Miss America from Oklahoma, again

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LAS VEGAS -- Lauren Nelson, an aspiring Broadway star, was crowned Miss America on Monday night, the second year in a row that a Miss Oklahoma has won the crown.

Nelson, 20, of Lawton, is a student at the University of Central Oklahoma who wants to obtain her master's degree in musical theater.

"I watched Miss America as a little girl since I was 2 years old and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be one of those girls on that stage, and never did I think that I would be Miss America," she said afterward.

Shilah Phillips, the first black Miss Texas, was first runner-up, and Miss Georgia Amanda Kozak was second runner-up. Miss Mississippi Taryn Foshee and Miss Alabama Melinda Toole rounded out the top five. Viewers named Toole Miss Congeniality.

Nelson was crowned by last year's winner, Jennifer Berry, the first Miss America chosen after the pageant moved to Las Vegas from its longtime home in Atlantic City, N.J.

Nelson, a blond who told judges she wishes she was taller, sang "You'll Be In My Heart" in the talent competition and plans to promote protecting children online during her yearlong reign as Miss America.

She wins a $50,000 scholarship with the crown and stands to make thousands more in appearance fees.

The last state to win back-to-back titles was Mississippi when Mary Ann Mobley crowned Lynda Mead as Miss America in 1960.

Nelson has clocked time in the Miss America pageant circuit in recent years. She was named Miss Oklahoma State Fair before competing for the state title. She also held the title of Miss Teen Oklahoma 2004.

Nelson began singing in the church choir when she was a young girl. Over the years, she acted in musicals such as "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Anything Goes."

Mario Lopez, of "Dancing with the Stars" and "Saved by the Bell," hosted the show, introducing it as America's oldest reality TV show.

Last year's move to the Aladdin Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip was one of several attempts to breathe new life into an institution that had fallen far from the forefront of American pop culture.

Although previous experiments with reality gimmicks fell flat, this year's show included viewer voting and increased participation from the panel of celebrity judges, which includes MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews.

In one of the new features, viewers were shown a glimpse of interviews between contestants and judges, something that previously was closed. In her clip, Nelson spoke about how her faith helped her make it through the stress of pageantry.

Nelson may have pleased the judges, but she wasn't the viewers' favorite, according to a text message voting system instituted this year.

Phillips, a singer and choir director's daughter, was the fan favorite in the talent competition. Miss California Jacquelynne Fontaine was the viewers' pick for her turn in a blue bikini, and Miss Mississippi Taryn Foshee was named the favorite in the evening gown contest.

The changes in the show are part of a larger marketing blitz aimed at reintroducing a new generation to Miss America, a feminine idol born of a publicity stunt on the New Jersey seaside in 1921.

After a long reign as a cultural icon, Miss America's ratings have plummeted, and sexier reality shows have eclipsed her girl-next-door appeal. The addition of pop quizzes and casual-wear contests couldn't save the pageant from losing its network TV contract in 2004.

MTV-Networks' CMT picked it up in 2005 and has been attempting to restore the old girl to her former glory. It stripped the pageant of the failed gimmicks, and for the first time in decades brought back Miss Congeniality.

Last year's crowning attracted less than a third of the viewers it had the year before, but was replayed 20 times on CMT and its sister-network VH1 for a total of 36 million viewers.

With a year to market its new product, CMT came back with its own set of gimmicks -- a Bert Parks ringtone, a $1 million giveaway for picking the winner and a reality-TV special intended to help viewers connect with the contestants in the days before the crowning.

Producers also moved the show off a date night. CMT, which reaches 83 million households, hopes the Monday-night airing attracts a broader, younger audience -- the sort of viewers whose devotion first catapulted the beauty queen to prominence.

Along with the crown, the nonprofit that runs the pageant gives the winner gets a $50,000 scholarship and a one-year contract to represent the Miss America Organization at charity, corporate and fundraising appearances.
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