Miss Outspoken

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and Kate Shindle, the current Miss America, is waiting in the wings of the middle school auditorium. She's here to talk about what she's talked about at whistle-stops around the country over the last year. It's her chosen platform--and a hot potato: AIDS prevention and safe sex.

But this engagement is a potential minefield. The school district has told her she could speak as long as she doesn't use a few words. She's holding the list in her hands: "condoms," "needles," "homosexual," "heterosexual," "bisexual," "body fluids." All verboten.

But at least this censorship is better than a total ban on speaking, like when she tried to speak to students in another North Carolina school district. The district barred her completely. Her platform, officials said, was too controversial. So here in Greenwood, S.C., Shindle has agreed to talk about AIDS--without talking about sex. She takes a breath--as she learned to do in courses she took as a theater major at Northwestern University--and walks out on stage.

It goes off well, applause is polite, if not robust, and the floor is opened up to questions. And then the magic happens--as it has with the 21-year-old Shindle's speaking engagements over the last 11 months since she was crowned in Atlantic City.

A student stands up and uses one of the taboo words. He wants to know about condoms. She answers in her straightforward way, and the students perk up. To quote from "Mame," she can "charm the birds off the trees." Another student raises her hand and speaks another verboten word in a question about AIDS transmission. These students want to know about sex, about AIDS, about safe sex, even about gay sex.

They're allowed to use the words Shindle can't initiate--but she can respond once the students ask. And they do. Again and again.

And the auditorium is electrified with the thunderously silent fears suddenly out in the open. Students are laughing, stomping and cheering, as she pulls no punches. Everything from needle exchange, which even the White House takes a position against, to condom distribution.

We live in down and dirty times, and she's a Miss America for a new age.

The yearlong reign of the former Miss Illinois is now over, with a successor to be crowned in the pageant Saturday. But Shindle may have raised the bar for those to follow.

Like the new evolution of female leaders--Hillary Clinton and the late Princess Diana being the most vivid examples--the Atlantic City pageant winner is also no longer a figurehead, but a social activist and an agitator for issues of her choice. And Shindle has taken that new activism to the extreme. Gone are the debutante-white shorty gloves, vague homilies about world peace and the demure eyes-down stance of a girl meant more to look good than sound good.

"She's a great ally for me and anyone who works in HIV and AIDS on a daily basis," says Sandra Thurman, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. The two, she said, have grown close and see each other every few weeks at official functions.

Shindle first impressed the White House official when she was open to dialogue on the question of needle exchange.

"When she was first crowned as Miss America, she was asked about needle exchange funding and was hesitant about whether or not we ought to be supporting it," Thurman says. "But after further research and talking to activists, she took another look at the evidence and decided that needle exchange was something she was very much in favor of. And it's been just a delight to watch her take the opportunity as a woman who represents Middle America and be willing to go out and talk about an issue that people still find very sensitive."

Thurman is obviously tickled that Shindle can advocate a position that Thurman, as President Clinton's AIDS policy advisor, privately supports but cannot publicly endorse because the administration opposes it.

"These are things that I am not able to say, even though people know that I've been a supporter for a long time. So, for Kate to stand up for these issues, while I stand on the podium with her, is a delight."

Shindle now stands in her Chicago hotel room, ironing an outfit she plans to wear later that evening while addressing a Communities for Youth conference of educators and activists.

"To tell you the truth, I can't imagine doing this job without the platform issue [of AIDS prevention]," she says. She's spoken before the U.S. Conference of Mayors and has addressed the National Press Club. Shindle is also the first Miss America to move beyond domestic shores, having addressed the International AIDS conference in Geneva last fall.

"I have to say, a lot of people told me I'd be impressed, and I was," says Doug Harbrecht, Washington news editor of Business Week magazine, who was in the audience when she addressed the press club members and also spoke to her beforehand.

"The first thing that grabs you are the eyes. Crystal blue. And her intensity. She's only a senior in college, but she's poised and focused and very substantive on the issues," Harbrecht says. He admits to expecting the very stereotypes that Shindle has shattered in meeting after meeting during her reign.

"I have to say, about my own baggage, just watching [the Miss America pageant] for many years, you tend to ridicule it. But seeing the new freedom of expression and willingness to tackle controversial issues, it was very refreshing," Harbrecht says. "What made it even more refreshing was being delivered in that [new] Miss America package."

Chopping Broccoli at Hospice Kitchen

For her part, Shindle knows the presentation is half the battle.

"If you're going to talk about AIDS with a crown on your head, people just won't take you seriously," she says.

She's the right woman at the right time to be Miss America, whose mandate has shifted dramatically since the once-moribund New Jersey institution was taken over by feisty trial lawyer Leonard Horn in 1987.

"I thought it was a sleeping giant that could be utilized to do some really beneficial things for our society, and it was not doing it," says the CEO of the Miss America Organization. "Society had passed us by, but the pageant remained the same for four decades. Here we had dynamic young college women, but they were being portrayed as stereotypical irrelevant beauty queens."

Shindle has turned the Miss America title on its head this last year. Attendees at a high-powered meeting last fall in Manhattan still talk about Shindle's turn as keynote speaker. Shindle was addressing the National AIDS Fund board of directors--made up of prominent heads of corporations and banks. When she excused herself from the luncheon table minutes before her presentation, everybody assumed the obvious.

"She was sitting between two powerful CEOs, both of whom I think had a stereotypical impression of what a Miss America would be like. And all of us thought she went to the bathroom to powder her nose," says B.J. Stiles, president and CEO of the Washington-based foundation. "We found out later that she took the elevator downstairs to her limo, turned on her laptop, updated her speech with specific information about the corporations each of these guys heads up, and took the platform and delivered the most powerful up-to-date speech anyone had ever heard."

But Shindle's impact has been most readily felt not in ivory towers but in the trenches--soup kitchens, hospices, school auditoriums--where her open heart and free-flowing compassion are seen and felt. When she visited a Texas AIDS hospice, she quietly spent three hours in the kitchen chopping vegetables, say those who were there that day.

"She just showed up in blue jeans and a sweater. I was amazed," says John Fritchie, director of Project Open Hand. "She brought along the crown, for fun, and took pictures, but she was here to help prepare meals for people living with AIDS, and that's what she wanted to do. She spent hours in the kitchen, quietly doing the food prep."

Chef Deborah Edmonds was taken aback.

"Everyone thought she was going to come in with long nails and manicures, but here she was, this down-to-earth person," Edmonds says. "She knew she was coming in the kitchen, and she was prepared for a kitchen."

And Shindle was no dilettante. Edmonds says she cut eight cases of broccoli before she left.

Stiles talks about another moment away from the limelight that defined her to him.

"We were at an AIDS hospice. There were maybe five or six residents at the time," Stiles says. "After the second or third person, and I was standing close by her side, she took my hand in her hand. I could really feel her squeezing very tightly. Afterward in the limo I asked her, 'How are you?' And she said, simply, 'Sometimes it's tough.' But when she's out with them, she doesn't show the pain."

AIDS Crusade Starts After Professor Dies

AIDS is no intellectual exercise for Shindle; it cuts deeply. Soon after she enrolled at Northwestern in Chicago as a freshman, a beloved theater arts professor died of AIDS complications, deeply affecting Shindle, say those who know her. Her family has also always had an open attitude to gays, and when a lifelong family friend was found to have AIDS, they rallied around him and have been deeply supportive.

Shindle's mother, Maggie Shindle, says: "I don't even like the word 'tolerance.' I like the word 'acceptance' because 'tolerance' sounds negative. And this illness, although a lot of people think this is a homosexual disease, it's not. It's a contagious, raging disease that some people don't want to talk about."

Says Stiles, "When she talks to people with HIV or AIDS, whether they're in a wheelchair or bed, she'll ask them softly, 'What would you like me to say to America about this disease?' She always invites a person living with AIDS to give her their message to deliver to other people on their behalf."

Shindle's AIDS work precedes the rhinestone tiara by years and has never been about visibility or recognition.

"She worked with the Names project instead of going on spring break and worked on the quilt. Then she worked in several hospices," her mother says.

But all the acclaim not-withstanding, Shindle's friends beg reporters not to misrepresent her as some cardboard goody-goody.

"She's still the same, dorky humor, kind of silly, fun to be around, normal person," says Northwestern roommate Kate Strobeen, who is also in the music theater program. "She was just in town for a couple of days, and we did normal stuff. She came and picked me up after work, we ate dinner and were going to rent a movie, but we just ended up sitting around and belting out songs. Anybody passing by my window that night got a free concert. You know, just like normal kids."

But still, Shindle's tenacity and inner strength set her apart. She doesn't volunteer the information in interviews, but Dominic Missimi, head of the Northwestern music theater department, said that Shindle worked as a janitor, cleaning studios to help pay for dance classes. Maggie Shindle, who watched her daughter endure a grueling season of subzero weather on the track team, said Shindle came in last consistently but never gave up.

"She never won a race, never won anything. I watched her train outside every day, in the sleet and the cold. She almost always came in last, and she would occasionally even cry. But she pushed herself and pushed herself, and never missed a practice," says Maggie Shindle. "It's easy to go on when you're winning."

An aspiring stage actress, Shindle gravitates to the complexity of Sondheim: "I like his self-exploration and maturity."

Interestingly, she has played the role of the witch in "Into the Woods" more than once and sees it as a role she would like to play repeatedly, as she ages.

"I love the character of the witch," Shindle says. "She's so driven by people's perception of her. As you learn and grow in life, about yourself, she keeps changing. I would love to do that role periodically until I die."

The Miss America role has also been one in which she has defied convention, seizing a paper tiger and giving it real teeth.

"I have become less concerned about other people's opinion, over the last year," she says. "It could just be part of growing up. Maybe it's a bit of thick skin from spending the year as Miss America, especially Miss America advocating this issue."

Horn is impressed as he watches Shindle face schools that don't want to hear certain words.

"She's moved Miss America from a passive beauty queen to a socially motivated activist, a woman with a mission."

Shindle isn't bothered by those who are put off by her platform.

"There are a lot of people who don't think Miss America should be talking about sex," she muses in the final days before she passes along her crown. "But, to me, the most important thing is saving lives."

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