Monday, Jan. 28, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- Blog: Live from Miss America (1-26-08)
Next to a red pickup truck in the parking lot at Planet Hollywood, a cluster of young women preen and groom and comb each other like My Little Pony, emitting clouds of hair spray. They’re headed for the finals of the Miss America 2008 pageant, and they’re late. So are hundreds of others.
It looks like everyone spent a few too many minutes in front of the mirror before leaving tonight — there’s a huge fragrant pileup of impatient, well-dressed people at the door, including quite a few “Little Miss Sunshine” types, wearing tiaras and clutching sashes in transparent Lucite cases.
Inside the crowded 7,000-seat Theatre for the Performing Arts it smells like a UFC title match for competing perfumes. Like 7,000 Vanity Fair magazines.
On this Saturday night, Miss America exudes an air of desperation. In an age of show-all and tell-all TV reality shows and runway competitions, the 87-year-old pageant is in a life-or-death struggle for eyeballs and relevance. This year, the competition’s third in Las Vegas, pageant planners decided they couldn’t beat ’em, so they joined ’em. The run-up to the coronation included the TLC cable channel’s five-episode “Miss America: Reality Check.” And the format is a rushed, relatively pomp-free reality-style series of eliminations, pumped up by a live DJ, who spins obnoxious, stripper-style beats.
At 5 p.m. the 52 contestants take the stage, sorted into four color-coded groups—one is for brown-eyed girls, another is for the “older girls.” Once culled, the contestants will take seats in a set bleachers onstage. Their parents sit on bleachers on the opposite side of the stage. (“Who are all those old people?” stage-whispers a teenager in the audience.)
Clad in bluejeans and camisole tops, each contestant shares a sound byte about her home state. At 5:10 p.m., Miss Nevada, Caleche Manos, introduces herself, Vegas-style: “When you come here, your money stays here, and we love you for that.”
A few minutes later Manos is out, as the field is abruptly mowed down from 52 to 15 semifinalists.
The final 15: Miss Michigan, Miss Iowa, Miss North Carolina, Miss California, Miss Indiana, Miss South Carolina, Miss Georgia, Miss Washington, Miss Arkansas, Miss Virginia, Miss Texas, Miss Wisconsin, Miss Florida, Miss Mississippi. In a new twist, the reality show audience got to vote, and elected to save Miss Utah — a military vet.
At 5:45 p.m. it’s time for the swimsuit parade, and there are some serious bikinis on this stage. Walking the stage with a “Next Top Model” strut, swing and hair-toss, most of the women are wearing black suits with neon or metallic trim. Some of these moves are missing only the stripper pole, but everyone ends their walk with the traditional demure Miss America foot position.
Miss Utah is the only one to walk in a one-piece suit (which still didn’t hide much).
Her gesture prompted one teenager in the audience to cheer out: “I vote for modesty.”
It’s 6 p.m. and the elimination process has started again. Out: Miss Tennessee, Miss Arkansas, Miss Florida, Miss Mississippi, and Miss Utah.
Miss Utah hits the floor and does a set of effortless push-ups. Several of the semifinalists drop and give her 10 in tribute.
The final 10 are all in little black dresses now. One of the eliminated contestants has the best quip of the night when she says “the butt glue is not a myth,” after one of the cheesy hosts asks her how she keeps her bikini from riding up in front of millions.
It’s 6:10, and I’m sitting next to a Wisconsin group that still has a girl in the race. There is lots of crying and loud praying.
The auditorium looks more like a caucus than the recent Las Vegas caucuses did, with state squads chanting and holding up colorful placards for their candidates.
Or maybe it looks more like a rally in a North Korean stadium.
Next up is the talent competition, and the audience gasps in dismay when it learns that two contestants will be eliminated before they get the chance to perform — more reality-style cruelty. Miss Michigan, decked out in a gown that looks like blue cotton candy, does a dress-fluffing twirl as she trills “Over the Rainbow.”
Miss California sings a credible aria from “Faust,” dressed, aptly enough, like an opera house in ivory.
Miss Indiana sings a karaoke-style song — in Spanish.
Miss Virginia, spinning in a cherry red candyflake tutu, performs the “Spanish Dance” from “The Nutcracker.”
Howls of disappointment from the crowd as Miss Iowa is eliminated at 6:30 p.m.
“Now you can join the others and have some carbohydrates,” snarks the show’s host, “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent Mark Steines, who should really know better, as he’s married to a former Miss America, Leanza Cornett, who won in 1993.
It sounds mean, but it’s true: The castoff contestants have been passing around a plate of pastries.
Back to the talent action: Miss Washington does her best “American Idol”-style rendition of “Angels” by Robbie Williams, including a stretched-out glory note and a sultry walk-and-stare toward the camera.
Huge relief next to me when Miss Wisconsin comes out playing the violin at 6:35 p.m. More praying and weeping as her family and friends, in four rows, go completely nuts. An on-screen inset informs us that the contestant has performed on stage with Kanye West. Her family and friends are praying, crying, just going completely nuts.
6:40: Take a seat in the stands, Miss Georgia.
Miss North Carolina does a ballet dance to a cheesily discofied “Four Seasons” by Vivaldi and finally, at 6:50 p.m., it’s question-and-answer time! This year, in yet another TV-pandering move, the questions were submitted by tourists visiting Las Vegas, and we watch them on screen as they ask some doozies:
• If you have HIV or an STD do you have obligation to tell your partner?
• What does it say about America when people can be famous for not doing anything?
• Should Britney’s pregnant little sister be fired from her TV show?
Miss Indiana fields that last one, and makes a plea for clemency.
Lindsay Lohan gets mentioned a lot. But no one got to talk about world peace.
At 6:57 p.m., incumbent Lauren Nelson has her final official act as Miss America, when she makes her last walk and wave with a rushed voice-over of all of her 2007 good deeds.
The fourth runner-up is … Miss North Carolina.
The third runner-up is … Miss Virginia.
The second runner-up is … Miss Washington.
The first runner-up is … Miss Indiana.
7 p.m.: And Miss America is … drumroll … Miss Michigan!
She walks with roses as the audience applauds.
I dash for the exit, maneuvering through clusters of regional pageant queens sporting tiaras and sashes, some of them wobbling on what are clearly brand-new high heels.
By 8 p.m. I’m home in my pajamas with a glass of sparkling wine, watching the pageant begin on TLC’s West Coast feed. It seems more suspenseful and dramatic on TV. It was like I had never even been there.