"I wanted them to ask, 'Why do you want to be Miss America?' . . . because I wanted to look right back at them and say, 'Because I am what you need. I am a career woman. I am the role model for the women today. I am not a beauty queen. I go to Stanford, and I have been to Oxford, and I plan to go to Harvard Law School. I have a real talent. I didn't make one up.' "
But if modesty is not Carlson's long suit, everything else about her was like a dream come true for Leonard C. Horn, the pageant's new executive director.
For weeks, Horn has been declaring that Miss America is no mere beauty pageant favoring leggy women, that the image of deferential and empty-headed Southern belles playing Barbie Doll is outdated, and that what the pageant wants in these times are dynamic, career-oriented and smart young women who are also attractive.
And early Sunday on the runway in Convention Hall, everyone could see that there she was, a would-be "very successful corporate executive," and, more important, a serious student with a 3.6 college grade average who was valedictorian at Anoka Senior High School in the Minneapolis suburb where her father is the local Chevrolet dealer.
Furthermore, she was crowned by another mold-breaker, hula-dancing registered nurse Kaye Lani Rae Rafko of Monroe, Mich., who used her year as Miss America to speak out for greater pay for nurses, more hospices and better care for AIDS patients.
When the live broadcast on NBC was extended more than 11 minutes because of a very human problem - the dozen celebrity judges had deadlocked on whether to make Miss Oklahoma or Miss California second runner-up - Rafko used some of the time to advocate her causes to millions of Americans.
(Miss Oklahoma came out ahead on the second ballot. Miss Alabama was fourth runner-up. Many pageant viewers believed that the tie was between Carlson and first runner-up Maya Walker, Miss Colorado.)
The television audience was apparently not the size that Horn had hoped would be drawn by extensive on-air promotion and changes in the broadcast that let the 10 finalists speak more.
The overnight ratings in 16 metropolitan centers indicated that 20.8 percent of households with television sets had tuned in, an increase over last year's 19.7 overnight ratings. When results arrive from the hinterlands, where Miss America is always more popular, final ratings for the 1988 pageant are expected to be about 21.5. Last year's national rating was 20.4.
High ratings are crucial to Horn's desire to charge sponsors more and increase scholarships. Miss America gets $30,000, a sum Horn wants raised to $50,000. Yesterday, Horn hinted that this year's pageant, on which spending increased significantly, might run in the red.
Horn also involved the gambling halls in the pageant. Saturday night, the guests in his box were Donald and Ivana Trump and Merv Griffin, who is trying to buy from Trump the firm that owns the Resorts International Casino Hotel.
The broadcast remains, despite the changes, a display of lean, poised feminine beauty, and Carlson fit right in - although she was at the low end of the curve that places the average Miss America at 5-foot-6. The Lutheran minister's granddaughter, who has honey-blond hair that she tints, is only 5- foot-3.
Carlson is the first Miss America in seven years who did not win her preliminary swimsuit competition. Indeed, although all three swimsuit winners in the preliminaries qualified among the top 10 finalists, none was among the runners-up. Two talent winners were, however: Carlson and Miss Oklahoma, Lori Lee Kelley.
Like most contestants, Carlson said she dieted rigorously, getting down to 108 pounds to appear svelte in her swimsuit. She said that as a teenager, she had weighed 20 pounds more - a "blimpo" who could not get a date.
Five years ago, however, the blimpo almost won the Miss Teen USA beauty pageant that she said her mother "forced" her to enter.
"I was first runner-up nationally, and it's always been in the back of my head, 'Why didn't I win the national pageant?' " Carlson said. "So for four years, I went out to Stanford, concentrated on my education and tried to become a more mature, sophisticated person, and I became ready to enter the (Miss America) program."
She credited her victory to new rules that give only 20 percent of the total points to how contestants look in a swimsuit and high heels, and 40 percent each to talent and to the evening-gown competition, during which contestants must ad-lib a response to a question.
Carlson said she would like to see an academic component added to the judging.
"When I was involved in the Miss Teen program, there was a category for academic achievement, and they judged you on your grade point average and they took into account how difficult the classes were that you were taking," she said. But Horn, in a subsequent interview, indicated such a change was unlikely.
Carlson said selection of a top student like her would be "just tremendous" for the pageant's image.
"One thing I want to do is go and recruit people from Ivy League colleges and reputable schools to know what kind of program this is. This is not just for someone who is beautiful, but for someone who is educated and talented," she said.
"I feel that a lot of times, the real intellectual people and young women of our communities feel that this is a beauty pageant, and I would like to convey the message that it is not.
"I just feel in the wake of all the protesting that's been going on since the Miss California Pageant - saying that the Miss America program is not a scholarship program - I just had the bright idea that maybe we should include a category for academic credibility."
Her reference was to Michelle Anderson, first runner-up in her state pageant to Miss California, Marlise Charleen Ricardos. Anderson said she entered the pageant to expose it as demeaning to women, and she flashed a scarf reading "Pageants Hurt All Women" before being hustled offstage.
Anderson said in an interview yesterday that picking Carlson demonstrated that pageant officials "are trying to respond" to criticism.
"She is really very talented. But I doubt this is an overall trend. And picking someone who is smart doesn't fundamentally change the fact that this is about women competing based on their looks and that they aren't going to get rid of the swimsuit competition."
Each year, Miss Americas get a few hours' sleep after being crowned, then get up Sunday morning to splash in the surf - the pageant began in 1921 as a public-relations stunt to extend the summer-resort season - and meet reporters. Carlson, who appeared in the morning wearing a pink knit dress with matching earrings and shoes, was made available for only 15 precisely timed minutes.
And although she said she had received almost no coaching on what to say, her answers to questions had become much more cautious than the ones she gave early yesterday.
Take plastic surgery, for example. Just after she was crowned, Carlson said of plastic surgery and contestants:
"I don't believe in it. I don't feel that they should be allowed to change their bodies. In fact, I don't do anything to alter my body, and I feel the most secure in that respect because when I go out onstage, I know it's all me. And, as I said (on) the preliminary evening-gown-competition night, what I believe in most is sincerity and genuine people."
But a few hours later, after what she acknowledged was a tiny amount of coaching by pageant officials, she said that plastic surgery was a matter for each contestant to decide, not something to be barred by rule.
That is almost exactly the position Horn had taken earlier: that it's wrong to get plastic surgery just to win the pageant, but it's all right if the intent is to make someone feel better about her appearance.
Likewise, Carlson had a boyfriend at the first press conference whom she characterized as her most motivating supporter. Later in the morning, he was reduced to being merely "a friend."