They came with an array of curling irons, rainbow selections of eye shadow, leg makeup, face makeup, swimsuits and gowns to, as the emcee put it, "place their hearts and souls on the line to become Miss Prince George's County Fair."
"Heeeere's Contestant Number 1, Stephanie Golliday," boomed emcee Danny Bayne, a local car dealer, as a blond girl in a yellow taffeta gown with a large number 1 attached to the waist sashayed across the pageant stage Thursday night.
"Stephanie is 21, a senior at the University of Maryland, majoring in English. She wants to eventually practice maritime law. Her hobbies include golfing and fishing. She enjoys Mexican foods, burritos and tacooooos," he said, drawing out the last syllable to drown out the whistles from the appreciative audience and the screams of the people on the carnival rides a few yards away.
"And now contestant Number 2, Sheri Norton . . . Sheri attends Prince George's Community College and works for the FBI. She enjoys cheerleading, dancing and singinggggg. Her favorite foods are spaghetti and lasagna."
And so it went until all 10 contestants had their chance to walk across the Equestrian Center stage--twice in evening gowns and once in swimsuits--and be judged not only on their physical attributes, but also their "poise and personality" as they answered rehearsed questions for the judges about their favorite food, hobbies and hopes and aspirations.
The winner would reign through Sunday night as queen of the county fair, which for the first time in 14 years is being held in Upper Marlboro, seat of the county government.
The prizes: a chance to compete in the Miss Maryland USA pageant later this year; $150 in cash; a $100 savings bond, a $100 gift certificate from a clothing store, dinner for two at a Ramada Inn restaurant, two tickets to a Bullets game, two tickets to a Capitals game, a free six-month membership to the Spa Lady health club and a dozen roses, presented by two deejays from WKIX, a country and western radio station.
But for most of the girls, it wasn't the lure of the prizes or pageantry that seemed to matter most.
"I don't think anyone would be here if they didn't love Prince George's County," said Carolyn Boone, 18, contestant Number 9, from Greenbelt.
"It's where I grew up. I've got a lot of friends here. I was never short of things to do growing up. There were always kids my age." Boone is currently Miss Prince George's County Fire Prevention Queen and is a former Miss Greenbelt. Her family has lived in the county for two generations, she said.
For many of the contestants, pageants have become a kind of hobby, like tennis or chess. Kim Johnson, 20, of Bowie, said she entered her first competition when she was 5.
"My mother used to be a professional dancer and a model in Las Vegas. This is kind of a mother-daughter thing, a way for her to feel back into it."
Johnson, a former Miss Labor Day, Miss Springtime and Miss Autumn, says she won about 200 trophies by the time she was 13. But being crowned Teen Miss United States, she says, was "the greatest achievement of my life."
As for winning, Pamela Webster, 20, of Forestville, a former Redskinette, echoed the sentiments of the other contestants: "I guess it's important to the degree that everyone wants to win. If you win, fine. If you don't, you still enjoy the competition and meeting new people."
Although the winner will represent the county in a state-wide competition, it could not truly be said that the contestants reflected the whole county. Although 37 percent of the county's residents are black, none of the contestants was. Only two live inside the Beltway, the most populous area of the county.
The pageant's organizers say no blacks filled out applications for the contest. But Roy Dabney, a former County Council member and the only black judge at the pageant, said organizers probably would have gotten participation from blacks had they advertised the event at predominantly black schools.
Most of the contestants said notices about the competition were sent to their homes because they are well-known on the pageant circuit.
"Many young black women feel they'd stand a snowball's chance in you know where. They feel they would have to be exceptional to win and for many it's too much pressure," said Jerome Smallwood, a vice president of Suburban Trust, who is black and who has been a judge in local contests.
But Thursday night, all the attention was on the 10 who had entered. Would the new queen be Ann Michelle Petro, 19, of Upper Marlboro, whose family took up the first two rows in the audience and had given her a small stuffed doll to take along as good luck? Or Sheri Lucian, 18, of Hyattsville, a cosmetology student? Or Carla Kemp, 18, of Clinton, who had just returned from the Miss Teen USA competition in Florida? Or Dottie Finn, 23, of Accokeek, who wanted to use the prize money to study at Strayer Business College? Or Shelli Hawkins, 20, of Hyattsville, who is a dancer at Disney World.
"And the winner is . . . Carla Kemp."
"I'm really shocked," said the teary-eyed Kemp, who closed her eyes and smiled broadly (even more broadly than she smiled for the judges) when the winner was announced. Kemp, a psychology and dance major with a 3.8 average at the University of Maryland, was Miss Maryland Teen USA this year. She said she never thought she would win this one, even though, her mother Carolyn says, she already has a bedroom full of winning trophies from past pageants at her home.
"I'd rather be unpositive and win, than think positive and lose," she said.