An Illinois Statistician Takes the Mystery Out of Miss America—He Says It Will Be Miss Kansas
09/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Long since its beginning in 1921, the Miss America Pageant has become one of the nation's most familiar rituals—a bland yet widely irresistible confection of hope, embarrassment, disappointment and triumph dished up by a dazzle of beauties. Surprise is beside the point: This year the only element of unpredictability lies in how the new Bert Parks, game show host Ron Ely, will deal with that hallowed moment when the band strikes up There She Is (see following story)—and of course in the guessing game played in millions of households as to who the "she" may be. But this year, in at least one American living room, even that last frisson may have been eliminated from the event. Aided by printouts and computer cards, Dr. George Miller, 57, is counting on that ultimate moment to vindicate a career in statistics and forecasting—to prove out what he calls the "safe bet" that Miss America 1981 will be none other than Miss Kansas, Leann Folsom. "I'd be surprised if she doesn't rank in the top five," he says. "She's a sure winner unless her talent isn't up to snuff or she doesn't have her poise."
"Poise" is an intangible that Miller's Amdahl 470V/7A computer cannot quantify, so he compensates by programming in factors like age, education and college major. A statistics professor at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, Miller has studied the calculable traits of Miss America contestants for 21 years—height, weight, measurements, hair and eye color, talents, academic interests, place and date of birth—and compiled a program he believes allots the proper value to each. Last year, in his first test, he picked the winner, Cheryl Prewitt of Mississippi. Since then the pageant has been decidedly aloof. "With all due respect to the professor," sniffed one official, "the Miss America Pageant is not run by a computer."
Still, Miller believes the predictable will happen. From his research he has determined that the "mean" Miss America is 5'6½", weighs 119 pounds, is 21 years old, measures 36-24-36 and has brown hair and brown eyes. No such platonic ideal has ever won, but Miller says the range of contention is quite narrow. Age must be between 19 and 24, height between 5'4" and 5'10", and weight between 105 and 135; and measurements must be symmetrical: that is, the hips can be no more than one inch larger than the bust, and the waist should be between 11 and 13 inches slimmer. More than half the recent winners have majored in the performing arts in college, but Miller notes that those whose talent turn is dancing (except for ballet), baton twirling, dramatic reading or any kind of singing with guitar accompaniment are automatic losers. So are nursing students and majors in math and statistics. "Someone could win outside these strict boundaries," he allows, "but you wouldn't see it very often."
Miller, whose Ph.D. is from Claremont (Calif.) Graduate School, turned his eyes to beauty when others' glazed over at his previous statistical scholarship. In 1978 his paper on predicting future financial needs of the energy industry won a tepid reception at the annual meeting of the American Statistical Association. The next year he presented a paper entitled "The Anatomy of Miss America," and attendance soared from 19 to more than 600. His students are also more motivated these days. "All the males like to do charts on bust statistics," he says.
Dr. Miller admits there is a chance his projection could backfire, that his choice might be passed over simply because he had named her. But he says pageant officials should not take it all that seriously. "It's a little like betting on horse races—you have to be lucky too," he concedes. "Their measurements may look good on paper, but sometimes when you see them, they just don't stack up."