Jun 29, 2012 12:58PM

Oyster #99: Miss USA

"I think people forget that pageant girls went off to do so many things — like the Doritos Girl."

Most little girls can only dream of being princesses, but after spending time with two Miss USA hopefuls, along with the current titleholder, I realised that the life of a princess can be a reality (well, at least in the bizarre world of beauty pageants). The glittering tiara has a surreal power over these women — though no one, from a PR representative to Miss USA herself, could convince me of its necessity or the benefits it has for a modern woman. 

I remember watching the Miss USA pageant on TV when I was younger and thinking, "I can't believe this is real!" The women strutting across the screen inspired in me the same levels of amazement and puzzlement I had for Donald Trump, the man who owns both the Miss USA pageant and its parent, the Miss Universe Organization. 

Much like everything else Trump is involved in, Miss USA is a flashy endeavour blissfully cloaked in artifice. It baffles those outside its reach, and society has no qualms mocking it without attempting to understand it on anything deeper than a surface level — although the Miss USA organisation doesn't exactly foster a reputation for being deep. In recent memory, two incidents spring to mind: Miss Teen South Carolina's bumbling response to an interview question in 2007 (YouTube it), and the 2011 pageant, in which only two of the 51 contestants said they thought evolution should be taught in schools. (Thankfully the contestant crowned Miss USA 2011, Alyssa Campanella, a self-proclaimed "science geek" from California, was one of the two delegates who did.) 

With this in mind, I was excited but sceptical about spending a night out with two current Miss USA state winners: Miss New York, Johanna Sambucini, and Miss Maine, Rani Williamson. I was invited to attend Rahm's Prom, a prom-themed gala hosted by sparkly-dress designer Randi Rahm, held in a hotel ballroom on Central Park South. Ticket sales benefited The Children's Storefront, a school in Harlem, and guests were encouraged to donate prom wear to an organisation called Operation Prom, which provides prom dresses and rental tuxedos to teenagers in need. The décor was all purple — and the goody bag contained a coupon for Botox.

Miss Maine arrives first, having left early from her job at Dotbox, a social media and e-commerce firm. Williamson has such an unassuming presence that I almost miss her in the hotel lobby. She's wearing jeans and a casual blazer with her blonde hair hanging loosely around her shoulders, but the non-stop buzz of her iPhone, along with her four tattoos (including a set of angel wings on her upper back), indicate there might be more than meets the eye. "My style is a bit more bohemian," she says succinctly. In two hours, however, Williamson transforms into a completely different person, with the help of stage make-up, a white gown trimmed with yellow flowers, and her Miss Maine crown.

It takes time to transition from everyday woman to pageant princess. At the event there's an army of hair and make-up professionals who work for hours, painting and primping the girls. "I love it!" shrieks Miss Maine (now a far cry from her "bohemian" former self). "Getting ready is one of my favourite things — when I'm not doing it. When someone is doing it to me!" 

In the middle of this frenzy Miss New York arrives, her make-up already done and a bag of hair extensions in tow. She plops into a chair wearing leggings and a sports bra, her six-pack abs barely creasing as she sits down. At 25 years old, Miss New York is a seasoned professional. She started competing at 19, not only on the Miss USA circuit but also in fitness and Latina pageants. She is represented as a model by Wilhelmina's fitness division and is also studying for a Masters degree in Business Administration at Wagner College in Staten Island. 

Clearly, both Miss New York and Miss Maine have very successful lives outside of pageantry. So, why compete in pageants at all? "I just really enjoy competing and performing," says Miss New York exaggeratedly. "Ever since I was young I loved being on stage, so then I was like, 'Why not try [pageants] out and see how it goes?'" Miss Maine echoes a similar sentiment. "I don't know. I was like, 'Well, what the heck? Why don't I just do it?'"

During the Prom event, Miss Maine and Miss New York constantly trade compliments and Instagram photos of themselves. The hair stylist, make-up artist and PR representatives fawn over their every move. When Miss Maine mentions to me that she was bullied growing up, the hair stylist shouts, "Look at her! She's beautiful! I'd want to make fun of her too!" It's seems there is a team of people always on hand to make life for the Miss USA contestants easier. Nancy Schuster, who manages the press for Miss Maine and Miss New York, explains her role: "I'm like their personal guidance counsellor… If they're stressed out … I'm like 'OK, relax. You know, no one is curing cancer. We're good.' … I find it rewarding … it's like my way of giving back."

When asked about the benefits of a pageant like Miss USA, the contestants are well-prepped to rattle off answers about self-esteem and confidence. "I think it's really important for women for personal growth. You really learn a lot from pageants — the experiences; friendships you make. I mean, I think it's a good thing," says Miss New York. Miss Maine is equally insightful. "I want to look back on my life and be like, 'That was such an awesome time! I got to do so many cool things.' … I love being a role model, but the glamorous side is fun too." 

"Role model" might be a stretch, but this is definitely a launching pad for modelling work. "It's just a really great platform. These girls are beautiful, and the next best thing for them to do is they want to be in front of a camera, so it gives them a good jump-off," says Schuster, a petite woman who spends the evening doing her hair and make-up beside the pageant queens she represents. "I think people forget that pageant girls went off to do so many things — like the Doritos Girl." Of course, there are Miss USA candidates that have gone on to be wildly successful — like Academy Award winner Halle Berry (Miss Ohio 1986) — but the success story that first springs to mind for Schuster is the Doritos Girl, Ali Landry (Miss USA 1996). 

This is truly another world, though. Like most women, I can think of millions of reasons why I wouldn't want to stand on stage in a bikini as a representative of women in my state or country. The swimsuit section is one of three categories in the Miss USA competition, the other two being evening wear and interview. From what I can gather, swimwear is everyone's favourite. "It's, like, a very empowering moment," says Miss Maine, smiling. "When you're walking in your bikini and you've worked so hard to get your body to where it's at, and people are in the crowd cheering you on… It's, like, a really good moment." 

It's the interview that proves to be the biggest challenge. "When it comes to the interviewing, you really need to know what's going on in the world," Miss New York states very seriously. "Honestly, I've been asked questions where I'm like, 'What? I've never even heard that in the news.' … You really have to listen to what the judges are saying. Think first, and then say your answer."

Two hours into Rahm's Prom, Miss Maine and Miss New York have left the ballroom of middle-aged guests and are sitting around a small table in a lounge barely able to accommodate their poufy dresses. They seem worn-out from being in pageant mode all night, and are now slouched in their chairs, texting their friends. Walking along Central Park South with Miss Maine earlier in the night was nearly impossible without being approached or gawked at by strangers. "We always joke, like, 'Just put on the crown and everyone will want to take a picture with you!' … But I never feel like a piece of meat or an item," Miss Maine says coolly. (Outside in Central Park she was propositioned by two men, both of whom she outright ignored.)

After a stream of endless emails I was able to arrange a short meeting with someone who's always in pageant mode — the current Miss USA, 22-year-old Alyssa Campanella of California (the one who does believe in evolution). We meet in midtown Manhattan at the Miss Universe Organization's headquarters. The walls of the office are painted rainbow colours and covered in giant posters of past Miss USA and Miss Universe winners. When I sit down with Miss USA, she explains to me why she believes pageants are necessary today. "It's a great way for [women] to express themselves and to show off who they are … It's great for when they want to be social or when they want to pursue a certain business career. It's great for people to finally see who they are, and not to be afraid of it." 

Campanella is tall and slender, and hopes to continue pursuing modelling, acting, and studying to be a host after her tenure as Miss USA ends this June. She has flaming red hair; green, cat-like eyes; and she gestures dramatically when she speaks. The woman whom she most admires is actress Emily Blunt, and she believes she was chosen as Miss USA (by a panel of judges that included rapper Lil Jon and Real Housewives of New Jersey star Caroline Manzo) because she best embodies the modern woman. "I'm feisty. I'm spunky. I like to show that gender doesn't matter. I just really like showing my personality. I think a lot of girls today seem a little too reserved, but the beauty with social media these days is you get to express yourself a bit more." Miss USA has 16 769 Twitter followers, and tweets about her day-to-day outfits and her favourite things to cook. She is an aspiring chef, whose favourite part of being the titleholder was travelling to Europe for the first time. 

What strikes me most about Miss USA contestants is that they have serious difficulty understanding — or even admitting to — any downsides of the pageant world. At one point in the night Miss Maine — easily the most down-to-earth of the bunch — whispers to me, "I've seen a lot of girls in pageants who make it their whole life, and it's not healthy. You've got to have your life, and then [the] stuff in it. You can't just have one thing be your life." But when there are hundreds of people constantly showering pageant contestants with compliments and helping them with everything from personal guidance to zipping up their evening dresses, it's easy to see how they could get swept up in pageantry and forget about the real world. Miss USA explains, "The support system that I've had from the Miss Universe Organization has been great. I mean, they're always looking out for me; they always make sure that I'm taken care of … If I ever need anything, they're right there." 

For just a moment, the constant support network does sound appealing — but it's a double-edged sword, as it's that very network which keeps Miss USA isolated from real women, and from reality. I was unable to interview Miss USA without sending through my questions beforehand so she could be prepped. When I ask her about the stereotypes she hopes to break down about pageants and women in general, she replies, "Yes, beauty pageants require beautifying yourself with hairspray and make-up, but it's a lot more to it … The type of stereotype that I would like to break as Miss USA is that I'm a real person and I have passions, I have interests. I'm smart, don't mess with me." But, of course, you can't mess with Miss USA without going through her PR first. Just like any princess, her castle is protected by a moat. 

Words: Steff Yotka
Photography: Benedict Brink