Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Human Interest

Miss Florida pageant crowns the wrong winner

In a cross between Miss Congeniality and "Dewey Defeats Truman," the Miss Florida pageant has a real oops moment on its hands.

The pageant announced Friday that someone miscounted the beans and crowned the wrong woman, forcing officials to dethrone the winner named last week in St. Petersburg.

After holding the title of Miss Florida for just six days, Elizabeth Fechtel of Leesburg has been replaced by first runnerup Victoria Cowen of Panama City. Cowen gets to advance to the Miss America pageant Sept. 14 in Atlantic City.

"Elizabeth has changed her life all around in these last five or six days," said her father, Vince Fechtel Jr.

Fechtel, 20, had withdrawn from the University of Florida to compete for Miss America, her father said. At school, she was a student senator and a recruitment chairwoman for her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi.

Fechtel comes from a well-connected family with ties to the Tampa Bay area. Her father is a former legislator who served in the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate in the 1970s and '80s. He was good friends and fishing buddies with the late Bill McBride, who, he said, was Fechtel's godfather. He said they had shared the news about the Miss Florida mix-up with McBride's wife, Alex Sink, on Friday. Fechtel's brother owns the Fechtel Co., a high-end home builder based in Lutz.

During the days of competition leading up to the June 21 crowning, Cowen and Fechtel, aka Miss University of Florida, had battled it out in preliminary rounds, both taking honors for swimsuit modeling and dancing. By the end of the week, Fechtel had claimed top honors, taking a victory lap down the stage at the Mahaffey Theater.

She began her media tour — talking to hometown newspapers and TV stations, writing a glowing thank-you note on her Facebook page, calling the win "life changing." On Friday afternoon, she was still pictured on the pageant's Facebook page, standing amid her competitors, beaming in a black mesh and sequined gown and, of course, the crown.

But it couldn't last. Pageant officials came to Fechtel's home and delivered the news Thursday evening.

"Just like me and her mother, she was extremely upset, for a lot of different reasons," Vince Fechtel said. "We were very concerned that it be clear that Elizabeth did nothing wrong, absolutely nothing, and she had spent all this time working. We were very distraught."

After getting the news, the family prayed and Fechtel called Cowen to congratulate her. The two women are friends who have spent time together in the pageant world. Scholarship money that Fechtel won, which her family said was in the thousands, will now go to Cowen.

The family says it was told that one of the judges changed his mind while scoring first and second place on the night of the pageant and that "in the last 15 seconds of the time allotted to vote, that he drew lines to reverse his first vote," mother Dixie Fechtel wrote in an email.

By Friday, word was getting out that Fechtel wasn't the actual winner. Reached by phone Friday afternoon, the pageant's president and executive director, Mary E. Sullivan, directed attention to a news release.

The statement cited an "error in the tabulation process." An independent review and audit of the scores confirmed that Cowen actually had the highest score.

The statement called the situation "highly unfortunate" but said the move was necessary to protect the integrity of the organization.

The Fechtel family says it doesn't bear any ill will toward the Miss Florida pageant and believes everything it has been told. The family wishes Fechtel had been told sooner, but said the auditors needed time to confirm the outcome.

Fechtel was studying political science, entrepreneurship and mass communications at UF. She likes underwater photography and has worked as a student reporter at the school TV station.

"She's a very capable, all-around accomplished young lady," Vince Fechtel said. "I mean, she's my daughter, and I've got to say, I'm just astonished. … Don't worry about Elizabeth. She'll do quite well."

On her website, she lists favorite quotes. Among them:

Be stubborn about your goals, yet flexible about your methods.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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