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Unfairest of the Unfair


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Her blue gown sparkling in the spotlight, Raquel Rusing is poised at center stage, smiling-prepared to duplicate the destiny of her namesake, Raquel Tejada Welch. Rusing's father was an ardent admirer of Raquel Welch, the curvaceous San Diego native who became a silver screen icon. In 1958, Welch was chosen as San Diego County's Fairest of the Fair. And so, some 35 years hence, another dark-haired, aspiring beauty stands waiting as one of two contestants left in the 2003 pageant.

Local television anchor Deborah Takahara is mistress of ceremonies. The crowd in Escondido’s California Center for the Arts hangs on her words. She pauses for dramatic effect and announces, “Raquel Rusing, Miss Carlsbad, has won the title of Fairest of the Fair, 2003.“

Thunderous applause rains down. Rusing accepts her crown and banner. She waves and smiles. Family and friends snap photographs. Moments later, the high school senior is rushed to the waiting room to speak with the media.

“I really don't believe I won,“ says Rusing, shaking her head carefully so the dazzling crown won't fall off her queenly ’do. “I want to be the best Fairest of the Fair that was ever crowned, and represent my city the best I can. It all feels like a dream. But really, I can’t believe I won.“

Rusing’s sentiment, sadly, is shared. She barely has time to greet the first fairgoer before questions arise regarding whether the actual winner is wearing the crown.

Before the evening is over, La Mesa/Santee pageant director Pam Wilson asks to see the classified scores. Wilson demands to know why Miss La Mesa, Troy Lemperle, didn’t win.

Fairest of the Fair director Joe Amaro refuses to show Wilson, or any other director, the final tallies. The scores become public only after Wilson and other directors contact the California Attorney General's office. They demand the score and tally sheets under the California Public Information Act. Before that process goes through, while Amaro is on vacation his fairground superiors copy and release the score sheets to several area directors.

The sheets show Amaro deducted points from Lemperle because she missed a mandatory pageant rehearsal (to attend a Charger Girls event). Without the deduction, Lemperle would have won.

In the aftermath, Rusing is allowed to keep the 2003 crown. Lemperle, it’s decided, will serve as next year’s queen. Amaro loses his job-and Fairest of the Fair qualifying pageant directors are left with no imperative to hold contests next year. The future of the whole program is up in the air.

Now, for the first time, pageant contestants and directors speak out on what happened behind the scenes, what should have happened and what might lie in the future for the beauty-queen system in San Diego County.

Some background: The first such pageant was held in 1936, when Barbara Watson was named Miss San Diego County at the County Agriculture & Horticulture Fair. Watson got a crown, an autographed photo of Bing Crosby and the promise of a screen test.

With the threat of war looming, the pageant went on a 10-year hiatus, then resumed in 1946. It had a lot less glamour and glitz than today’s pageants. Back then, the winner often was announced while contestants stood on the Don Diego stage competing for attention with the pig-calling and the pie-eating contests.

“The pageants were a lot of fun, and there wasn’t any of the craziness going on like I’ve been hearing about,“ says Carolee Engstrand, 1969’s Fairest of the Fair. “I gained a lot of confidence and tried out to represent my city, El Cajon. I really can’t believe all the politics going on now in a program that is supposed to set an example for young women.“

In recent years, the pageant has drawn participants from all over San Diego County. More than 300 young women participated in local contests this year.
Winners became Fairest of the Fair- sanctioned area queens.

The woman crowned Fairest of the Fair each May represents the San Diego County Fair and also becomes Miss San Diego County. She receives $2,000 from the 22nd District Agriculture Association. When her one-year reign is finished, she gets a $5,000 college scholarship and can compete in the Miss California pageant.

During the two-day May pageant, contestants are graded on four criteria, earning a maximum 25 points for interview, 15 for sportswear, 15 for evening gown and 15 points each evening for poise and personality. The top 10 candidates advance to the final round, where they answer impromptu questions for a possible 20 additional points. Six judges grade contestants in the categories.

This May, Rusing earned the most points: 580. The runners-up, who become the Fairest of the Fair “Court,“ were Lisette Diaz, Miss San Ysidro; Kacy Thompson, Miss Santee; Jennifer Morgan, Miss Alpine; and Andrea Schneider, Miss Rancho Bernardo.

Troy Lemperle had 461 points. She came in 10th.

On September 9, fair officials listened to area director complaints. First, it turned out that scores for Miss Del Mar, Kendyl Conway, were incorrectly tallied, keeping her out of the Court. She was added as a sixth member to the group.

Also that day, Troy Lemperle, who had 132 points deducted from her score by Amaro, was named the de facto 2004 queen. Lemperle and her parents cried with joy at the announcement. Miss La Mesa accepted the future title. Pam Wilson felt vindicated.
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