Quest for Miss USA crown heats up

Quest for the crown

A good night’s sleep is a luxury not afforded to beauty queens steeped in steamy competition.

Ever since the crop of slim-waisted, straight-teethed young women vying for this year’s Miss USA crown arrived in Baton Rouge about two weeks ago, leisure time has practically vanished from their lives. Referred to collectively as “the girls,” the 51 contestants in the past two weeks have played a charity pool volleyball game, sang karaoke downtown — also for charity — visited hospitalized children and toured historic landmarks such as the Old Governor’s Mansion and Nottoway Plantation and Resort.

They’ve even risked stretching a seam or two by indulging in Louisiana’s generally calorie-rich cuisine, attending a crawfish boil and slurping down raw oysters at Tony’s Seafood.

Fun and games aside, the daunting judgment period to declare this year’s winner officially began Wednesday night when the contestants paraded across the stage at the Baton Rouge River Center in curve-hugging swimsuits and sparkling dresses, garnering cheers from the throngs of supporters attending the Miss USA preliminary competition. Interviews — the third determining factor in the competition in addition to the swimsuit and evening gown walks — were conducted Thursday morning. And by the time the main event begins at 7 p.m. Sunday at the River Center, set for a three-hour telecast on NBC, the Top 20 will already be decided, set for announcement shortly after the main event begins, Miss USA representatives said.

For anyone not familiar with beauty pageants, the Miss USA Competition is completely separate from the Miss America Competition, in which the contestants must perform a talent, or “artistic expression,” in addition to submitting to topic-driven interviews and the staple swimsuit and evening gown walks. The winner of Miss USA goes on to compete in Miss Universe, while the winner of Miss America does not go on to further competition.

Exactly what it takes to be Miss USA depends on who you ask. But unquestionably, contestants, their parents and Miss USA spokespeople interviewed in the past week say it involves much more than good looks.

“She’s got to be business savvy, relatable and poised,” said Miss West Virginia USA, Charisse Haislop. The 24-year-old manager of a prescription insurance card company and part-time pilates instructor hails from Parkersburg, West Virginia, about a two-hour drive southwest of Morgantown, where she attended college at West Virginia University.

If she wins, some of her biggest fans have promised to do something recently outlawed in her home state and commonly reserved for wild college football wins.

“They’ve threatened to burn couches,” said Karla Haislop, Charisse’s mother, who arrived in Baton Rouge along with her husband and several others Sunday night after a long road trip.

The proud mother will be among 40 to 50 people cheering on Charisse on Sunday night. To Karla, the competition is definitely not all about the beauty.

“No matter how pretty you are, if you’re not confident out there, you’re not going win,” the mother said, adding that she believes the judging began about two weeks ago when the women arrived in Baton Rouge.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said.

Sharon Soltero, 48, herself a former Mrs. Nebraska and mother of the current Miss Nebraska USA, Amanda Soltero, said the competition for Miss USA 2014, at least for her daughter, began as soon as she was crowned Miss Nebraska USA in January.

“Much of this is a mental game,” Sharon Soltero said.

Her daughter, Amanda, 22, who in May graduated from the University of Nebraska, said she has been forced to give up some of her favorite foods in preparation for the competition. Among the sacrificed delights: Panera Bread’s macaroni and cheese and Taco Bell’s beefy five-layer burrito.

The smiley brunette said Miss USA is supposed to be “confidently beautiful,” but also approachable and relatable. During her reign as Miss Nebraska USA, she has used the power of the sash to help raise awareness for children with cancer, which falls into the category of social responsibility many involved in the pageant say winners must embrace.

To prepare for the often nerve-racking personality interviews, where the women are asked questions about themselves, some competitors hire coaches, while others simply practice with friends or family, contestants said.

Other competition training includes brutal physical workouts and, for many, lots of shopping.

So much shopping, in fact, that at least one mother-daughter pair have grown tired of it.

“Shopping is no longer our favorite,” said Michelle Olvera, 49, the mother of Miss North Carolina USA Olivia Olvera.

Seated beside her husband, Pete Olvera, a proud father with a “Pageant Dad” pendant pinned to his shirt Wednesday night, Michelle Olvera said her daughter brought 232 pounds of luggage for the two-week trip to Baton Rouge.

While that may seem outrageous to outsiders, other contestants reported similarly large loads, often numbering at least three large suitcases.

Haislop, Miss West Virginia USA, said she paid about $500 in extra luggage fees on the trip to Baton Rouge. Luckily for her, switching seats with a stranger earned her a $400 airline credit — meaning her departing trip won’t be nearly as costly.

If she were to win, the departing voyage would take her to New York City, where financial responsibilities would largely disappear for the next year.

The lucrative prize package includes a luxury apartment in the city for the year; an undisclosed salary plus funds for living expenses; gifts from sponsors — there are many; a one-year scholarship from the New York Film Academy; access to wardrobe stylists, makeup and hair artists and fitness trainers; numerous traveling engagements; assistance with creating a modeling portfolio; and finally, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that opens professional doors that would not otherwise be accessible,” said Jackie Shahinian, a Miss USA spokeswoman.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace. To follow additional coverage of the Miss USA Competition, visit The Advocate’s blog “Krewe de Crown,” at blogs.theadvocate.com/krewedecrown/.