The white limo door opens like an oyster shell, and there, nestled in the leather 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 dawn snuffled over the Sheraton Columbia, where you'll be staying the next few weeks, or the man-packed SUVs that have been circling the hotel at absurdly slow speeds, or the heaping fruit baskets, balloons and overburdened luggage carts that have streamed in throughout this March 25 morning.

But Miss Virginia - 26-year-old Jennifer Anne Pitts of Richmond - is the first of the 51 Miss USA 2005 hopefuls to arrive, to stride up the snake's tongue 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't exactly 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 the Navy, he does a little tracking of his own - of beauty pageants, that is.

Beauty queens are, after all, intriguing beings, wrinkle-free but deeply carved with dimples, slender bodies topped by masses of hair into which cell phones and designer sunglasses mysteriously disappear.

They are curiously the same. They come from different backgrounds, of course - there's a granite importer and an aspiring career soldier this year - and all corners of the country, but a disproportionate number favor thin white pantsuits and Louis Vuitton handbags with their rhinestone-lined pageant sashes. Everyone says the same lines - they're all living their dreams, and modeling on the side.

And everyone's looking forward to seeing what Baltimore has to offer in these nearly three weeks before the pageant, a time packed with publicity appearances and pre-production filming across the state in advance of tonight'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 make them 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 the questions. "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 in a death grip.

Goosebumps and rubber grass are suddenly sexy when the contestants are around, as nine are on a recent cold morning at the M&T Bank stadium, shooting some scenes on the fake turf with a few grinning Ravens.

In short-shorts, the contestants flounce through agility drills, hurl footballs and scrimmage with players, including quarterback Kyle Boller, who looks only slightly miffed when Miss Nebraska USA intercepts one of his passes and surges for a touchdown, trailing a comet's tail of curls. The other Ravens roar: What a woman!

Afterward, though, Miss Florida frets like a little girl as she regards her knees, which she skinned badly during the game.