Drop Dead, Gorgeous

Trudy Hill named her older daughter after Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch spinster who hid Jews from the Nazis and was sent to a concentration camp for her efforts. Ten Boom's story, commemorated in a book beloved by Christians everywhere, is about trusting in God, taking on evil, and learning to forgive.

Trudy Hill had grown up without religion, but she read ten Boom's book as an adult. It had a major impact. "It was my first brush with someone who was strong in their faith," she says.

Both Trudy and her husband ended up being baptized, and when their first child was a girl, they named her Corrie. Corrie ten Boom was strong, resourceful, joyful. "I wanted those qualities in my daughter," Trudy says. It was a name for a heroine.

If it doesn't sound like the name for a beauty queen, well, that's because Trudy Hill never intended for her daughter to be one. But while the Hills didn't go looking for pageants, the Miss America pageant found them. Eventually, Corrie Hill -- named for a Resistance worker, but slender and smart and a great dancer -- was crowned Miss Arizona 2003.

It's the sort of happy ending that little girls dream of. It was certainly Corrie Hill's dream, and it became Trudy Hill's dream, too, in the way that these things often do.

But it wasn't the ending.

Instead, Trudy and Corrie Hill, who had been expecting one of the best years of their lives, had one of the worst. And they decided to do something no Miss Arizona had done before.

Corrie ten Boom had preached forgiveness, but she had never promoted passivity. The Hills decided to fight back.

The Miss America pageant certainly seems glamorous: There's the parade of flawless hair and professionally whitened teeth, that sparkling tiara, the joyous victory splash in the Atlantic City surf. Despite the best efforts of the Trump-promoted Miss USA, Miss America remains the nation's most prestigious pageant.

Modern times, however, have dulled the tiara's luster. The last Miss America to achieve name recognition was Vanessa Williams, in 1984 -- and that was partly because she lost her crown over Penthouse pics. Television viewership has plummeted, from 30 million people in 1988 to 9.8 million last year. In the Old South, Miss America remains a huge deal, but other state franchises struggle just to find contestants.

In the pageant hierarchy, Arizona is no Wyoming, which saw just four women compete for last year's state title. Still, the Miss Arizona Scholarship Foundation is a bare-bones operation: It has no headquarters except the director's home. No one, not even that director, gets paid.

The Arizona organization's $80,000 in annual revenue -- collected from sponsors, contestant fees, and tickets -- barely covers the cost of hosting the state pageant and paying out scholarships. The dozen local pageants that feed into it are even worse off: Their directors, also volunteer, must either find sponsors or pay the winners' scholarships out of their own pockets.

Finances are a constant issue. The franchise was running a six-figure debt in 1994 when Bill Toon, a Mesa businessman, took it over with his wife, Frances. Their daughter was retiring from pageants, and the Atlantic City brass asked the couple to "right the ship," Toon says. They thought it would be a fun hobby, but they ended up giving it 40 hours a week for five years.

Both generous and well-connected, the Toons managed to wipe out the debt, double the winner's scholarship to $10,000, and move the state pageant from a high school auditorium to the Orpheum Theatre stage.

In 1998, the exhausted Toons handed off the pageant to their top assistants, Steve and Monica Rich. The pair have been at the helm ever since: Steve, as president and CEO, handles the books. Monica, the executive director, works with the girls.

By all accounts, the couple is devoted to the pageant. But they've recently come into heavy criticism -- most of it directed at Monica.

Some of it is to be expected. Pageant moms are famously high-strung, and any pageant has many more losers than winners. But this is different: The charge is being led by two former Miss Arizonas.

Both women say Rich told them who to talk to. What to wear. How to perform. When the beauty queens resisted her control, they say she yelled at them, gossiped about them, and ostracized them. In one startling incident, they charge, she even complained to a contestant's church leadership in an attempt to sabotage her wedding.

The two beauty queens have told Miss America that they want her gone. But despite the seriousness of their accusations, Miss America basically ignored them. So now they're breaking the number one rule of pageants: They're airing dirty laundry with a vengeance.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske