Four hours before the curtain is scheduled to rise on the opening night of the 2010 Miss South Carolina and Miss S.C. Teen pageants, the contestants — dressed in regular attire and not yet polished to their performance sheen — are shuffling through choreography for the show's opening number.
Though most of the girls arrived in Charleston the previous evening, the river of bodies strutting on the stage at an empty North Charleston Performing Arts Center already looks like something akin to a hyper-sexed marching band performance. But rest assured, none of these ladies would be mistaken for a third-chair clarinet.
There are towering blondes in sky-high stilettos and tanned brunettes wearing boots that claw at their thighs. There are raven-haired beauties, African-Americans, and even a redhead or two.
They are all gorgeous.
"Contestant No. 5 has two hobbies," says a singsong voice over the PA system as the rehearsal hums along. "Thank you, Contestant No. 5."
That voice belongs to Dr. Donald Campbell, the show's stage production coordinator and choreographer. Campbell works for RPM Productions, the company that produces the Miss USA pageants in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana, and he's responsible for making sure the show goes off as scripted. The way he scripted it.
"Contestant No. 6 has two hobbies," Campbell intones over the Bangles "Walk Like an Egyptian." (The show's theme is "Jewels of the Nile.")
Contestant No. 6 holds a pose too long at the opposite end of the stage.
"You should leave, No. 6," Campbell, who resembles a glammed-up Kurt Cobain, spouts pointedly into the mike.
No. 6 looks mortified.
She quickly moves along.
Of late, the pageant industry has been given the reality show treatment by the TLC network. Toddlers and Tiaras focuses on young children and the exploitive hysterics of their overbearing stage mothers, while King of the Crown follows Columbia-based pageant coach, Cy Frakes, as he guides older girls to titles.
Frakes, a vibrant 45-year-old who sports a salt-n-pepper faux hawk, has been involved with pageants for the past 23 years, and his sexy students have won more than 1,000 crowns in that time. At the Nov. 20-21 Miss South Carolina USA pageants, 28 of the 72 girls competing — more than two thirds of the combined fields — were Frakes' clients.
For his part, Frakes is pleased that the storylines on his show serve as something of a counterbalance to the sometimes freakish behavior exhibited on Toddlers and Tiaras. He hopes King of the Crown demonstrates that girls competing in pageants in their teens and 20s do so because it's something they genuinely enjoy and not as a result of being strong-armed by fame-hungry parents.
"This is the girls," Frakes says. "You still have parents pushing them, but, ultimately, when you have a 19- or 21-year-old, it's their decision. Momma and daddy can push and push, and you can be a 21-year-old with an overbearing mother, but at the end of the day, you're 21 and you make that decision."
The six-hour marathon choreography session comes to an end, and the girls are corralled backstage where bags of Chick-fil-A await them. It might seem like an odd choice just hours before they're going to fling themselves into the spotlight wearing the skimpiest of garments (swimsuit competition!), but a majority of the contestants take a sandwich.
"I'm most definitely getting one," says one teen who's sporting a handbag that not only has her name stitched on it, but is also displaying a large button filled with her headshot. "No diet. No diet."
Suddenly, a chaperone bursts into the dining area, frantically searching for hotel room keys. (The girls will have virtually no contact with their families during the weekend, and are placed in groups of 10 to 12 under the supervision of volunteer chaperones for the duration of their time in Charleston.) This particular overseer, a highly-strung lady with close-cropped silver hair, crosses the room and exits through a door on the opposite side. Moments later she reappears in the doorway where she first arrived. It's like something out of a Scooby Doo chase scene. At this point in the day, those assisting with the pageant seem more on edge than the girls who continue to contentedly chew on chicken.
The chaperone is finally handed her keys, and she shepherds her charges to the hotel. They'll be back in a couple of hours. In all of their glory.
The Miss South Carolina USA pageants are part of the Miss Universe Organization, which is owned by Donald Trump, a man not known as a purveyor of understatement or eschewer of gaudiness.
It's not surprising then that — even more so than other pageants — the Miss Universe family puts a special emphasis on physical appearance. There is no talent competition in the organization's events — which makes looking good the de facto talent.
"Miss USA and Miss Universe say that their product is beauty," says Paula Miles, the executive director of RPM Productions.
Miles has run the Miss South Carolina USA pageant for the past 30 years. She's the most successful and longest-serving state director in the Miss Universe Organization, and she's spoken about in reverential tones in the pageant world. Sitting in the presidential suite of a North Charleston hotel before the event's second night, she has no problem admitting that a large part of what makes a good pageant queen is physical beauty.
"The judges choose somebody who's going to turn your head," says Miles. "But (the girls) also have a way of working a room at such a young age. It's amazing"
Miles became involved with Miss Universe in the late '70s after her sister won Miss South Carolina USA. Her administration has produced three Miss USAs, one Miss Universe, two Miss Teen USAs (including Vanessa Minnillo) and one Miss World. On the pageant's second night, Miles is treated to a lengthy — if ill-executed — tribute, with several of her former queens returning to the stage to pay their respects.
The number of contestants in this year's show, however, has dropped by about 25 percent from recent competitions. But Miles is loath to blame the field's swoon on any outside influences, including the economy.
"Yes, (participation) is down substantially," she says. "I don't know if I have an answer for it. I don't like to blame things; it's probably something we can do."
And Miles plans on being around for the fix.
"I want to — more so than ever — give the opportunity for the girls to use this as a vehicle for their future," she says.
The pageant's first night is concluding. It's the rehearsal dipped in diamonds, and it's full of, well, pageantry.
The swimsuits are skimpy. The evening gowns shimmer and sparkle. The girls radiate.
Now the emcee is inciting the audience with talk of the following evening's crowning. He thanks everyone for coming and tells them they can speak to their contestants for 10 minutes.
The crowd surges forward. Moms with fading good looks, younger sisters beginning to bloom, bored-looking dads and boyfriends with stylish stubble, all push forward for a few seconds of face time. The girls love it. Their pageant smiles explode into the real thing. They are dazzling up close.
For some contestants and entourages, the 10 minutes is a brief moment to say hello and offer words of encouragement. For others, it's a chance to strategize. Brittany Price, a bombshell in a radiant white dress, is modeling a spin she'll use the following evening. Her mother, Loretta, approves. And what advice does she have for daughter during this reprieve?
"To work it like I taught her," Loretta says with a laugh.
The girls are summoned back stage. They're leaving for the after party. That will be all for tonight.
If the Miss USA pageant sounds familiar to South Carolinians, it probably has something to do with one of the more infamous YouTube clips of the past several years.
Caitlin Upton, the 2007 Miss South Carolina Teen USA, garnered national attention with a response she gave in the interview portion of the Miss Teen USA competition in Hollywood, Calif., that year.
One of the event's judges, actress Aimee Teegarden, posed this question to Upton: "Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?"
Her response was as incoherent as it was enrapturing.
"I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, people out there in our nation don't have maps," Upton said. "And, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future, for our children."
Upton was roundly denigrated, mocked, and lampooned on the internet and in the media. But a funny thing happened on the way to infamy. Upton, who was unavailable for an interview, turned her blunder into genuine success. She's been in a pair of national commercials, appeared in music videos, moved to Hollywood, signed with a modeling agency, and will appear on the upcoming season of The Amazing Race on CBS, which is set to premiere Feb. 14.
"Caitlin Upton is a very different breed of pageant contestant," said Frakes, who was Upton's pageant coach. "Obviously, she was 17 at the time. That situation had to be very hurtful for her, but she's one of those people that she learned a life lesson in that pageant situation, where you have to turn a negative into a positive. She had no choice. She had to make something great of it."
Part of her comeback was filmed in the first season of King of the Crown, when Upton returned to competition for the first time since her flop — with great success.
"She was able to be the comeback kid," Frakes said.
Looking like a beauty queen isn't easy. Or cheap.
Wardrobe costs run into the thousands. (Parents chuckle nervously when talking about gown prices.) Entry fees are steep. (It's about $1,000 for a spot in the Miss South Carolina USA pageants.) And that's before coaching, personal training, plastic surgery, and dental and travel expenses.
But the thinking among many of the girls is that they need the right equipment and training in order to compete at the highest levels. In many respects, the girls contend, it's no different than other high school students — and parents — trying to earn college scholarships through athletics, though as one mom pointed out, "Shoulder pads and helmets fit when you buy them."
While pageants, in their essence, are competitions, the must-win attitudes of Frakes — and other parents and coaches like him — irk some involved with the events. One chaperone referred to Frakes as a "diva," while another questioned how he manages to coach so many girls in one competition.
Frakes, however, doesn't shy away from the fact that he's in the business of producing winners. The girls, he says, put in the hours of hard work. They should want to be champions.
"They all know this is a competition," he says. "We didn't come here to bake cookies and make lemonade. We came here to win a pageant."
And, as one pageant official noted, "[The] girls gain a lot of self esteem from these pageants, but, at the end of the day, there's only one winner," she said. "They know that coming in."
Aside from a sash and crown, though, what do the girls get from the pageant experience? Isn't it almost a form of objectification? Isn't it just females trading on their looks? At the very least, isn't it an exercise in vanity?
Pageant proponents contend that the competition breeds confidence and self esteem. (To a person, nearly everyone interviewed for this story said confidence was the primary reward girls reaped from entering pageants.) They tout the opportunities afforded to champions. They even cite the cash and prizes.
To wit, the 2010 Miss South Carolina USA received a robust prize package that included a full four-year scholarship to Newberry College, $4,600 in gift certificates for pageant wardrobes and accessories, numerous casting opportunities, and $10,000 in dental work, among other things.
"Oh, gosh, being Miss South Carolina has opened up so many doors for me," said Stephanie Smith, the 2009 title holder who recently moved to Miami to start a facilities management job with one of Miss USA's sponsor companies. "I've been able to meet so many people, and had so many opportunities, both professionally and volunteer-wise. It's been an incredible experience."
And what of critics who decry pageants as paragons of superficiality?
"They could be right," Smith said. "But it's what you make of it. I could have sat back and said, 'Well, I'm Miss South Carolina.' But I went out and was able to work with a lot of charities, make a lot of appearances, and hopefully make things better for other people. That's something that RPM really prioritizes with their winners, and it's important to me, too."
In fact, while many of the girls at the Miss South Carolina USA pageants listed their interests as design or fashion, a large number also had their sights set on careers in science and medicine.
"We've had two self-proclaimed nerds win in the last two weeks," Miles said, before adding, "A lot of them don't even know what the prize package is. They just want this as a job. They set this as a goal for whatever platform they've chosen in life, and we give them the ability to do that."
Additionally, winners make myriad appearances throughout the year at events for charitable organizations such as the Special Olympics, as well the MUSC Children's Hospital and Camp Happy Days.
The feel-good, self-esteem angle takes something of a hit, though, when it comes to the countless girls who don't win. Being told you're not pretty enough, smart enough, or — basically — good enough isn't exactly tonic for the psyche.
For example, Sara McCall, a statuesque brunette, stood in the art center's lobby, shoulders slumped, after the pageant's conclusion.
"It's just the judges' opinions," a dejected McCall said. "It's not physical fitness or evening gown; it must have been the interview."
McCall, 22, from Surfside, competed in her first Miss South Carolina Teen USA pageant in 2003. She still harbors dreams of one day winning the crown.
"Four more years," she said choking up. "I just want to be Miss USA someday."
While the few fortunate winners receive crowns and adulation, scenes like McCall's are repeated scores of times in every pageant's aftermath.
This year, the Miss South Carolina USA pageants' literal and figurative crowning moments came at the end of their second night.
Rachel Law and Megan Pinckney were crowned Miss South Carolina USA and Miss South Carolina Teen USA, respectively, in storybook victory scenes. There was applause and tears and their names rang through the auditorium as flash bulbs popped and music played.
Pinckney's coronation was especially poignant and served as validation for those who claim pageants aren't just the domain of cookie-cutter airhead-types and, perhaps, some form of redemption for the pageant system itself.
Pinckney, who grew up in James Island and North Charleston, defies almost every pageant girl stereotype. She was one of just seven African-Americans in the field of 72. She was raised in a single-parent household by her mother, Sabrina, a counselor in the Charleston County school system. And she entered her first pageant just two years ago after a chance meeting with a local pageant director in a department store parking lot.
"I guess I made a new model of the beauty queen," Pinckney said. "Showing the judges you're a real person and not a perfect-cut 'pageant girl.'"
Pinckney and her mother were leaving the North Charleston Dillard's in 2007, when Laura Mills, who oversees the Miss Charleston and Miss North Charleston shows, ran them down outside the store and asked Pinckney if she had ever participated in pageants. Pinckney told Miles she had not, but it was something that she'd be interested in doing.
"She kind of chased us out of the store," Sabrina Pinckney said. "We kind of laugh about it today."
Two weeks later, Megan, who is now a freshman attending the University of South Carolina on a Legislative Incentive for Future Excellence scholarship, finished second runner-up in a local pageant, the first step on her unlikely journey to the state crown.
The money to fund pageant expenses wasn't easy to come by, however, and Megan and her mother leaned on family, friends, and each other.
"It was harder for us," Megan said. "We had to get lots of help from sponsors and family members, as opposed to my parents pulling money out of their pockets."
But once the door was opened, Sabrina said she had no doubt her daughter would succeed.
"I raised her to achieve her dreams," Sabrina said.
As for Megan Pinckney, she said that her story — in a line fit for a pageant — could serve as an example to younger girls in the future.
"They can accomplish their own goals," she said. "And it might not be in a pageant. But if you dedicate time and energy and you work, you'll get exactly what you want."
Spectators mingle in the art center's lobby after the crowning. Some of them are nearly as decked out as the contestants. Who are they putting on a show for, one wonders? A mother walks by, possibly a former beauty queen herself. Her small daughter is dressed immaculately in a black poofy dress. The girl is sporting a short bob. The mother strokes her hair and looks down admiringly. The child beams back. The tradition continues.