Miss Hawaii Kanoelani Gibson, above, sang "Natural Woman" and won the talent competition at the 2003 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J., yesterday.

Miss Hawaii wins
talent contest in
1st-day competition

The Miss America pageant finals
will be staged on Saturday

Miss California Nicole Lamarche, right, won the swimsuit competition.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Performing and parading, the 51 women chasing the Miss America crown hit the stage for the first time yesterday, putting Hurricane Isabel worries aside to square off in the opening night of preliminary competition.

When it ended, Miss Hawaii Kanoelani Gibson and Miss California Nicole Lamarche were winners in the talent and swimsuit contests, respectively.

The televised Miss America pageant finals are set for Saturday. The contestants compete for three nights before that, though, and the scores are used to determine the 15 semi-finalists.

The show also is a kind of dress rehearsal for Saturday's telecast on ABC-TV.

The hurricane, which has whipped up surf along the Atlantic coast and has pageant officials nervously monitoring its progress, was on everyone's mind.

"In the last year, we've been through a war and a blackout, and we can get through a hurricane," said preliminary show host Debbye Turner, a former Miss America.

Gibson sang "Natural Woman" to win the talent portion of yesterday's show for a $4,000 scholarship. It is the same song she performed to win the Hawaii crown.

Gibson, 22, of Kapolei, is a University of Hawaii student studying for a degree in secondary education in mathematics.

Lamarche, 24, of Berkeley, Calif., a divinity student who aspires to be a parish minister, wore a two-piece white swimsuit to beat 16 other competitors for a $2,000 scholarship.

The show also included the first-ever casual wear competition, which pageant organizers added this year in an effort to help viewers relate better to the contestants. The women were asked to wear what they would for a night on the town or socializing.

All but four of the 17 who competed in that category yesterday wore blue jeans. One wore a dress.

Preliminary competition resumes today and concludes tomorrow.

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