To see the fireworks, you had to be there before the show.
The setting: the pageant's VIP Dinner, held just before the final night of competition.
The location: the Mesquite High School cafeteria in Gilbert.
Yes, you read that right. Gone are the heady days of the late '90s when Miss Arizona was crowned at the fancy Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix; today she makes do with the Mesquite High School auditorium, and the Very Important People mingle pre-show in the caf. As for the dinner itself, that's basically "cold fruit on paper plates," says Kapri Rose Roberts, Miss Arizona 2001.
This being the Miss Arizona pageant, though, the VIPs still come. Rex Maughan, the aloe vera magnate who's made Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans, made an appearance. (His company, Forever Living Products, is the pageant's top sponsor.) Also there: a half-dozen former queens, including Roberts.
Hence the drama. After a horrific experience as Miss Arizona, Roberts has publicly called for the state pageant's leadership to be ousted ("Drop Dead, Gorgeous," February 17). She's accused the state executive director, Monica Rich, of trying to control her, ostracize her, and even sabotage her wedding. A second titleholder, Corrie Hill Francis, Miss Arizona 2003, has gone public with similar complaints, as have some volunteers and former staffers.
The Arizona pageant community has long been catty, and occasionally even vicious. But before Roberts and Francis went public, criticisms were whispered, or mailed anonymously. Face to face, even enemies sported congenial smiles.
The former queens' boldness changed that. At the VIP Dinner, Beth Norris, Miss Arizona 1955, cornered Roberts and let her have it.
"This happens in every state," Norris scolded, according to Roberts. "You should just accept it. You've hurt everybody with this." (Norris did not respond to requests for comment.)
Roberts tried to defend herself, but Norris, she says, would have none of it. "She was so mean," Roberts recalls. "I told her, 'Monica [Rich] shouldn't treat other girls like this. And I won't stop until she's gone.'"
She may not have to wait long. On August 17, Miss Arizona's main sponsor announced that it was pulling its support from the pageant -- and specifically blamed the decision on the organization's "current leadership."
Forever Living Products, a privately held cosmetics company worth an estimated $2 billion, has been the pageant's chief benefactor for more than 15 years. CEO Rex Maughan is a familiar presence at the state pageant; every year, he invites contestants to his headquarters for lunch and a tour. Sources familiar with the organization's finances say that the company's annual contribution to Miss Arizona has been well more than $25,000.
In an e-mail to pageant staffers, a copy of which was obtained by New Times, the company's vice president, David L. Anderson, wrote that Forever Living still supports the contestants and plans to keep awarding its signature $2,000 "Arizona Forever" scholarship. The scholarship, good at any Arizona university, goes to a contestant who shows particular aptitude in state culture and history.
"However," Anderson wrote, "differences of opinion over the future of the Miss Arizona Scholarship Pageant make further sponsorship of this program implausible. Forever Living Products believes that this program is ready to step up to a higher level with a significant increase in scholarships, contestants and a possible TV format. The current leadership believes that the pageant, as it stands today, is adequate."
Anderson declined comment for this story.
Miss Arizona's finances were already shaky. According to its most recent tax returns, the organization is carrying $34,000 in debt. Contributions have plummeted, from a high of $60,000 in fiscal year 1995 to just $30,000 in 2002. And that was before Forever Living pulled out.
Neither Monica Rich nor her husband, Steve, the organization's CEO, returned calls for comment. But it's clearly been a tough year. The Miss Outstanding Teen pageant, held in April, drew just three contestants. Soon after, the couple running it -- the state agency's vice president, Ranata Granzella, and her husband, Roger, the agency's senior field director -- resigned. At least one other board member has quit.
The owner of the Utah evening gown shop that traditionally offers each Miss Arizona a $650 gift certificate has gone out of business. The gym that provides the titleholder with free personal training sessions changed hands; the new owner says he's still considering whether to sign on. Other than a $5,000 scholarship, free tooth whitening and the honor and glory of winning, there aren't many perks left for the winner.
Nationally, Miss America is struggling, too. ABC pulled the plug last year on its telecast, citing lousy ratings. The pageant, usually held in September, has now been pushed back to January. While Miss America found a new TV partner -- Country Music Television -- it announced last week that it needs a new home. After 84 years, Atlantic City is suddenly too expensive.
The national turmoil may only exacerbate Arizona's troubles. When someone posted news of Forever Living's departure on a popular Web site devoted to pageant gossip, http://voy.com/184000/, dire predictions abounded.
"Well folks," one anonymous writer posted, "that is the end of a 20-year legacy, thanks to Monica and Steve Rich there will no longer be a Miss Arizona Pageant." Tempers flared to the point that one Rich supporter even called a critic a "stupid cunt." The chatter was so overwhelming that people from other states begged Arizonans to post somewhere else -- a plea usually reserved for pageant-crazy North Carolinians.
Miss Arizona CEO Steve Rich, at least, seems to be feeling the heat. Instead of accepting Forever Living's offer to continue its $2,000 scholarship, Rich responded by letter and told the company to forget it, sources say. All traces of the company and its scholarship were removed from the Miss Arizona Web site within a day.
Board member Nanci Wudel says Rich's rejection of the money was not meant to be an insult. The scholarship, she said, was tied to a state platform that required contestants to study Arizona's culture and history. That proved to be too onerous a requirement, she says, and to attract more contestants, the state leadership decided to drop it.
"It's good for them to be wanting to give that $2,000," she says. "It's sad we can't take it."
But when the pageant's whole purpose is ostensibly to give out scholarships, flatly rejecting the company's offer is hardly good PR. "Parents are going to think, 'They just turned down $2,000?'" says Trudy Hill, whose daughter, Corrie, was Miss Arizona in 2003. "Why would you do that? Well, you'd do it because you're mad . . . cutting your nose off to spite your face."
Wudel says the organization has lined up a new sponsor, though she won't name it publicly and isn't sure when it will be named. She still supports Monica and Steve Rich, even offering an explanation for their refusal to televise the pageant: The national Miss America organization doesn't want them to do so. (Miss America spokeswoman Jenni Glen says that isn't true.) Still, Wudel admits, Forever Living's departure is "definitely a loss."
On that point, if nothing else, Kapri Rose Roberts agrees. "Forever Living welcomed us into their place. They really made us feel special. To say, 'We don't want your money' and to throw it back in their face -- I feel embarrassed."