The mostly male crowd at Samantha's Nite Club jockeyed for position near the dance floor, each guy trying to determine the best vantage point for viewing Tuesday's main attraction, the bikini contest. Eric Reynolds and Mark Nugent, Baltimoreans working in Ocean City this summer, staked out front-row seats along the railing that rings the club's dance floor.
"We just wanted to do something different tonight," said Mr. Nugent, 21, who said this was the first bikini contest he'd attended.
According to Don Marino, manager of Samantha's, beautiful women in skimpy swimsuits bring customers like Mr. Nugent and Mr. Reynolds to nightclubs. And it looks like, despite recent legislative interference, the bikini contests will continue to do just that.
The Worcester County Liquor Board ruled in June that thong bikinis -- the stringiest string bikinis, which bare the wearer's buttocks -- are no longer allowed in places that sell alcohol.
Though Ocean City code says revealing swimsuits aren't
allowed anywhere in town after 5 p.m., police spokesman Sgt. Jay Hancock says that, as far as he knows, no one's ever been arrested here for wearing a thong. The new ruling, he says, seems aimed directly at the nightclubs' bikini contests.
"Some of the girls had gotten really awful this year," admits Jessie Wolfe, assistant manager of Tiffany's nightclub, which holds bikini contests for women on Sundays and for men on Mondays. "Some of their outfits were simply suspenders connected to a G-string or thong bottom."
Ms. Wolfe says Tiffany's now has male and female contestants sign waivers before the contests confirming that they understand the liquor board's new limits, which she says have not kept customers or contestants away.
Anna Castellani, an employee at the Paddock nightclub, says the ruling doesn't seem to have affected the twice-weekly contests there, either.
"Actually, I like it better," she says. "It was getting to the point where some of the entries were really disgusting."
The Tuesday night crowd at Samantha's registered no reaction when they heard about the ruling from Michael "Batman" Beatty, the dean of local party DJs and veteran emcee of at least 150 bikini contests.
"Actually, that [the ruling] is going to make the normal guy off the street more comfortable," Mr. Beatty said later. "Every guy's fantasy is the girl you could take home to Mom. It's usually the blond, soft, innocent-looking girls who are popular in these [contests]."
While the guys waiting at Samantha's bar were checking the angles and finding good seats, the contestants primped backstage, worrying about other angles and seats. In the club's ladies-room-turned-dressing-room, they adjusted the strings on their tiny, neon-colored swimsuits, fretted about pre-menstrual bloating and rubbed their tan bodies with oil.
"It makes you look tanner and shows off your, um . . . features better," explained Kimberly Staggs, a 26-year-old Baltimore hairdresser and model who says that she's entered at least 75 contests since she started on the bikini circuit a year ago. Though she says she doesn't mind the no-thongs rule, she feels it's helped some of her competitors.
"It's hurt me because I'm in good shape and so I looked pretty good in them," she says. "Now some girls who don't have good rear ends can cover that up." The aspiring actress, who estimates that she's won 80 percent of the contests she's entered, says the leanness of her body and her long blond hair have been hergreatest advantages.
"I like your hair straight like that," agreed Susan Watson, 24, as the two sprayed and teased their puffy locks before the contest at Samantha's Tuesday. "Really. I think it makes you look more mature and sexier."
Ms. Watson, who lives in Ocean City, says she has been in about 60 contests. Like Ms. Staggs and most of the other contestants, she is lean, blond and well-endowed.
"The contestants will be judged on their poise and personality," Mike Beatty announced later as the contest got under way. "Also, on how their hooters look in a bikini," he added in a comic stage whisper.
The music cranked up and, one at a time, the girls strutted their stuff. When introduced, the women wear over-sized T-shirts. To the beat of the disco music and the catcalls of the crowd, they dance and strip off the shirts, each with a signature style: Some rip the shirt, some slither out of it. The audience goes wild.
Mark Nugent and Eric Reynolds cheered loudest for the women from their hometown, leaning over the rail to exchange high-fives with one contestant from Towson State University. As the judges, six male customers picked by Mr. Marino, retired to deliberate, the friends chose their own favorites.
"No. 5," said Mr. Reynolds confidently, pointing to the contest's only brunette contestant. "She's got the best body."
"Nah, No. 1," disagreed Mr. Nugent, chugging his beer. "To me, she's the most attractive."
A few minutes later, Mr. Beatty announced the winners. Mr. Nugent's pick, Rhonda Schaffer of Baltimore, finished second in the judges' balloting, a good showing for someone with fewer than half a dozen previous contests to her credit -- and short hair.
But for the top spot, experience won out. First place, including a $250 cash prize, went to Kimberly Staggs.
Ms. Staggs won't say how much she's earned from the contests, although she admits that she made $800 with three first places and a second just this week in Ocean City. Mike Beatty estimates that regulars on the bikini contest circuit can take home as much as $1,500 a week.
"Look, it's not brain surgery," he laughs. "It's a show and they're beautiful girls. $250 for a half-hour's work? That's not bad."