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N.C.'s Cooley takes crown

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Front foot at 3 o'clock, back foot at 12. Shoulders back, chest out, hipsunder. Smile! Fifty-one beauties struck the classic pageant pose when Miss USA2005 aired live on NBC last night from the Hippodrome and Miss North CarolinaUSA, Chelsea Cooley, a 21-year-old from Charlotte, was crowned.

And in the background, the city of Baltimore - and the state of Maryland -didn't look so bad either, particularly to tourism officials who estimated the12 or so minutes of pre-filmed footage of the contestants traipsing about wasworth about $4 million in national publicity.

"The city just bloomed," said John Fairbank, both a proud native (ofBaltimore) and a proud father (of Miss Hawaii). "This Miss USA pageant ishelping Baltimore tell its story. This place went to the dogs, but now it'sback."

The two-hour broadcast began with the contestants variously draped over thecannons of Fort McHenry, lounging at the Inner Harbor in front of the HardRock Cafe and otherwise decorating familiar local landmarks. The camera zoomedin on the city's shapely skyline, not quite as often as it sought out theladies' silhouettes, but often enough.

There were shots of the local museums (the Walters, the Museum of Industry,Great Blacks in Wax), Camden Yards and the Ravens stadium, the Edgar Allan PoeHouse, Bo Brooks Restaurant in Canton and the Washington Monument.

The pageant footage also included scenes from all corners of Maryland. Thebelles leaned against the columns of historic buildings in Annapolis as thoughthey were shoulders of handsome boyfriends. Flanked by surfboards, they smiledon the beaches of Ocean City and power-walked down the boardwalk there. Theyshopped in Arundel Mills.

All of which tended to draw enthusiastic responses from the visitingbeauties. "I love Baltimore!" the women screamed on screen, in unison.

Inside the theater, people were screaming, too. For all the silk sashes andtrailing dress trains, the atmosphere was reminiscent of an Orioles game, withmore homemade signs than a picket line and more displays of partisanship thana Senate hearing.

"This is unbelievable," said Marilyn Pick, a Baltimore fitness expert whomanaged to snag a balcony seat to the sold-out show. "Baltimore! This is,like, national."

The historic Hippodrome, itself the recent recipient of a $64 millionmakeover, also played up its assets, thanks in part to extra lighting thepageant team installed in the theater in order to emphasize architecturaldetails, such as the ornate plasterwork of the archway that frames the stage.

Nestled in the theater's depths were such celebs as supermodel Molly Sims,The Contender co-host Sugar Ray Leonard and Raj Bhakta, from The Apprentice 2,all of whom sat on the judges panel.

Also serving on the bench was 19-year-old Towson native Michael Phelps, theOlympic swimming sensation.

"I'm pumped," Phelps, in formal attire rather than his usual swimwear,said.

Donald Trump - that's right, the billionaire with the hair - was also inthe house. A co-owner of the pageant, he seemed impressed with the city'spretty features.

"Last year it was in L.A.," he said. "We chose Baltimore because it's agreat progressive city."

He was seated next to Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich, who had anotherDonald - Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - at her other elbow.

Also filling out the first row were Trump's new bride, Melania, MayorMartin O'Malley and his wife, Katie, and 1st Mariner chief Ed Hale.

The lovely spring weather impressed at least one judge, Frederic Fekkai -hairstylist to the likes of Ashley Judd and Renee Zell-weger. After greetingthe contestants with a week of rain upon their arrival a little less thanthree weeks ago, Baltimore at last smiled down with baby blue skies.

"You can see the sun in the sky here," he said. "It's so much cleaner thanNew York."

The state's representative, Miss Maryland, Marina Harrison, made it throughtwo cuts, getting eliminated when the final five were named, but at least herhometown stayed in the forefront.

The locals were also looking good as they swanned up to the theater'sentrance, proceeding under the watchful eyes of police on foot, in cars, onhorseback and on bicycles. You almost got the feeling this was a popularshift.

Looking on also was Barbara Chapman of Glen Burnie, who had come into thecity simply to observe the pageantry unfold.

"I think we're pulling this off," said Chapman. "This is similar to anopening night in New York. All the pomp and circumstance, and everyone smellsdelicious."

At the beginning of the show, hostess Nancy O'Dell asked the crowd:

"Is it possible for a city to handle this much charm and beauty in oneplace?"

By the end of the night, the answer appeared to be yes.

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