Miss America, Aids Warrior

When it's your job to travel around the country with a rhinestone tiara in one hand and safer-sex lecture in the other, there's no such thing as an easy day at the office. But when Kate Shindle decamped at Yorktown High School in conservative Virgi nia last week, the kids seemed especially ready to rough her up--even if she is Miss America. How do you feel about distributing condoms in schools? one girl asked. Shindle, 20, wearing a smart brown suit and working the gym like a hipper Elizabeth Dole, said she supports such programs. When one boy asserted that AIDS would stop if homosexuality were outlawed, Shindle didn't blink. ""AIDS has nothing to do with being gay. It has to do with risk behaviors," she said. A few kids applauded.

In less than three months, Shindle has become one of the most controversial Miss Americas since Vanessa Williams met Penthouse magazine. As she's traveled around the country promoting AIDS awareness--all pageant contestants choose an issue or ""pla tform"--she's made headlines for advocating condom distribution in schools and free needles for drug addicts. She tells kids that abstinence isn't the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Less than a week after she won the crown, the letters started. One person wrote in USA Today that since Shindle doesn't push abstinence because she says many kids are going to have sex, ""she could advocate giving out drugs since people are going to find them somewhere anyway." Though most of her mail has b een positive, Shindle realizes people will be gunning for a Miss America who doesn't settle for easy causes like ""youth development" or ""adolescent mentoring," two perennial favorites among contestants. Last year's tiara wearer, Tara Holland, said she' d be willing to campaign for either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole. ""I don't want people to hate me or write nasty editorials," says Shindle. ""But I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of my pride to stop the epidemic."

Shindle says she chose AIDS awareness because she's known several people with HIV, including a close family friend. She still calls her AIDS ""buddy" in Chicago every month to see how he's feeling. When she won the Miss Illinois crown, she began vi s- iting health experts around the country to educate herself. Not surprisingly, some people questioned her sincerity. ""We thought we'd get some blond-haired, blue-eyed woman in a perfect Anne Klein suit," says Rodney Lofton, a program manager with Metr o Teen AIDS in Washington, D.C. ""Kate walked through the door in denim cutoffs and said, "I'm ready to go!' The kids were like, "She's cool'."

None of the pageant powers in Atlantic City has tried to censor her, Shindle says. In part, that may be because Leanza Cornett, Miss America of 1993, was the first winner to have an AIDS platform. And Shindle gives the pageant a patina of '90s hipn ess it desperately wants. ""The Miss America organization is trying to get away from the Barbie-doll image," says Ann-Marie Bivans, author of ""Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown." ""I have no doubt the judges were told, "We want a real woman, a woman with convictions'."

They may have gotten more than they bargained for. Shindle, a theater and sociology major at Northwestern University, may be the only AIDS activist in the country who describes herself as an anti-abortion, Catholic-school Republican from a ""pretty conservative" family. When Planned Parenthood asked her recently to appear at an event for its AIDS-education program, Shindle almost refused. ""People don't read past the headlines. They don't bother to find out what you're about," she says.

Shindle says she's not really trying to shake up the pageant, or the country for that matter. If a school asks that she not use the word ""condom," she'll oblige--though she insists on a question-and-answer session where the kids invariably bring u p the subject themselves. She rarely wears a red AIDS ribbon for fear of offending people. ""The advantage of this job is, I can get into audiences where most AIDS activists would never be allowed," she says. Even in her own home. When her mother saw a c ard from an Atlanta AIDS organization featuring multicolored condoms in the shape of the Olympic rings, she was shocked. ""I didn't know they came in different colors," she told her daughter. To which Shindle replied, ""Mom, they come in different flavor s." At last, here's a Miss America who isn't content to be plain vanilla.

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