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As judge, Hood sees different side of pageant

Miss Mississippi Pageant judge Orley Hood, columnist for The Clarion-Ledger, waves to the crowd gathered for the preliminary competition Thursday night at the Vicksburg Convention Center. Looking on in background are hosts Michael Young and Miss Mississippi 2000 Christy May.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[06/26/03]Vicksburg native and longtime Clarion-Ledger columnist, reporter and editor Orley Hood remembers being about 8 or 9 and listening to the radio in his Indiana Avenue living room when Mary Ann Mobley was crowned Miss Mississippi in 1958.

This week, Hood has a front-row seat at the 46th state pageant in Vicksburg, and he has a say-so in who wins the coveted crown for the coming year and might, like Mobley, go on to become Miss America.

Hood is a 1966 graduate of H.V. Cooper High School, and his columns in the state’s largest newspaper have, at times, poked fun at the pageant. But there’s been a conversion. After being surrounded by 39 contestants as one of five pageant judges, Hood, 54, said his opinion has changed.

“I’m sold on the girls,” he said. “There are tremendous human beings who are participating in this. They are spectacular in every way.”

Hood said he’s discovered that the pageant is more serious and more competitive than he thought. “It does take a lot of work,” he said. And the intensity of the interviews was another eye-opener for Hood.

“The interviews may be the most important part of the whole exercise, and people don’t see it,” he said. “It’s an important process that requires everybody’s full attention.”

Personal interviews make up 40 percent of a contestant’s total score, while the on-stage interview counts for 10 percent. Interview scores, while not made public, count as much as talent, swimsuit and evening wear combined.

Michael Jones, executive secretary for the Miss Mississippi Corporation, said pageant officials didn’t invite Hood just to change his attitude. “We get names of different people we feel would qualify as judges and who are well-rounded people,” Jones said of the committee that ultimately chooses the five-member panel.

And Hood said he’s enjoyed hanging around with the other judges, too.

The other judges are Vernon DeSear of Florida, who has judged more than 45 Miss America preliminaries; Terry Ewert, a former executive producer of CBS Sports who lives in New Jersey; Joyce Bolden, professor emeritus and chairman of the department of fine arts at Alcorn State University; and Michelle Evans Hensley of Jackson, Tenn., who has volunteered with the Miss Tennessee pageant. They’re all volunteers, all trying to follow in the footsteps of previous judging panels that chose Mobley, Linda Lee Mead, Susan Akin and Cheryl Prewitt state winners who later received the national crown.

Hood, a first-time judge, said he would absolutely be willing to do it again, although Miss America regulations limit how often a judge may return.

Hood said he is taking his role in stride and having a blast in his hometown.

“There is so much here,” he said. “The depth of history here is so spectacular, I’ve always wondered if the people of Vicksburg realized just how lucky they are to live in a place textured with history.”

Hood said though he lives as close as Jackson, he still misses home tremendously.

“It’s my favorite place,” he said.