The white limo door opens like an oyster shell, and there, nestled in theleather of the back seat, is our pearl.
Miss Virginia USA slides out, stands up, straightens.
"Am I the first one?"
Yes, Virginia - if you don't count the bomb-sniffing dogs that before dawnsnuffled over the Sheraton Columbia, where you'll be staying the next fewweeks, or the man-packed SUVs that have been circling the hotel at absurdlyslow speeds, or the heaping fruit baskets, balloons and overburdened luggagecarts that have streamed in throughout this March 25 morning.
But Miss Virginia - 26-year-old Jennifer Anne Pitts of Richmond - is thefirst of the 51 Miss USA 2005 hopefuls to arrive, to stride up the snake'stongue of a red carpet.
The waiting press is electrified. A bona fide beauty queen!
"Don't worry, she's so sweet," Julius Tolentino says.
Julius Tolentino is Miss Virginia's personal photographer. Well, he doesn'texactly have the credentials to prove that, but he's in the press line, OK?When not working his day job developing submarine-stalking software for theNavy, he does a little tracking of his own - of beauty pageants, that is.
Beauty queens are, after all, intriguing beings, wrinkle-free but deeplycarved with dimples, slender bodies topped by masses of hair into which cellphones and designer sunglasses mysteriously disappear.
They are curiously the same. They come from different backgrounds, ofcourse - there's a granite importer and an aspiring career soldier this year -and all corners of the country, but a disproportionate number favor thin whitepantsuits and Louis Vuitton handbags with their rhinestone-lined pageantsashes. Everyone says the same lines - they're all living their dreams, andmodeling on the side.
And everyone's looking forward to seeing what Baltimore has to offer inthese nearly three weeks before the pageant, a time packed with publicityappearances and pre-production filming across the state in advance oftonight's live national telecast from the Hippodrome.
One of the first stops will be Ocean City.
"Ohh," Tolentino says with a commiserative shiver, "I hope they don't makethem frolic in their bathing suits."
And the ladies? we ask. What do they hope?
Their ears haven't popped from the plane yet, but they've memorized thequestions. "I just want to relax and have a good time," Miss Florida,24-year-old Melissa Witek, says with a radiant smile.
But on the ends of steeply sloped sandals, her little toes are clenched ina death grip.
Goosebumps and rubber grass are suddenly sexy when the contestants arearound, as nine are on a recent cold morning at the M&T Bank stadium, shootingsome scenes on the fake turf with a few grinning Ravens.
In short-shorts, the contestants flounce through agility drills, hurlfootballs and scrimmage with players, including quarterback Kyle Boller, wholooks only slightly miffed when Miss Nebraska USA intercepts one of his passesand surges for a touchdown, trailing a comet's tail of curls. The other Ravensroar: What a woman!
Afterward, though, Miss Florida frets like a little girl as she regards herknees, which she skinned badly during the game.
"I mean, I have a pageant to worry about," she says.
These are the most powerful and the frailest of creatures, and their effecton men is fascinating. They draw longing stares and derisive comments in equalmeasure, a reaction perhaps to the sashes stretched across their torsos,simultaneously advertising their beauty and the fact that it is up for debate.
At the Baltimore-Washington International Airport another day, the beautyqueens are scheduled to visit troops departing on a flight for the MiddleEast. Loud snorts are heard as this news spread up and down thecamouflage-clad line. Airman John Smith of Guam declares he'd rather have acare package full of beef jerky than a kiss from a beauty queen.
That doesn't appear to be the case a few minutes later when the womenmaterialize, as golden tan as though they'd just returned from desert toursthemselves. Suddenly, jewels of military intelligence spill forth from menwho'd icily refused to disclose their destinations to a reporter a few minutesearlier.
The troops hastily unwrap disposable cameras and jostle for pictures withthe women.
"Oh, sweet," says Staff Sgt. Byron Rauch of Omaha, Neb., posing with thereigning Miss USA, Shandi Finnessey, a blond giantess with at least 6 incheson him.
Standing off to one side frowning is Kila Williams, a 32-year-old sergeantfrom Orlando, Fla. Despite the fact that Miss Kansas flies into her arms asthough Williams is Rambo, the soldier feels a little out of place.
"This is a distraction to me," she says. "We should be concentrating on thewar."
Her comrades have already christened her Miss Army.
"It's like a false portrayal of womanhood, or something," she says.
Yet, to soldiers leaving for a world where lovely faces often hide behindveils, this was a form of American beauty they want to remember. Here is aglimpsed belly, there a wide grin. The closest thing to a burqa is MissArizona's poncho, made of purple rabbit's fur.
In front of mirrors, beauty queens are like Siamese fighting fish, provokedby their own reflections.
Miss California USA stares at her image in the glass of a trophy case at aClarksville high school, where the women have been practicing their danceroutines. She rushes toward herself, then retreats. Rush, retreat; rush,retreat. Her pony tail whips with each turn.
More fun than watching beauty queens is watching them watch themselves.
Every blemish is a crisis. Miss Florida's skinned knees - though widelyanalyzed - are not the only injury. In the course of traveling to all cornersof the state, and just by plain old living, contestants sustain various littlecuts and bruises, which they later try to hide with concealer makeup. MissAlabama burned her leg on a vaporizer in her hotel room, which she was usingto prepare her voice to sing the national anthem at Camden Yard, and has alarge bandage on her thigh. Even the women who remain intact are nervous at arecent dinner at Bo Brooks Restaurant in Canton. They are dreading what theycall The Preview, an untelevised part of the contest where they apparentlywalk past a panel of judges in a hotel room. At such close range, a stretchmark or the pucker of cellulite is as visible as a cattle brand.
"I mean, it's natural light," says Miss Maryland Marina Harrison, a24-year-old with a supermodel's figure. "You can't hide anything."
"And they're comparing you to the other girls," says Miss District ofColumbia, Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, 26. "You might think you look OK, but thenyou stand up next to them."
Pressure like this is perhaps why some manicured hands are clenched tightlybeneath the tables as servers unload heaping trays of barbeque chicken, crabcakes, salads slick with various dressings, and mounds of steamed crabs.Although some women bang away with their wooden crab mallets like gavel-happyjudges, others painstakingly scrape the sauce off their chicken with the backsof knives, or pick at platefuls of strawberries.
The women freely acknowledge their vanity, and, under certaincircumstances, even laugh about it. Dinner conversation includes a discussionof when lip gloss reaches the critical mass, the point after which itapparently overflows the boundaries of lip liner and threatens to flood thewhole face.
And also in jest - we hope - Miss Maryland and Miss Arizona challenge eachother to a speed lipstick-application contest at the table, staring coldlyinto each other's eyes, then scrambling for the makeup to swipe at theirmouths as quickly as possible.
Yet the tension is truly relieved only at one point in the evening, whenone woman happens to glance over her shoulder and notice that the sky abovethe harbor is on fire.
"Ohhh, the sunset!" she cries.
Heads turn. Briefly, the women ponder a beauty other than their own.
They have roly-poly fathers and sisters with crooked noses. Some of theirmothers wear white pantsuits the same size as their daughters', but others areplain, anxiously clasping and unclasping their hands and fussing with thepicture pins of their daughters that they wear over their hearts.
Along with family members, the pageant diaspora in front of the Hippodromeon a recent night for the pre-taped preliminary rounds includes rabid fans.Greg Collins, a Baltimore County special education teacher, typically justthrows a party at his house on big pageant nights, and whoever picks thewinner (frequently him) is awarded a sparkling crown.
But tonight he's here in person, in one of the front rows.
"This is a dream come true for me," he says, like a pageant pro.
Collins takes copious notes throughout the preliminary round, during whichthe contestants publicly display themselves for the first time and the top 15are selected, although they're not announced until tonight's show. Collins andthe panel of professional judges are looking for the tiniest overhang ofbelly, the slightest shiver of fat. When one women's outer thighs dimpleslightly as she walks across the stage, the crowd seems stunned, as thoughslapped.
The women appear in the alphabetical order of their states, in floweredbikinis and then evening gowns, a sequencing that feels unnatural, like seeingsomeone naked, then meeting her for the first time. Adding to the strangenessis the announcer's recitation of oddball facts - Miss Connecticut is amagician's assistant; Miss Idaho is some kind of Nigerian royalty; MissIllinois would like to meet Dr. Phil more than anyone in the world.
Mothers yelp encouragement as their daughters, chandelier earrings swaying,make their way across the stage in evening apparel. Most dresses recallsexed-up promwear, but a few are startlingly original. Miss Pennsylvania'sbare waist appears to be bound in golden chains. Miss Kansas -- "I love MissKansas," Collins murmurs nearby - sports a skirt made of peacock plumage, eachfeather with a vibrant blue eye.
When the competition is over, the audience files out into the lobby,swapping observations and predictions. Some moms look exhausted. They reassureeach other: This will all be over soon.
But maybe not. The age cut-off for the Miss USA pageant is 27, but in thelobby stand women wearing sashes with titles like "Mrs. East Coast Globe" and"Miss North American Galaxy," some of them in their 30s and 40s. Apparently,it's possible to capture pageant laurels forever. For some contestants onstage, perhaps there's no end in sight.
And when does it begin? That's hard to say, but the lobby also bustles withlittle girls wearing tiaras no bigger than teacups.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun