Miss New Jersey keeps her crown and gets a lesson about the Internet

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Amy Polumbo leaves a closed-door meeting in Ocean City yesterday, before learning she'd retain her Miss New Jersey status.

CALL IT another milepost in the decline of Western civilization as we know it, or call it enlightenment, but the bizarre matter of Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo, and those pictures on the Internet did prove one thing in the end.

The bar for titillation in America is a lot higher than it used to be.

And so here are what some now-public photos show of the Garden State beauty queen who did the limbo rock right under that elevated bar:

A man Polumbo identified as her boyfriend biting her breast through her shirt; Polumbo spread-eagle, but fully clad, smiling at the camera in a limo with two men she said were her best friends; a man she identified as a best friend palming her clothed breast; and Polumbo holding two baby pumpkins up to her clothed breasts in what she said was her "goofball" response to a friend's criticism that she was "flat-chested."

Yesterday, Polumbo released those images to a waiting world, and hours later heard the news that she and supporters had hoped for - that she will, as Miss New Jersey, compete in the next Miss America pageant.

"It's time to, like I said, resume my position as Miss New Jersey," the 22-year-old aspiring actress and singer from Howell Township told an appreciative crowd after Miss New Jersey pageant officials ruled she can retain her crown.

Since last week, the widely publicized case of Polumbo and the pictures from the online site Facebook - the subject of an apparent blackmail attempt - had begun to follow what looked like an increasingly familiar ritual, which in the past has caused some pageant winners to step down.

This time, though, there was a happy ending.

"This is 2007," said Lou Barthold, co-executive director of the Miss New Jersey Educational Foundation. "Things have definitely changed. We sat down as a group, we reviewed the pictures, looked them over, we discussed them. We felt some, maybe, were out of line; however, nothing was that bad to warrant us to take away the crown from Amy."

That said, the episode was also a reminder for a younger generation that tends to display little fear about publishing intimate words and images on the Web, that these things have a way of boomeranging back unexpectedly.

The point was especially poignant for Polumbo herself, since the issue that the future Miss America contestant has promoted is protecting children from online predators.

"Now I've learned to expand this message to not only young children but to adults as well, that nothing you post on the Internet is private even if it's in a privately accessed site," she said after yesterday's announcement.

"The Internet, being the information repository that it is, is a one-way street," said Christopher Faulkner, founder and chief executive of CI Host, a Dallas-based Web-hosting and online-storage-management firm. "The information goes in but it never comes out.

"There is no privacy on the Internet, and things you post online stay online somewhere, even if you think you've deleted it," he added. "So make sure, with every picture and every word you put on the Internet, that you won't be embarrassed when it comes up in five or 10 years."

For Polumbo, a student at Staten Island's Wagner College, that moment came less than a month after she was crowned Miss New Jersey in the annual pageant in Ocean City.

Someone identified as "The Committee to Save Miss America" sent the photos to her, her family and pageant officials, threatening to release them publicly if the beauty queen didn't surrender her title and tiara. The blackmailer reportedly vowed to send 24 more packets of naughty photos.

Polumbo's attorney, Anthony R. Caruso, said last week that he reported the blackmail scheme to federal authorities and the N.J. Attorney General's Office. A spokesman for the attorney general said office policy prohibits him from confirming whether the office is investigating.

The images, to which the blackmailer added provocative captions, all came from Polumbo's now-defunct Facebook page. She said she had posted them on a private section of her account on the photo-sharing site.

Yesterday, Polumbo - declaring that "I want to end this" - went on the offensive in a big way, releasing the pictures herself on NBC's highly rated "Today Show."

"They're not that bad - I'm a normal college girl," Polumbo, primly clad in a yellow cardigan and knee-length sheath, told host Matt Lauer of the photos.

In addition to the raciest ones, other photos showed her downing shots with friends. Polumbo insisted those images were recent and taken when she was old enough to drink legally.

And many images pictured things - like Polumbo posing in Halloween costumes, smooching a man or smiling beside a man who has his finger stuck up his nose - that only someone with a creative sense of scandal would find offensive.

"It's not in a ladylike manner," she said of the more provocative images. "But I'm not a robot. I am a human being. I'm also a theater major."

Later in the day, supporters cheered at the news that Polumbo had retained her crown and appeared with her parents, her sister Ashley Wagner, her lawyer, and even her 76-year-old grandmother.

"I rightfully deserved something and someone was trying to take that away from me, she said. "And no one deserves to have something that they worked for taken away from them." Polumbo added she had no idea who sent the pictures other than that it was "a very miserable person."

Ironically, pageant officials said the strange caper - and Polumbo's mature handling of it - may have made her a stronger contender for Miss America.

"We liked the way she addressed the situation," Barthold said. "She was given a choice and an option, she wanted to fight it. We're going to back her all the way."

Polumbo wasn't the only distraught beauty queen whose mascara was left running by the photo scandal.

Ronica Licciardello, Polumbo's runner-up, said she feels that she and other Miss New Jersey contestants have been living under a suffocating cloud of suspicion.

"It's really unfair," said Licciardello, a University of Pennsylvania engineering graduate from Mount Laurel who's pursuing a master's in communications at Drexel University. "Nobody would ever want to win a pageant like this." *