Brien said. "It appealed to me because it was different. I wouldn't have participated in a pageant based strictly on beauty. This was wonderful because it wasn't all aspiring models."

The Ms. Santa Monica Pageant dropped the beauty category for the first time in its 30-year history to celebrate the "woman of the '80s." Friday's contest at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium attracted 500 spectators and 28 contestants representing a range of ages and professions.

Several of the entrants in the "inner-beauty" contest came from Westside colleges. Others included first runner-up Claire Battistus, a 39-year-old car detailer, and Elaine Watkins, a 50-year-old businesswoman. Ann Palmer, who did not divulge her age, described herself as a "regressionist."

Watkins said she entered the pageant because she supported the concept and saw it as a way to build her self-confidence. Battistus, a former volunteer worker at a women's crisis center, said the pageant is a "gutsy idea" and a great way for older women to show that they still have something to contribute.

"We all questioned our sanity at one point," Battistus said of the older contestants. "But I thought it would be a great way to help other women."

The pageant lasted nearly three hours. Each contestant said a few words to the judges at the start, most of them using the opportunity to express support for feminism and world peace. Later they paraded on stage in turn-of-the-century bathing suits in a parody of modern-day bathing-beauty contests. There was a brief talent show. Then each contestant took the stage in an evening gown.

The show hit its only snag during the judging, which was based on pre-pageant interviews and written essays, and on the contestants' poise and intelligence during the event. The results of the computerized tabulation to determine the five semifinalists were supposed to be known fairly quickly, but pageant officials had to call a 15-minute intermission when they discovered that measuring inner beauty was more time-consuming than expected.

When the five semifinalists were finally assembled, each was given one minute to describe what she would do on behalf of feminism. The judges awarded the crown to O'Brien for her concise answer and the points she won for her involvement in several community and church organizations.

O'Brien, who is a classical pianist, had worked at a crisis center for battered women. She has also been a coach for the Special Olympics and served as a volunteer at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. O'Brien said she expects to participate in the Miss California pageant later this year, but she added that she disapproves of that contest's strong emphasis on physical appearance.

Organizers said they hope that the Ms. Santa Monica Pageant will serve as a role model for other contests. Allred labeled it a "herstoric" event. Pageant chairman Don Sowers, a member of the Santa Monica Jaycees, which sponsored the event, called it a complete success although some audience members complained that the contest was long on talk, short on glamour.

"The precise format may be improved upon," Sowers said. "But the bottom line was to do the right thing and select a total person. When you have 28 very intelligent contestants speaking about issues, it may not lend itself to a show as entertaining as one where 28 women are parading around in bathing suits."

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