Ocean City -- A year ago, Rhonda Schaffer, running low on cash at the beach, talked her boyfriend into letting her enter a bikini contest.
To her surprise, Ms. Schaffer placed second, winning $150. Figuring it was worth a second try, she entered another contest.
She won again. First place. $500.
And so began what has become a part-time career for Ms. Schaffer, who owns a consignment shop in Fells Point -- opened, she says, with money she won from contests last summer.
Like several other young women, the 22-year-old Ms. Schaffer has become a regular on the bikini circuit in Ocean City and Baltimore (including Hammerjacks and Christopher's).
"Some girls can do it for a living," Ms. Schaffer says. "I do it for
the extra cash. I don't always win but I usually place. I feel %J fortunate. I've won my share."
Ms. Schaffer estimates she won $5,000 last summer. She collected $1,000 this past Memorial Day weekend, placing in contests from Ocean City to Dover, Del.
"There's a regular circuit of girls who make real good money," says Robert Rosenblit, owner of the Paddock Night Club, which sponsors contests twice weekly. "Some can make $1,000 a week for a little bit of work."
Susan Sturla could be among them.
Each week, the 25-year-old makes the three-hour trek from Westminster to Ocean City to compete in contests like those sponsored by the Paddock.
"I'm a road warrior," Ms. Sturla says, noting she also travels to Dover and Pennsylvania. "For the summer, this is my income."
Ms. Sturla, a business administration and communications graduate from Villa Julie College, left her sales job with a diet and nutrition company to make the rounds this summer. She declines to discuss her overall winnings.
But last week, Ms. Sturla, petite and blond, won first place and $250 cash in the Paddock's "Hot Body Bikini Contest."
A few weeks before, she won $200 in the nightclub's homemade bikini contest. Her homemade bikini was an exotic drink, made of test tubes, straws, napkins and umbrellas.
"These are just regular girls with dynamite bodies," says Kevin Kollegger, sometimes judge and a local body-building promoter. Some of them are making $15,000 to $20,000 a summer."
Although male body builders abound along the beach, there are few, if any, who compete in such contests, organizers say. And many businesses don't include men in their competitions; the Paddock sponsors only women's bikini contests. The Princess Royale Hotel's "Original Hot Body Competition" last month included men but the contestants appeared to be hotel guests and beachgoers, says Andrea Moore, the hotel's marketing director.
Mr. Kollegger says men may be more inclined to enter body-building contests -- for the love of the sport and not money. Those contests award only trophies.
"There may be some men," says Stevie Prettyman, general manager of KHI radio station, a sponsor of contests. "I just don't know of any."
But for women, for whom competing can mean cash, what does it take to be a winner?
Sometimes it takes cosmetic surgery. "I know of four women whose breasts are investments," says Mr. Kollegger.
Ms. Schaffer says she had plastic surgery on her nose for personal reasons -- not because of the contests. "For some reason" she says, the contests "give them incentive to enhance themselves for reasons personal or otherwise." She says breast augmentation is the most common plastic surgery sought by the women.
And often a great deal of additional preparation is required. When Ms. Sturla's not competing in bikini contests, she's working out or tanning -- all part of the job.
"They're real pros," Ms. Moore says. "They wear spiked heels. They wear the hottest bathing suits. Their makeup and hair are done just right."
They also attract loyal followings, contest organizers say. Judges base their decisions partially on audience reaction. Poise and personality also play a factor.
Sponsors say they rely on the regulars to attract the crowds.
"We strive to have the most beautiful girls show up," Mr. Rosenblit says. "We don't want to leave the contest up to chance. We contact them. We work very hard to get the girls here."
Mr. Rosenblit says sponsors don't want to have to cancel a show because not enough women enter a contest. The regulars, he says, don't stop other women from participating. Usually, a handful will compete, he says.
"It's just fun," Ms. Schaffer says. "I know a lot of the girls and we just go out and party for a couple of hours and make some money. A lot of people think it's sleazy but the contests in Ocean City are very clean."