Vanessa Williams’ return to Miss America signals possible shift for pageant

 Vanessa Williams, shown in a, April, 2015 file photo, will serve as head judge for the 2016 Miss America pageant (Andy Wong/AP Photo)

Vanessa Williams, shown in a, April, 2015 file photo, will serve as head judge for the 2016 Miss America pageant (Andy Wong/AP Photo)

A new Miss America will be crowned in Atlantic City this weekend, but it is the return of a former winner that is getting attention.

Organizers announced this week that Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984, would serve as head judge of this year’s competition.

Williams became the first black Miss America more than three decades ago, but promptly resigned her crown after nude photos of her were published in Penthouse Magazine.

“I remember seeing those pictures that ultimately were published in Penthouse, and by today’s standards I think this doesn’t even reach the red zone of scandal probably,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture and television at Syracuse University.

The final competition on Sunday will be the first time Williams has returned to the Miss America stage since her win 32 years ago.

News of Williams’ appearance has given a publicity bump to the beauty pageant, which returned to Atlantic City in 2013 after a stint in Las Vegas.

Thompson said the Miss America organization could be signaling that it holds more progressive social views than it once did, but reiterated that the famed competition remains relevant in American culture nonetheless.

“The fact is that this beauty pageant still matters. It’s one of the most identifiable brands,” Thompson said.

“And Vanessa Williams was an important part of that history.”

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