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Miss America 1999 To Be Crowned

September 20, 1998 GMT

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ At least they won’t have to take anyone’s crown away.

The field of contestants vying for the title Miss America 1999 was narrowed from 51 to 10 Saturday night, and Miss Ohio Cheya Watkins wasn’t among the finalists.

Miss Watkins was the subject of a pageant investigation into reports that she lied about her academic record. She claimed to be a freshman at University of Cincinnati, but officials there said they have no record of her.

Miss Watkins was allowed to compete while the probe continues. But she would have been stripped of any title or money if pageant organizers found reason to disqualify her, said Leonard Horn, chief executive of the Miss America Organization.

The 10 finalists were Miss Alaska Joselyn Tinker, Miss Arkansas Erin Wheatley, Miss District of Columbia Nicole Messina, Miss Florida Lissette Gonzalez, Miss Indiana Julianne Hackney, Miss Kentucky Cher-Lyn Cook, Miss Missouri Deborah McDonald, Miss North Carolina Kelli Bradshaw, Miss Oklahoma Julie Payne and Miss Virginia Nicole Johnson.

In another controversy, three judges with close ties to Oklahoma were replaced earlier this month amid complaints that Payne would get preferential treatment. She won a talent preliminary anyway and advanced to the semifinal round.

No contestant has ever been kicked out of the pageant in Atlantic City. But a winner was dethroned once: Miss America 1984 Vanessa Williams was forced to resign after nude pictures of her appeared in Penthouse magazine during her reign.

New wrinkles in this year’s telecast included hosts Boomer Esiason and Meredith Vieira, ``up close and personal″ videos of the contestants and a parade in which each woman is allowed to wear any kind of clothing she chose.

Miss America wins a $40,000 college scholarship, a year’s worth of travel and speaking engagements, and about $200,000 in appearance fees.

Last year’s winner, Kate Shindle of Illinois, championed AIDS prevention, advocating government-funded needle exchanges and school condom distribution.