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Charm School

I've never really needed anything like this, it's just I had those three babies . . . you sputter by way of explanation.

"I know, it's okay," he murmurs softly.

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

The dresses are fitted through the bodice with a short twirly skirt. The women have three styles to choose from, and he rarely has to help much with the choice because "they know what works best for them," he says.

But unlike the contestants, your best-dress instincts are informed by a gathering sense of panic. Rather than "what works best," you feel guided by "which skimpy dress will you potentially spill out of least." In which one can you possibly step a toe out of the bathroom?

Next, he searches through dozens of boxes of red satin shoes. Your heels, a half-size smaller than you normally wear, are so high you feel like you're trying to walk en pointe. This is appropriate because, before you leave, Susie Dicker, the talent development manager who has been milling through the dress racks, instructs you on posing pretty. Her T-stand approximates third position in ballet. You can barely even stand up straight. In fact, you would feel sexier in clown feet. You teeter inelegantly to the next beauty station.

On the way, you pass the building crew guys in your new glamour girl get-up, and uncharacteristically, you can't even make eye contact. The red dress comes with red-dress expectations, and you are just a pretender. Perhaps it will be different after makeup and hair.

Linda Rondinella, a makeup artist who works with Hollywood stars, immediately goes to work. Most of the contestants come with their foundation and base colors already done. They sit in Rondinella's chair for touch-ups, or extra sparkles. You're wearing no makeup at all, and on a daily basis find ChapStick to be a perfectly serviceable cosmetic.

Rondinella's skilled hands give your face bones you didn't know you had, and in the intimacy of her chair she engages you in relaxed, reassuring tones. This is good, because you're starting to feel like a drag queen. You stifle your fear and concentrate instead on the energy of the people around you. The room is filled with beauty professionals, edgy folks in black pants and gelled hair. As a team of three stylists brush you and curl you, they whisper words to make you feel pretty. You're Miss Desperate Housewife, you quip to them.

Miss-Sterious, Miss Diagnosed, offers hairstylist Brian Fontenot, who adds reassuringly: "I tell people I've got more to offer at 36 than I did at 26."

A Miss USA contestant wanders in to get hair extensions. "I'd say 75 percent of the girls wear extensions for length and texture," says hairstylist Albert Luiz. He calls for silk therapy and 2 1/2-inch hot curling irons.

"Remember, one shoulder exposed for softness," Luiz instructs, brushing your hair away from your face. The judges are seated below the contestants onstage, he says, and that helps lengthen your neck, "makes it look more swanlike."

The two of you are bonding.

Sitting in that chair, trading intimacies and insider secrets with your beauty team, you start to enjoy yourself, and that makes you feel pretty.

But then it is time to go. That good feeling dissipates again, and you realize now, in the makeup and hair, you feel even worse, like a woman who has badly overplayed her hand. Your confidence slips into the ether. Most of it came from your connection with the people who got you ready and cheered you on. And when that connection isn't there, a red, beauty-queen dress and borrowed high heels aren't nearly enough to bring it back.

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