"You gotta figure any pretty girl between the ages of 17 and 27 has been in one of my beauty pageants," says Sid Sussman, the local prince of pageants under whose watchful eye some 125,000 women have completed in twenty years, but he still complains he gets no respect in his hometown.
"I've delivered national winners but I either get knocked or ridiculed or hidden here in Washington," gripes Sussman. "In the south, the guy who runs the pageants is a big shot. Here, I never say what I do - I just say I'm in promotion."
Sussman, a 40-year-old bachelor, is gearing up for a new season - he'll conduct about 120 pageants around the country in 1978 - and while people still screech about the exploitation of women, Sussman's pageants have enjoyed a revival since the politicized dog days of the early '70s. His principal work is running the Miss U.S.A. pageants in Washington, Maryland, Virginia and Georgia (whose winners go to the Miss Universe contest) but Sussman has also coached three-year-olds (in Little Miss pageants) and women over 60 (in International Senior pageants).
As head of a one-man company called American Pageants, Sussman makes enough money to afford a Lincoln Continental and a dozen trips to Florida each year by collecting an entrance fee from contestants, some admission dollars at the gate, and some advertising revenue from programs. And recently pageants have become glamorous again to women who sometimes see the end of a pageant as the beginning of a new life.
"It's not unusual for my pretty girls to hang around with the heavies," says Sussman, whose former contestants include: sex scandal queens Elizabeth Ray and Colleen Gardner, sports broadcaster Warner Wolf's wife, baseball hero Johnny Bench's former wife, Sonny Bono's current fiancee, Melvin Belli's ex-wife, and New York models by the score.
Unlike the rival Miss America race, Sussman's Miss U.S.A. pageant has no talent requirement. "Most people, if they're scholarship or talent-oriented, don't really feel they have to take their clothes off for the swimsuit competition," sniffs Sussman." You don't see many Miss America's running around doing their 'talents,' yet it counts fifty per cent of their pageant.Miss Universe is based on every quality except talent - you don't have to stand on your head and play the piano."
Sussman is nonchalant about the stunning women who have passed through his life (he's seriously dated about six contestants after a pageant), but he nearly died a poetic death. While hosting a swimsuit competition at Miami's Fountainebleau Hotel two years ago, he fell to the floor with a heart attack.
"I dropped the mike and saw all those legs," says a slimmed-down Sussman softly. "And I thought I had died and gone to heaven."