LOS ANGELES An Idaho beauty queen who doesn't drink, smoke or sip coffee or tea came to Hollywood this month on a personal mission to try to save the image of America's young women.
Like others distressed over what passes for a role model these days, 21-year-old Amanda Rammell is troubled by the influential antics of the Brit Pack: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, whose behavior has escalated to pantyless photo ops.
"The Internet photos, the partying, the drug abuse, just the level of sexual exploiting that they're using it's out of control, and the way our girls are looking up to them isn't changing, and that's what's scary," says Rammell, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Brigham Young University-Idaho student who represented her state in this week's Miss USA pageant. The pageant's event culminated Friday night, following a tumultuous reign for last year's winner, Tara Conner, who was caught up in a scandal of her own.
To counter the bad-girl behavior, Rammell counts herself among women leaders advancing their own campaigns, large and small, to offer good-girl alternatives.
Rammell is a curious contradiction. She's a Mormon, whose faith emphasizes modesty, yet she comes from an iconoclastic family that's not afraid to make headlines. Moreover, as a tall brunette who doesn't mind the swimsuit competition, she wants to use a beauty pageant, which some consider exploitative of women, as a platform to be their advocate.
More resolute and confident in her agenda than many other contestants interviewed, Rammell portrays herself as the product of an Idaho ranch with "the morals, the education, the down-to-earth" traditions of that upbringing, and she says that young women today have "unrealistic role models."
While no surveys exist quantifying a movement toward positive examples, adherents agree there is an urgent need for them, pointing to opinion polls such as one recently in Newsweek that indicated 77 percent of Americans believe that Spears, Lohan and Hilton are having too much influence on the nation's younger female generation.
Saturation coverage of their binges has even concerned the world's largest news-gathering service, The Associated Press, which last month staged a news blackout of Hilton for one week.
In response to concerns that "sexualization" of girls is a problem, the American Psychological Association conducted a study that concluded that such imagery in advertising, merchandising and media is "harming girls' self-image and health development." Some call it the "prostitot" trend girls being sexualized prematurely.
There is, however, some cause for optimism, says Joe Kelly, 52, president of Dads & Daughters, a nonprofit group promoting better lives for girls. Positive women role models for teens are "more visible than before," he said.
Oprah Winfrey, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., new Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, basketball player Sheryl Swoopes these women are a few examples that Kelly and other advocates are promoting as antidotes to bad-girl images.
"Certainly I think it's an increasing need," said Ashley Carr of the American Association of University Women, which is promoting the educational and professional achievements of historic female figures such as the group's founding mothers, Marion Talbot and Ellen Richards, during Women's History Month this March.
At the University of Memphis, Leigh Anne Duck, an associate English professor and interim director of women's studies program, said she found hope in her students, though in "five out of five classes" they all have talked about Spears shaving her head.
"I'm not even sure what wave of feminism is heading where now, but it's pretty clear that there is a generation shift, a very kind of positive not an internecine struggle but a kind of positive energy building up," said Duck, a University of Chicago doctoral graduate in 2000. "They're not worried about how wide their (bra) straps should be."
Rammell is using the Miss USA pageant to urge teens to look within their families or communities for positive models. Some critics denounce the Miss USA and Miss America pageants as superficial, but many young girls and adults regard them as paradigms of womanhood that emphasize poise, speaking and achievement some of the hallmarks of public leadership.
Saying she is familiar with Miss America's scholarship program, Carr added: "Yes, it is a beauty pageant, but even the fact that they have a long history in providing these scholarships doesn't surface."
Rammell said her grandmother's endurance working a farm and her mother's lessons of compassion were a good influence on her.
"The most beautiful women I know are my mom and my grandma because of the lives they led," she said. "Every wrinkle on their face tells a story. It's like a poem."
Rammell, who was raised on a ranch near Yellowstone National Park, is one of three children of a veterinarian father and homemaker mother in Rexburg, Idaho. She's now a biology major at BYU-Idaho, seeking to be a physician's assistant, and plans to be a role model by being socially and politically active.
"I expect to be active in all the issues that a woman of the United States deals with every day political issues in their state and federal government, the issues of the home and the family, morals, the peer pressure of youth, the elderly, the mothers, the working women," Rammell said. "It's critical to be a citizen and to be active."
She's no stranger to controversy. Her father, Rex, was at the center of a three-state controversy last year when domesticated elk escaped from his hunting ranch. After the Idaho governor criticized the father's penned hunts and sanctioned a killing of the fleeing elk, Amanda Rammell as Miss Idaho USA refused to pose for a photograph with the state's chief executive.
"My father tells me you have to take a stand and people will follow, and sometimes those with principles stand alone," she said.
Though she's a Mormon, whose tenets advocate strong family values, Rammell said the pageant's swimsuit competition is "just fun. It takes a lot of guts to get out there with a string bikini and high heels.
"A lot of people look at my lifestyle as strict," she said. "For me, I'm always in control of my actions."
Many experts agree that using family and community members as mentors is among the best role modeling, but the beauty pageant as a forum for setting forth good images remains controversial.
The current Miss USA, Tara Conner, was criticized for tainting the good-girl image of the title when it was revealed that she was an underage, alcoholic, cocaine-using party girl herself, setting off a much-publicized snit between event sponsor Donald Trump and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell over who is an appropriate moral authority for young women.
Conner, 21, who showed up late and missed an alcohol-free party last week thrown by this year's 51 contestants celebrating her 93 days of sobriety, conceded that even role models have flaws. But she expressed hope that her experience would set a different kind of example for other alcoholics to get help.
"No one's perfect. We all make mistakes," she said. "People are afraid to reach out because there's a stigma. Alcoholism is an addiction."
For longtime observers of the pageant such as William Prendiz of East Los Angeles, a 60-year-old hairdresser, Conner's scandal was the worst since 1957 winner Leona Gage Ennis lost her crown because the 18-year-old was married and a mother of two.
"It was her and Tara Conner that were the worst.... On something of this scale, the crown has been tarnished," said Prendiz, who was attending a reception with a friend for contestants in the lobby of a downtown Los Angeles hotel.
But among the young women seeking to become part of the nation's next generation of leaders, what makes for a good or bad example was open for debate.
"Women can drink if they can be classy about it. If they want to be sloppy about it, it's not a good idea," said Miss Nevada, Helen Salas, 21, of Las Vegas.
At a minimum, the young women vying for the Miss USA crown probably won't suffer anorexia exhibited by some young celebrities.
That's because executive chef Daniel Fennessy, 41, of the Wilshire Grand Hotel is catering to all culinary whims, from vegan to carnivore.
"These girls eat almost as much as I do," said Fennessy, who stands 6-3 and weighs 365 pounds. "We don't want that modeling-with-anorexia issue."