Correction to This Article
An Aug. 8 Style article about the Miss Black USA pageant identified singer Ruben Studdard as an "American Idol" finalist. He won the TV series's 2003 competition.

Looking Beautiful, and to the Future

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Her first act as Miss Black USA was to simply take off her shoes.

Throughout the evening, the women jumped from silk to spandex to silk, going from pushups to walk-walk-point-turn poses, parading on and offstage at the Warner Theatre last night when they weren't waiting for the crew to detangle the snags of a TV taping. After the third hour, it's the shoes that get you.

But there she is: Celi Marie Dean of Minnesota, the new Miss Black USA, getting hugs offstage from each of the 23 women who competed with her in the pageant.

"I can't wait to take off the shoes because they hurt," said Dean, a junior at the University of Minnesota, as her fellow contestants wiped tears from her eyes. She looked at them and smiled. "You're all making me cry."

Three hours before showtime, backstage was like a D.C. street map brought to life in sequins and glitter, during rush hour. There went Massachusetts, loping by Rhode Island, who was preening past New Hampshire, everyone spinning in frenzied circles. And traffic was heavy.

"I need a strobe light that will blind the audience!" yelled a stagehand from out in the house.

"There's food in the greenroom. Who wants chicken?" said someone down the hall.

Miss Black Texas was by a vending machine, steaming her orange evening gown. Miss Black Kentucky was in the lobby on her cell phone, talking to a hometown TV station. Miss Black Virginia, Kristy Chance, was plunking out an Alicia Keys song on the piano in the wings.

"Feels good," she said, shaking out her fingers.

But look in the corner of Dressing Room 2, and you'd have seen Miss Black New York, Aquabah Gonney, just waking from a nap. She got only three hours of sleep Saturday night. Everyone was up late. After the talent round at George Washington University, the 24 competitors -- not every state has a competition -- rehearsed the opening dance number for last night's pageant in the lobby of the JW Marriott.

So with all the nerves and the sleep deprivation and everything else you think you know about beauty pageants, you'd expect the claws to be out.

"It's very friendly," New York said, still in T-shirt and do-rag. "I've been in pageants where women were literally like 'Ahhhrrowww.' " She growled like a cat and swiped her fingers in the air.

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