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. (Published 8/9/2005)

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.

Not here, apparently. They helpfully zipped one another's dresses, without trying to catch some skin. Ask the competitors to describe the atmosphere at the Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant -- even as it was spiraling toward showtime, even as they were learning choreography with curlers in their hair -- and they would all uniformly say "sisterhood." They were already talking about reunions, as soon as Maryland turns 21.

"I'm the baby, I'm always the baby," said the 19-year-old Miss Black Maryland and youngest delegate, Keia Brown, wearing a sea-foam green velvet jumpsuit, her pre-show lounging outfit. "They're waiting for me to turn 21 so we can go to Vegas."

It was an enthusiastic vibe, fitting for an event that is experiencing yet another resurrection. The pageant -- founded in 1986 to develop leadership among African American women -- has had a spotty history. In 1988, the first winner -- Miss Black Maryland, Tamiko Gibson -- claimed she was improperly dethroned and never received any promised prizes. Management of Miss Black USA has changed hands a number of times over the years, and there was no competition in 2002 or in 2004. And the 2003 pageant in Miami was marred by a financial "misunderstanding," according to the South Florida Business Journal.

But now, under new management, the foundation is "rebuilding" and "refocusing" and doing other "re-" things, and the dress rehearsal hummed with the excitement and anxiety of a first-year, never-before-seen-or-produced event. This year emphasized fitness and health, not just beauty and presentation. As for details about rebuilding the troubled event, well, "remember, we don't talk about the past," the current pageant's publicist said.

Each of Miss Black USA's 24 contestants had a "leadership platform" and a plan to change the world, and each was vying for a $5,000 scholarship. Each woman was also a different size and hue, to borrow from Celi Dean's spoken-word performance: "Mixed, mulatto, biracial, high yellow, two-tone, or am I just a Redbone? When I first stepped out, which one did you see? . . . I'm a black woman, beyond all stereotypes. I am a black woman, of unlimited possibilities."

Nevada said she wants to be an airborne linguist with the Air Force. Texas said that if she won she'd use the money to go to law school, while D.C., Tatiana Levone, hoped to pay off loans and study in France. Arizona is working on her PhD in epidemiology. Massachusetts, who is training to be a deputy sheriff and corrections officer, persuaded her superiors at the Middlesex County Sheriff's Department to let her take a week off for the pageant.

An hour and 15 minutes before showtime, the television cameras floated into position; the pageant is scheduled to air Sept. 3 on the Black Family Channel. Ruben Studdard, the "American Idol" finalist, was due for his sound check in mere minutes. The women got the choreography down and bolted from the stage to get ready.

Despite all the differences between Miss Black USA and other pageants, the competitors still had to answer those lame questions, which they practiced Saturday night during the preliminary round:

Miss Black North Carolina, if we were to ride in your car right now, what music would we listen to?


Miss Black Oklahoma, if you were to be stranded on an island, what three things would you take?

"Water, the Bible, a novel."

Miss Black Tennessee, if you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be?

"Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., my grandmother."

The show itself was stop-and-go as the producers and crew coped with the demands of the TV taping. Ruben Studdard cheered the restless crowd by performing three songs, and though it was helter-skelter backstage, the women got through it by leaning on -- and praying with -- one another.

And in the Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant, everyone's a winner, even the losers.

It's not about the crown on your head, but the crown in your heart -- a pageant mantra best explained by former Washington Wizard Laron Profit, who co-hosted the preliminary judging at GW Saturday night:

"What are you going to say if you like someone?" Profit quizzed the audience in deadpan baritone.

Everyone cheered.

"What are you going to say if you don't like someone?"

Everyone cheered.

Minnesota's Celi Dean, left, being congratulated by Miss Black D.C., Tatiana Levone.Tatiana Levone got false eyelashes before the show last night at the Warner Theatre. From the top: Miss Black D.C. Tatiana Levone checking her makeup; the Warner stage awash in silk as the 24 contestants parade; Virginia's Kristy Chance warms up on the piano; Levone and Arkansas' Katrina Steward doing their hair.