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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (Sept. 19) - Miss Alabama Deidre Downs, an aspiring medical student, won the Miss America contest on Saturday and said she would work to regain public respect for the event.


Downs, 24, was crowned Miss America 2005 after beating 51 other contestants from every state plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She defeated Miss Louisiana, Jennifer Dupont, in a final head-to-head talent competition.


Downs, from Birmingham, Alabama, pledged to use her year as Miss America to reestablish the competition as a major cultural event amid criticism that it is a outdated forum and has little relevance to modern women.


"I would like to be the Miss America that brings this organization back into the realm of popular culture," she said.


The Miss America Organization had paid for her to go to college and will now pay for medical school, she said, although she conceded her medical training may be deferred. She wins $50,000 in scholarship money.


"People don't realize all the positive aspects of this program," she said. "People don't see it as more than a pageant. It's a scholarship program and it's not afraid to be glamorous."


She also defended the scanty swimsuits that raised eyebrows in this year's competition, and said swimwear should remain a part of the event because it demonstrates a healthy lifestyle at a time when obesity has become an epidemic.


The Miss America Organization, a non-profit group, was criticized for the unusually revealing swimsuits contestants were required to wear as part of a two-year contract with the swimsuit manufacturer Speedo.


And in a bid to boost sagging TV ratings on the 50th anniversary of the first live telecast of the final, officials cut the talent portion of the show from five contestants to two.


The idea of a head-to-head talent competition between the last two contestants was intended to mimic popular "reality TV" shows, said Miss America Organization head Art McMaster.


"It's more of a reality-based thing to keep America watching," he said.


The field was narrowed at the start of the evening to 10 finalists: North Carolina, California, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kansas, New York, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas. After the casual wear and swimsuit competitions, Alabama, Louisiana, California, Arkansas and North Carolina remained.


A quiz on current affairs, counting for 5 percent of a contestant's score, was jointly won by California, Alabama and Arkansas. Only three of the five knew that U.S. presidential candidates need 270 electoral votes to win the general election.


The final talent competition, the first in the history of the event, matched a jazz dance routine by Dupont against a ballad sung by Downs.


Dupont, 23, wins $40,000 in scholarship money. The other runners up were Miss North Carolina, Kristin Elrod; Miss Arkansas, Lacy Fleming and Miss California, Veena Goel.

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