Press: There She Goes, Miss America

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Vanessa Williams steps down, and the pageant lurches on

In our last chapter, reigning Miss America Vanessa Williams, a spirited 21 and going for the glory, got caught in some compromising positions. Ten of them, to be exact, to be published in Penthouse, a skin magazine with the luster of a no-wax floor. Officials of the Miss America Pageant, aghast, asked for her resignation. Williams said she would think about it over the weekend.

She met with lawyers, with family, with her flack. Last Monday, with a trace of hard dignity and without a tear, Vanessa Williams announced that she would step down. "I wish I could retain my title," she said, but she mentioned "potential harm to the pageant and the deep, deep division that a bitter fight may cause" as reasons that she could not. So Williams became not only the first black Miss America but the first ever to abdicate. The 63-year-old pageant, beamed live from Atlantic City to more than 50 million television viewers (NBC pays $250,000 for the privilege), teetered, trembled and almost faltered.

Penthouse, for the moment, flourished. That same Monday, 5 million copies of the September issue hit newsstands, were snapped up and by week's end were virtually sold out. Editor-Publisher Bob Guccione, who has steadfastly maintained that "it was a business decision" to run the pictures, "not a moral decision," ordered up another print run of 750,000 copies. He declined to say how much he had paid for the pictures, taken two years ago by a Mount Kisco, N.Y., photographer, Tom Chiapel, for whom Williams had once worked as a receptionist. Chiapel, who had been in financial straits before selling the Williams photographs, dodged the press.

It was Albert A. Marks Jr., 71, the nonsalaried chairman of the Miss America Pageant, who suggested on behalf of the pageant that Williams toss in the diadem. Marks at that time was one of the handful of people who had actually seen the pictures, and scrambling for the high road, kept getting the ground cut out from under him by indignant interviewers and splenetic editorialists who had not. He was a prig; his contest was an exercise in hypocrisy ... What about that swimsuit competition, huh? According to Marks, when Williams first told him about the pictures in a tearful meeting two weeks ago, she made them sound about as raunchy as what an earlier age would have called figure studies: "A little pearl here, a few drapes there," as Marks says. They turned out, of course, to be grainy, but also down and dirty, an easy 85 out of 100 on the sleaze scale, the sort of material that has become a Penthouse specialty: hot shots of two hot women.

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