ATLANTIC CITY - At the Miss America Pageant, it's always about the shoes. And about what all those former beauty queens are up to these days.
So on Tuesday morning, it was announced that the actress and singer Vanessa Williams - who resigned as Miss America 1984 for violating a moral turpitude clause in her contract with the organization - would return to the pageant this year as the head judge.
The pageant, which will crown Miss America 2016, will be televised live from Boardwalk Hall at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC.
Williams - who was the first African American Miss America and has gone on to a successful career as an entertainer - gave up the crown after Penthouse published nude photographs taken a year earlier as part of a modeling photo shoot.
By Tuesday afternoon, however, pageant officials were refocusing interest in the scholarship competition back on what may be the more wholesome image of the entire spectacle - one that stands squarely on bugle beads, tiaras, and high heels - by unveiling some of the fanciful footwear this year's contestants will be wearing during the "Show Us Your Shoes Parade" on the Boardwalk on Saturday night.
At the news conference at Boardwalk Hall on Tuesday afternoon - a few hours before the first night of preliminary pageant competition was about to get underway - officials didn't take questions from reporters and wouldn't talk about Williams.
When the grainy-looking photos of Williams were published in 1984, the scandal sent shock waves through the pageant world and created turmoil within the organization. Some within the pageant system encouraged her to fight to keep her crown, while others wanted her to resign. After giving up her crown midway through her reign, Williams was immediately replaced by runner-up Suzette Charles of Mays Landing, who had been Miss New Jersey that year.
In an interview on Good Morning America on Tuesday, Williams said the episode is one of the "problems" she's had to deal with throughout her career, "not only being a Miss America, but being a scandalous Miss America."
The announcement of Williams' return to the pageant was made by the Miss America Organization, Dick Clark Production, and ABC.
"Her return as a huge success is a way for us all to move forward and put the past behind us. It's truly an honor to welcome her back to the Miss America Pageant," said Sam Haskell, executive chairman and CEO of the Miss America Organization, who noted in a statement that the return had been in the works for years but that Williams' schedule had not permitted it until now.
Saturday's lavish parade on the Boardwalk is a run-up to Sunday night's competition and attracts tens of thousands of people - more than actually attend the pageant, according to Josh Randle, chief operating officer of the Miss America Organization.
"There's a certain exuberance to it, a special flair, because it's such a community event," said Randle, noting that crowd estimates for past parades have ranged from 80,000 to 100,000 people.
The custom of the contestants' showing off their shoes began decades ago, when it was discovered that some of the contestants - who wanted to soothe their too-much-time-in-high-heels aching feet - opted to wear flip-flops or sneakers with their bedazzled evening gowns as they were being driven along the Boardwalk in convertibles. The cheering crowds would beckon the young women with a chant of "show us your shoes" - and many would oblige by lifting their feet. Over time, the contestants started having fun with the concept and began elaborately decorating their pumps, sandals, stilettos - even sneakers - often reflecting a theme, motto, or team from their respective states.
Some of the more unusually crafted shoes on display on Tuesday from the state-title holders included Miss Montana's green dinosaur stilettos, Miss Alabama's monarch butterfly-adorned pumps, and Miss Idaho's bejeweled potato-laden pumps. Miss New Jersey's shoes gave a nod to Atlantic City history with casino dice and a Monopoly-money design.
"I think that the shoes have become so special in the parade because everyone can relate to them. . . . Who doesn't love a great pair of shoes?" said Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev after taking a quick look at the array of shoes for the parade.
At the news conference Tuesday afternoon, Randle noted that Miss New Jersey 1971, Lynn H. Weidner, is now chairwoman of the board of the Miss America Organization - the first such honor to be bestowed on a former state-title holder.
"We really have more participation now in the Miss America organization from former contestants and titleholders than ever before," Randle said.