One morning last October, the newly crowned Miss America 2003 stood in front of the media at DC’s National Press Club wearing a brick-red suit with a small rhinestone crown pinned on its collar, her long, dark hair loose but carefully arranged. Erika Harold began to talk with considerable passion about her teen years in Illinois and the ridicule she faced because she’s multiracial. She was called a whore, she said. Her home was vandalized by bullies. Fellow ninth-graders even pooled money to buy a gun and kill her. Harold’s performance was commanding, even though she had just started traveling the country to advocate against teen violence. It was the official platform she had run on at the pageant and had already been endorsed by the CDC and WHO. Harold was poised to take the capital by story.

Suddenly the scene took a strange turn. George Archibald, a writer at the conservative Washington Times, asked the Harvard Law School– bound 22-year-old about her earlier work promoting teen sexual abstinence. Without missing a beat, Harold acknowledged that she had publicly advocated chastity until marriage and would continue to do so. When other reporters asked her what abstinence had to do with youth violence, Harold was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. She quickly acknowledged that the Miss America Organization had made its disapproval known. “I hope I’ll be able to share the many things I’m passionate about,” she concluded pointedly.

The officials over at Miss America were taken aback by the sudden buzz. “I applaud people with a strong belief,” Miss America head George Bauer said. “However, it was not the platform she competed on.” 

The conservative press had a field day. “Miss America Told to Zip It on Chastity Talk,” crowed the Washington Times, with Archibald reporting Harold’s bold sound bite, “I will not be bullied.” The right-wing Concerned Women for America announced: “In an age when beauty queens are regularly disqualified for inappropriate behavior, who would have thought a virtuous one would be silenced for her virtue?” Meanwhile, the pageant gossip-mill geared up, with insiders betting that Archibald’s Press Club question was set up to frame the situation as a First Amendment issue. By casting the Miss America Organization as censor, Harold deflected the heat she might take for her sudden morph into Miss Abstinence 2003.  

Now, I, too, have walked in Miss America’s strappy sandals, so I knew what Harold was going through—albeit from the other side of the HIV-prevention issue. During my 1998 reign, I lobbied hard for comprehensive sex ed—straight talk about both abstinence and condoms. I even supported needle exchange. As media coverage of Harold’s so-called muzzling snowballed, I realized, as I know Harold must, the nightmare it was for the Miss America officials. They like to promote visible, outspoken contestants (to counter the unfair “Barbie” perception), and they go to great lengths not to be viewed as puppeteering us. What’s more, they no doubt saw Harold’s apparent bait-and-switch as setting a dangerous precedent: A woman might win the title on a literacy platform and then use the spotlight to promote, say, Al Qaeda.

But controversy isn’t all Harold and I have in common. We both competed successfully in Atlantic City as Miss Illinois. We’re both Republican and religious. We’ve spent time together. And we both believe the media focus on Miss America should remain substantive and intelligent. But even more than that, I believe that abstinence-only sex ed is dangerous public-health policy. How could someone devoted to stopping youth violence advocate a prevention agenda certain to hurt some teens? I decided I had to talk to her.

I caught up with Harold in December, at a Dallas hotel. By this point, had run an unflattering investigative piece on her, reporting, for example, that prior to her win she had rounded up 11 other beauty queens and lobbied Congress for abstinence-only funding, and since her win had met with Bush administration advisors. She had also “made clear her political ambitions” to run for governor or senator, then U.S. president. The story asked if her platform switch had been planned. One critic said, “I think the judges should take her crown away for lying.”

So there we were, just two Miss Americas chatting. As Harold nursed a cold with sips of hot water and medicine, I decided to go in slowly. “You looked pretty thrilled when you won,” I said. “Were you surprised?”

“I was very surprised,” she said, “because I went there to do my best, but as we both know, your best may not give you the crown because you may not be what the judges are looking for that year. So I was shocked when I was the last person standing.”

“Last one standing is what you shoot for.”

“It’s a marathon.” We shared a laugh.

Then I asked her about the press-conference flap. “I’ve always been very straightforward about what I wanted my platform to be,” she said smoothly. “I simply wanted to make sure that there was no topic that was taboo if a school invited me to speak on it.”

But had she been straightforward? At least one of Harold’s Miss America judges doesn’t think so. “I never asked her about abstinence because it was never mentioned on her very, very wordy fact sheet,” says Jim Jones, an AIDS advocate. “She went out of her way to hide any information about abstinence.”

I asked Harold to elaborate on her chastity message. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund had recently called it “noticeably vague…completely unproven and intentionally misleading.” Sure enough, Harold was vague. “Abstinence is a choice that would be beneficial in protecting youth from physical and emotional consequences,”she said. “I also want to share that my personal commitment to abstinence helped me achieve many of my goals.”

I told Harold that I am opposed to any Miss America presenting herself as the role model, especially about sex. Just as I don’t volunteer my sexual preferences (especially when speaking as an AIDS activist), I never said publicly that during my own Miss America tenure, I was, like Harold, sexually uncharted territory. Yes, there were times when I wanted to tell kids I wasn’t just blowing smoke when I said “waiting”was a valid choice. And yes, I wanted to defend myself when right-wingers called me a whore for backing condoms. But I didn’t, because to do so makes kids feel judged—a sure way of losing them. Anyway, you don’t have to shoot heroin to see that needle exchanges save lives.

Harold agreed. “Yeah, I think kids can tell if you’re there to judge them in some way.”

“I think they can smell it,” I said.

“It’s condescending and it’s rude,” Harold said. “They come to be inspired and get some information, not to be judged.” But with almost her next, contradictory breath, she was labeling all teen sexual activity “a mistake.” “I saw so many peers’ lives destroyed by their decisions,” she said. “I’ve found that speaking about the emotional trauma it can cause resonates far more than the physical consequences.”

Hoping for clarification, I asked Harold about Project Reality, an Illinois organization she has long worked with. “They have a very positive message,” she said. “They don’t engage in a shame-based approach. They don’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’” (Later I visited Project Reality’s website, whose slogans scream: “I loved him. I let him. I lost him.” It also says condoms fail to prevent HIV infection 10 to 36 percent of the time, a stat Miss America frequently mentions. But the U.S. government says condoms have a 2 percent failure rate.)

“Erika,” I thought, “if you could get all teens to stop having sex, I’d applaud you. But you can’t. And frankly, your unwillingness to worry about kids who don’t heed your call to chastity worries me.” As I pressed her, Harold was still polite and articulate, but between her sniffles and her sips, she was getting flustered. Could she sum up her mission for me? “I would say my focus with abstinence is promoting the choice to young people,” she said.

Promoting choice? Really? In my book, choice means comprehensive education—condoms and all. Harold was hitting my core problem with the abstinence-only approach: It leaves all the kids who don’t “behave” out in the cold. “But Erika,”I began, “if a program teaches kids not to be sexually active but gives no information about condoms, what happens to those who choose to have sex? They go in blind with no information about protecting themselves from HIV and STDs. How is that ethical?”

“My ultimate goal is the protection of kids, not a particular agenda,” Harold said. But as for that lifesaving c-word, she said flatly it would be “irresponsible” for her to mention condoms to kids because “it’s a medical decision… for a medical practitioner.” In the end, what works for Erika Harold personally—and now, apparently, politically—is abstinence, and if it doesn’t work for another young person, they deserve the consequences. Like HIV!

“Erika Harold, you’re smarter than that!”I wanted to cry out as we said goodbye. “You have good intentions, a lawyerly intellect. When will you have the courage to consider the other side of the argument?”

But I said no such thing. Instead, as I fled the hotel, a fragment of that Salon story kept going through my mind: “Harold, perhaps the most famous virgin since Britney Spears, just might become president one day.” If that day ever comes, let’s hope she at least appoints an AIDS czar who knows the difference between science and politics.