Even as Donald Trump hovers like an overbearing fairy godmother around the newly crowned Miss USA 2005, who was spirited away yesterday to one of his New York lairs, the competition's spell has already begun to dissolve. Not only are the 50 other contenders likely disappointed, but so - in light of ratings released yesterday - are NBC executives.
Enter the mouse-drawn pumpkin.
The two-hour pageant, broadcast live from Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre on Monday night, attracted about 8.1 million viewers, compared with 13 million last year, NBC said yesterday. That number approached the pageant's 7.6 million low in 2002, which caused CBS to drop the show.
None of this is good news for the 54-year-old pageant, which was under particular scrutiny this year in the wake of ABC's decision last fall to drop its coverage of the older and better-known Miss America competition.
Tom Bierbaum, vice president of ratings and program information for NBC Entertainment, blamed a variety of factors, including the weather, which he said has been particularly nice recently, perhaps tempting viewers away from their televisions. CBS's new episode of CSI Miami, which captured an audience of about 20 million Monday night, also likely had something to do with it, he said, as did falling ratings for NBC's Fear Factor, the reality show that aired immediately before the pageant.
In Baltimore, though, Miss USA was a big hit, coming in as the second-most-watched prime-time program (the first was CSI: Miami). The pageant snagged about 14 percent of households, a 71 percent increase over last year.
Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich was in the Hippodrome audience Monday night. She sat next to The Donald, the pageant's co-owner, who openly discussed "who he thought was doing well, shall we say" despite the presence of his new missus, who had no problem dishing about the contestants either, Ehrlich said. Early on, Melania Trump correctly picked Miss North Carolina, Chelsea Cooley of Charlotte, N.C., as the winner.
But, in addition to the beautiful women, Ehrlich also stared at the images of her home state on the television monitors.
In about 12 minutes of video footage shot in Baltimore and elsewhere, Maryland may have emerged as the night's true winner, she said.
"I thought it was a great night, great for Maryland and the city," she said. "It will highlight Maryland for people who wouldn't have thought of it before."
The 51 contestants certainly left their mark on the Sheraton Columbia, the hotel where the women have been staying for the past three weeks, and where the beauty queens were yesterday morning gathering up dresses and dozens and dozens of shoes.
The aftermath of their visit "takes room cleaning to a whole new level," said general manager John O'Sullivan, who is allocating in some cases two or three hours to clean the contestants' rooms, compared with half an hour for the average guest. The women stayed longer than the standard customer, he said, and in many cases made bigger messes, leaving behind a litter of dying roses and cards from well-wishers.
With the exception of Cooley, who will go on to compete in the Bangkok, Thailand-based Miss Universe pageant next month and enjoy a year of publicity appearances, modeling opportunities and prizes including an SUV and a crystal chandelier, most of the women are returning to ordinary life. After a morning fire alarm - during which a panicked Cooley salvaged her new tiara and sash - the beauties departed peacefully yesterday "in a blaze of tears and good wishes to everybody," O'Sullivan said.
They were a little high maintenance, sure, but he's going to miss them.
"I would have done this without pay," he said.
He sounded as sad as a jilted prince, left by a Cinderella who - alas - packed every last one of her slippers.