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The beauty pageant from hell



Courtney Gibbs, Miss USA 1988
The beauty pageant from hell

El Paso, Texas became the host city of  the Miss USA beauty pageant in 1988. This was a big deal because of the kind of televised national and other publicity and money that the event would bring to El Paso. 

The credit for the pageant being held in the border city went to El Paso beauty pagent gurus Richard Guy and the late Rex Holt. The two talented men (GuyRex Associates) were responsible for helping five contenders in a row win the Miss Texas USA crown, an unparalleled achievement by any standard.

I was assigned to the El Paso Times features section working under Josie Weber, the section editor, and the late Paula Moore, who was the managing editor. Josie and Paula were capable journalists in their own right, which is why we made history with this particular pageant. 

At the time, the features staff rotated the beauty pageants as assignments, and this one fell on me. Personally, I did not care much for pageants because I believed they were trivial pursuits that exploited women. Over the years, I gradually changed my mind and accepted that beauty and poise are unique talents, and that cultivating these gifts is a legitimate option for women who possess them.

The 1988 event presented an opportunity to gain behind-the-scenes insights into the industry of glamour and report on a national beauty pageant taking place in our own city. Hollywood stars Alan Thicke and Tracy Scoggins were to be the headliners for the televised pageant that would ultimately select as its winner Miss Texas USA Courtney Gibbs, a Fort Worth native and another winning GuyRex product.

The distrust between the local pageant organizers and our coverage began almost immediately. The preparations for the big moment took place over several weeks, and the contestants were housed in a motel near Hawkins Boulevard, in which one of El Paso's elected officials held an interest.The motel no longer exists.

First, as I learned later, the pageant organizers questioned why I was assigned to cover the pageant. Although I worked for the features section, I had the reputation of being a hard-news investigative reporter. The suspicion was that I was sent to "dig up dirt" on the pageant. And, while I was not excited about having to cover the pageant, I approached it like all my other assignments; find out what's going on and report it.

One of the first things I observed and questioned was the use of Fort Bliss soldiers as escorts for the pageant contestants during the weeks leading up to the winner's coronation. The Army regulations I looked up seemed to indicate that this was a misuse of military personnel. If so many soldiers could be spared to escort the women each day, then it meant that their military jobs were not critical or important. The story ran with a picture. The officials at Fort Bliss were upset at the story; one of them, I was not told who, asked one of our news staff members, 'what's up with Diana?' I was also told in the newsroom that the Fort Bliss commander was very eager for the Army post to have an active role in the pageant.

Another incident that caused trouble for us began innocently enough. Paula Moore, an astute editor, suggested that I request the head shots of all 51 beauty contestants so we could have them before the final pageant. She wasn't sure at first how we would use them, and we did obtain the photos. Then, Paula got the idea of having the El Paso Times conduct its own contest by having readers vote on who should win; the paper would publish all the contestant photos and readers would weigh in. This was before the era of social media, and it was a great idea.

The pageant people went ballistic. I was accused of using trickery to obtain the contestant photos, and that our ultimate goal was for the newspaper to hold its own contest. A vote by readers in a separate poll could be viewed as undermining of the actual pageant.That's not how things occurred, but at their end, that's how the pageant people saw it. Discussions over this issue began in earnest between the editors and the pageant people who opposed the use of the photos for a local newspaper contest.

During one of my trips to the civic center, where the pageant events were being held, I arrived early and was greeted by a female sheriff deputy assigned to the facility's security. After I identified myself, she nodded her head and told me that the first thing she heard in the mornings when she reported for work was someone with the pageant cursing me over something I had written in the El PasoTimes.

Then, after entering the facility that same day, I encountered one of the local women that assisted the contestants. I identified myself and asked about the highlight events of the day. She came up to me and without a word simply gave me a hug and walked away. I was dumbfounded. Burt Wittrup, one of our editors, compared the women who helped beauty pageant contenders with men who liked hanging out with athletes in locker rooms, sort of a vicarious experience for the wannabes.

Back at the newsroom, next thing I knew, I was called into Paula Moore's office and was told that El Paso lawyer, the late Sib Abraham, had written a letter threatening to file a court injunction against me if I was not kept away from the pageant, particularly away from Richard Guy and Rex Holt, who were freaking out over my coverage. Paula wanted to assign a different reporter to cover the remaining big pageant events in case I had to be taken off. With all the near daily complaints, you'd think that we were covering the Watergate hearings.

Finally, the pageant staff agreed to let the El Paso Times publish all the contestant photos but only until the day of the big pageant finale. I was able to interview the winner, Courtney Gibbs, I believe it was the day after she was crowned. In person, she epitomized what judges look for in a contender. Courtney Gibbs, no doubt, possessed an incomparable combination of beauty, poise and intelligence. She was the clear winner. I wished her well.

1988 Miss USA hightlights Miss USA 1988 highlights

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