BALTIMORE, April 11 -- By the time the field had narrowed to two finalists at the Miss USA pageant here Monday night, the contestants already had plenty of reasons to be tense: a dropped scarf, a slight stumble during the swimsuit competition. Miss California Brittany Hogan and Miss North Carolina Chelsea Cooley stood onstage, locked in an embrace, hugging and whispering and nodding affirmations, as co-host Billy Bush of NBC's "Access Hollywood" tried to draw out the suspense a little longer.
After a few moments of filler talk about how life-changing it would all be for the winner, Bush finally read her name:
Chelsea Cooley has reason to smile about after winning Miss USA 2005.
(Chris Gardner -- AP)
_____From The Post_____
Charm School (The Washington Post, Apr 11, 2005)
Chelsea Cooley of Charlotte, N.C.
Then came the hug, the laughter, the Miss USA wave.
Beauty, drama and high corporate stakes converged in the 54th annual Miss USA Pageant at the Hippodrome Theatre. In a live broadcast on NBC, with television executives and middle America watching to see if pageant girls still have the legs to walk off with prime-time ratings, the contestants put their best three-inch heels forward.
But the 21-year-old Cooley's elegance in a black evening dress and fresh-faced enthusiasm over the University of North Carolina basketball team -- itself crowned national champions two weeks earlier -- won the judges over. She twirled into the crown and: a rent-free stint in a luxury New York apartment, a personal appearance wardrobe, living expenses, a pearl tiara, a shot at becoming Miss Universe next month, and much much much more, as the audience was informed while the five finalists waited for their names to be called.
For a pageant that's all about the rituals of ultra-femininity, this one had some decidedly hard-edged considerations.
Waning interest and the proliferation of sexy video and reality shows have drawn television viewers away from the Miss USA and Miss America programs in record numbers. The 84-year-old Miss America Pageant scored its lowest ratings ever last fall and ABC has decided to drop the telecast this September. But NBC, co-owner with Donald Trump of the Miss Universe Organization, was betting the more glam-and-bare-it Miss USA can still generate enough sizzle to maintain a foothold in new millennium popular culture.
Outside before the show, in long lines full of nervous energy, audience members came in a sustained parade of really beautiful attempts, if not all-out classic loveliness. Some women wore dresses that plunged to there, or were cut to here, or were breathtakingly tight. And some people in dresses weren't even women.
Melissa Morton, a writer, and friend Cynthia Snow, a lawyer, came only from Northern Virginia, but they've taken in Miss America and Miss USA pageants, and even a couple of dress rehearsals, all over the country.
"There's not enough elegance in the world, or opportunities to dress up," lamented Morton.
The pageant judges, who based their decisions on evening gown and swimsuit competitions and a final onstage question, included actress and model Molly Sims, model Nicola Breytenbach and fashion designer Pamela Dennis. In a nod to The Donald's marriage to NBC, Raj Bhakta, the most on-the-make "Apprentice" from the Trump reality show's second season, also turned his practiced eye to the stage.
Judge Sugar Ray Leonard, the former boxing champ and star of NBC's "The Contender," said he was looking for "natural beauty and confidence. You know it right away when they step out there," he said.
Hard to tell what Baltimore Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was looking for.