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How's this for a new formula to achieve infamy in today's era of instant celebrity? Take one beauty queen, add her personal religious beliefs, and then mix in opposition to same-sex marriage. The result is a combustible media firestorm sure to bring the beauty queen overnight notoriety.
In 2009 decrowned Miss California USA Carrie Prejean used that formula to ride on the unexpected fame triggered by her "opposite marriage" interview answer at the Miss USA pageant. Now, we have "Miss Beverly Hills" Lauren Ashley -- who intends to compete for the Miss California USA crown in November -- voicing her opposition to same-sex marriage based on her literal reading of the Bible. Lauren Ashley has gotten even more specific than Carrie Prejean; she has quoted the Book of Leviticus's directive to "put to death" any man who "lies with mankind as he would lie with a woman" to support her belief that the Bible is "pretty black and white" about condemning homosexual relations.
Not surprisingly, Miss Beverly Hills's publicly-voiced opinion triggered a wave of recent press coverage and backlash against her for a too-literal, naive reading of Scripture. Before this, she was a relatively unknown state pageant contestant-to-be who does not even hail from Beverly Hills. (Lauren is actually from Pasadena, but under the rules of the Miss California USA Pageant was able to claim the mantle of Miss Beverly Hills. The city of Beverly Hills swiftly issued a statement disclaiming any affiliation with her.)
This makes me wonder whether we are seeing the start of a new trend with this fiery formula -- beauty queens who cite their religious beliefs to oppose marriage equality in order to gain (or extend) 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps we should give this trend a nifty moniker. How about "Sashes Against Same-Sex Marriage"? "Beauty Queens Against the Queens"? Or "Crowns Opposed to Marriage Equality"? Before you know it, a new organization could emerge with some fierce acronyms.
I have some experience with this phenomenon -- and not just because I am a fan of beauty pageants. I was in the audience at the Miss USA 2009 pageant in Las Vegas when Carrie Prejean infamously gave her "no offense" comments opposing gay marriage in response to a question from judge Perez Hilton. Given the murmuring in the audience, I wondered sitting there whether this young woman would leverage her YouTube moment to rise to infamy.
More directly, in my day job as a lawyer, I had the unenviable
experience of going toe-to-toe with Carrie Prejean and her lawyer
Charles LiMandri. Mr. LiMandri has acted on behalf of the National
Organization for Marriage, whose mission is to block same-sex marriage
rights. Last year Carrie Prejean sued the Miss California USA pageant.
Claiming to be a victim of religious discrimination and other
wrongdoing, she insisted that she was decrowned due to her stance
against gay marriage. (The pageant cited her repeated contractual
breaches as the basis for terminating her reign.) I was the lawyer who
represented the operator of the Miss California USA pageant (K2
Productions Inc.) and its executive director, Keith Lewis, in that
lawsuit. I've kept a low profile about my involvement in the Carrie
Prejean case, but seeing the recent anti-gay-marriage comments from the
new Miss Beverly Hills, I decided it was time to voice my opinion about
what I see as a disturbing trend.
Why does this unique formula (beauty queen + religious beliefs + same-sex marriage opposition) add up to such intrigue? First, it's not just any controversial social issue that would engender this much attention for a beauty queen. A beauty queen's opposition to marriage equality rings especially loud because pageant contestants depend so heavily on gay people to succeed in competition. You think a winning hair, makeup, and evening gown combination comes together through magic elves? The pageantry world is filled with LGBT people who serve as hairstylists, makeup artists, evening gown designers, pageant consultants, and fans. Many beauty queens -- such as my friend the fabulous Brook Lee (Miss Universe 1997 from Hawaii) -- have come out vigorously, especially after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, to support marriage equality because of their strong relationships with the gay community. Yet an ambitious beauty queen hungry for fame can turn the LGBT populace into her sacrificial lamb, throwing "her gays" under the bus. There is something both vicious and captivating about this kind of betrayal that can instantly get a tiara-wearer onto the TV news.
Second, the use of religious tenets to justify the beauty queen's opinion adds fuel to the fire. We should all vigorously support religious freedom, but religion and beauty pageants do not make an easy pairing. Pageantry is, after all, a world where young women get into bikinis and high heels to be judged on their physical assets. The public does not turn to beauty queens for their intellectual musings about religious dogma, and theology has never stood front and center on the pageant stage. That's why so many people are troubled or at least intrigued by Lauren Ashley quoting the Book of Leviticus to justify her opinion. Had she merely stated her opposition to same-sex marriage without quoting the Bible, Lauren Ashley would have caught some attention, but probably much less.
Carrie Prejean paved the way for Lauren Ashley to hop on the same train. To observers who are forgiving, Carrie Prejean is a naive young woman too easily influenced by conservative political groups, eager to find a spokesperson who could claim to be victimized for her anti-gay-marriage beliefs. But to more callous observers and to probably many gays and lesbians, Carrie Prejean is an ambitious young woman who calculatingly rode her overnight notoriety to more fame and income opportunities; filed a lawsuit complaining that she was discriminated against for her anti-gay-marriage beliefs, perhaps to generate even more publicity; and then wrote a book called Still Standing to further trade in on her 15 minutes of fame. She put down a road map for how a beauty queen can leverage her stance on a controversial social issue to notoriety. Unfortunately for Carrie, notoriety can backfire.
At least Carrie Prejean had no
choice but to give her opinion when she was asked about gay marriage
during the interview portion of a televised pageant. Miss Beverly Hills wasn't even
competing at a pageant when she voiced her stance against same-sex
marriage to the media. Heck, the Miss California USA pageant isn't even
until November, eight months away. To be fair, Lauren was apparently
first prompted to give her gay marriage position by a reporter at a
Paris Hilton party -- but since then her statements have been repeated
to other media. Whether she did this intentionally to get a moment
in the sun, only Lauren will truly know. But this I do know: Win or
lose the Miss California USA crown come November, Lauren Ashley will already be the most famous delegate at the state pageant.
Every person -- beauty queens included, because yes, they too are people -- is entitled to her own opinion about same-sex marriage. And every person -- beauty queens included -- is entitled to use whatever microphone she has to voice that opinion. But I must wonder whether beauty queens have now decided they must manufacture controversy to become more notorious than their tiaras will otherwise allow. And it is especially alarming when the LGBT community is used as the victim of such an infamy-quest.
At their best, beauty pageants provide a calculus that empowers young women (confidence + presentation skills + public platform = unique stepping stone for careers.) But when a beauty queen combines her tiara, personal religious beliefs, and opposition to marriage equality to achieve infamy, we should all decry that formula.
As a pageant fan, I look forward to seeing who will be crowned Miss California USA in November and who will become Miss USA 2011. Let's hope a young woman achieves celebrity from those crowns with her beauty, poise, and winning personality, rather than by leveraging a formula so toxic to civil rights.