Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011 | 10:15 p.m.
It was The Beatles who once sang, “She was just 17. You know what I mean.”
But really, we don’t know what they meant. Probably nothing. It certainly wasn’t, “She was just 17. And she can beat 52 women older than her to win the most famous beauty pageant ever.”
No, no one could expect a young lady named Teresa Scanlan, who is the age of a schoolgirl, to win Miss America. But it happened tonight before a packed house of about 7,000 pageant zealots at Planet Hollywood's Theater for the Performing Arts.
The first-runner up to Scanlan was a woman who actually drew louder applause from the audience than did the eventual winner, Miss Arkansas Alyse Eady. She became a late crowd favorite for her hilarious ventriloquism act.
So the outcome was a stunner in more ways than one. The victor turned out to be the youngest winner in the pageant in a very long time, a 17-year-old from Gering, Neb. The result sent media members and fans scrambling to see just where Scanlan falls in line as one of the youngest Miss Americas.
The answer: Marian Bergeron was the youngest listed titlist, at 15 1/2, in 1933. Others younger than Scanlan were Margaret Gorman in 1921 (the first Miss America) and Mary Campbell in 1922, both 16. The most recent teenager to claim the tiara was Kirsten Haglund, 19 and the youngest contestant in the field as Miss Michigan when she won the pageant in 2008.
Scanlan, too, was the youngest contestant in this year’s pageant. She’s the youngest Miss Nebraska ever and the first from that state to win the title. Never had a woman from the state whose motto is “Equality Before the Law.”
“I started competing in pageants when I was 13,” the beaming new Miss America said during the post-pageant press conference at Planet Hollywood, reaching all the way back to 2006. “I couldn’t even imagine this happening. … Even though it is celebrating its 90th birthday, the pageant is so young and youthful, a 17-year-old can win.”
Scanlan was born in 1993. She’s likely never operated a rotary phone or switched a television by turning a knob. She was not even born when Nirvana released "Smells Like Teen Spirit." She was 8 when George W. Bush became president. A politically minded student who plans to attend Patrick Henry College and study American politics and policy, she won’t even be old enough to vote until she turns 18 in February.
“I plan to register as an Independent,” she said, saying that the partisanship in Washington is a lingering problem among our elected officials.
“I am very interested in the political process,” said the soon-to-be Independent.
In winning the tiara, Scanlan receives $50,000 in scholarship money. The pageant judges were awed by her confidence, saying she was quite poised for a person so young. In a pageant first, the judges showed up, unannounced, to greet Scanlan at the Miss America news conference.
“She’s adorable, isn’t she? There were so many girls who were cute, but she’s the cutest.” Joy Behar said. “I found (the pageant) to be charming, incredibly interesting. … These girls really put it out there, and it is a cellulite-free zone.”
Said “Desperate Housewives” creator and executive producer Marc Cherry: “I’ve already been asked to have Teresa on the show, but she’s no longer desperate, and she’s not a housewife.”
When asked if she yet had a boyfriend, Scanlan invoked age once more.
“I mean, 17-year-old boys?” she said as her face pinched to a grimace. “Enough said.”
Scanlan is a small-town girl, certainly. Gering’s population is about 8,000, and she beat incredible odds to even make the pageant. More than 1,000 pageants lead to Miss America, and more than 13,000 contestants compete for the title. Her grandparents escaped Croatia (sharing that feat with judge Tony Dovolani), giving her a life story with a worldly twist.
For the talent competition, she delivered a bounding rendition of “White Water Chopsticks.” Her answer to a taped question posed by a person on the streets of Las Vegas, which asked about the recent Wiki leaks case, was to balance free speech with protecting the country against potential “espionage” by those who might rake those documents to attack the United States.
Commendably, Scanlan’s platform is one that hits to the health of young women across the country, eating disorders. She was home schooled for much of her upbringing, shielded from girls her age who might be suffering from any such problem.
“In the pageant culture, this is so important,” she said. “Because I was home schooled, I didn’t see the pressures on girls in our public school system. There is a stigma about eating disorders that has to be corrected, and we are developing more understanding about it.”
Cherry, who was positively ebullient about his role as Miss America judge, put Scanlan’s victory in proper perspective.
“I was skeptical about a 17-year-old girl,” he said, “but she’s a 17-year-old woman.”
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.