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Charm School

In Baltimore, a Pageant That's All About Looks

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page C01


As dance music blares overhead, 51 women -- Miss USA contestants from each state and the District of Columbia -- strut across the stage in Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater. It's an endless parade of legs topped in rose-print string bikinis. The sashaying is flirty, the beauty is dizzying, and as the contestants twirl in their stilettos, they pull their sarongs coyly around their backsides and play to the judges in a concentrated way.

But then we all play to the people who judge us.

Jennifer Pitts, Miss Virginia USA, during the evening gown portion of the preliminary competition. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

Staring from the audience during this preliminary swimsuit competition, you think: This is decidedly not the other pageant, the wholesome Miss America pageant you watched as a teen. These women are working it out.

The Miss USA pageant does not pretend that we haven't been irrevocably altered by music videos and girls-gone-wild reality shows. That this is not a competition about thick hair and thin thighs and that little space between your chest and your shoulders that David Profeta, the Miss USA assistant costume designer, says can get flabby making it so hard for some girls to get a good fit in their dresses.

The Miss USA contestants seem to understand what researchers know, that human beings are biologically programmed to covet certain female body parts as signifiers of health and fertility. That a woman in heels that accentuate the swell of her breasts and the curve of her behind can sometimes look like she's extending an invitation to life.

Come hither.

It takes something extra to walk across a brightly lit stage tracked by thousands of eyes. You wonder what that is. All are beautiful, but one will win, and what will her extra something be? Contestants often say it's inner beauty that matters most, but that always sounds trite and disingenuous. So you don't say that. You don't even think it.

You want a deeper understanding, so as the women get ready for the big night tonight, you get pageant personnel to dress you up and paint your face and put pin-curls in your hair. You're 10 years older than the competition allows. You've got three kids, half a dozen insecurities, and your greatest dream is sleep. Still, you have been known to rock your thing. So, in the pursuit of knowledge, you don beauty queen clothes, strap on three-inch heels and proceed to teeter toward enlightenment.

You are, Miss Desperate Housewife USA, in search of the secret to competitive loveliness.

Television executives will likely be watching the Miss USA pageant with special interest. With ratings down for years, to fewer than 10 million viewers in 2004, ABC will drop the Miss America telecast this fall, leaving the 84-year-old franchise scrambling to find a broadcast home for the first time in 50 years. That means networks will pay significant attention to Miss USA's ratings -- the show airs live on NBC at 9 p.m. -- to see if pageant girls still have the legs for prime time. Are they sexy enough to get the folks to tune in? Or in today's edgier culture, are they merely anachronistic fluff?

Miss USA, created in 1952 as a swimsuit company promotion, is perhaps better positioned to compete in a sex-saturated society. Its swimsuit competition is iconic and accounts for one-third of the overall score. The other components are an evening gown parade and untelevised interviews. And this year, before the preliminary competition, the public was encouraged to vote online to help determine the finalists. While Miss America features a "lifestyle and fitness in swimsuit" segment, it accounts for only 10 percent of the score, and casual and evening wear both count for 15 percent. But the talent competition and private interviews are worth 30 percent each. With no talent segment, the Miss USA pageant has always relied on the power of the poised female form to sway viewers.

This year, the contestants are staying at the Sheraton Columbia Hotel, which seems like a good place to start your Miss USA odyssey. With a few hours of downtime to meet up with their parents last Tuesday, the women enliven the lobby with concentrated doses of feminine mystique. They are much prettier in person than in their pictures on the Miss USA Web site. Perhaps it's the anticipation that animates their symmetrical features -- or maybe it's just that most people seem warmer standing next to their mom.

As a woman, it can be dicey to take in a room full of younger beauty contestants. You are working, so you can sit there admiring the clothes and hair and makeup, like a guilty pleasure; delighting, even, in the unaccustomed sensory engagement. After all, we are more enlightened and it's officially appropriate to value brains over beauty. What the pageant contestants, most of whom are college educated, will tell you is that having both is real nice but beauty stops traffic better.

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