Face Lift Pageant: The Miss Maryland competition is doing its best to erase the unflattering wrinkles left by last year's bit of nastiness.

June 29, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN — Competition should always be free of petty ego, vanity, greed and bad manners.

From "The Crowning Touch: Preparing for Beauty Pageant Competition" HAGERSTOWN -- Guards man the fifth-floor hospitality suite for the 22 contestants in the 1996 Miss Maryland Pageant. No parents, no press, no body is allowed in this sanctuary of the Venice Inn off Route 40. Pageant Week is special, and these women must not be bothered.

They are hiding something.

"Put it this way," says Ed Dorsey, a pageant board member. "We gave them Little Debbies." But that's not the whole truth. High-placed sources say the suite is packed with Ho-Hos, Doritos, potato chips, Pepsi and one, glossy, five-pound bag of M&M's -- nearly spent.

Somehow it's reassuring to picture a sweet, wholesome, woman popping M&Ms, while dreaming of being chosen tonight as the (( new Miss Maryland. Let nothing tarnish this moment. This is America, and what is more American, more universal, than a beauty pageant?

If memory serves, the Miss Maryland Pageant got ugly last year. Linda Yueh, Miss Laurel, was poised to win the rhinestone crown but instead was named runner-up. She claimed the contest was rigged and that board members told judges to lower her scores because they didn't believe she met the pageant's residency requirements.

Yueh sued the pageant. A judge in New Jersey upheld the contest results, but the fallout wasn't pretty. Four pageant board members retired in the wake of the lawsuit. And new pageant volunteers, such as Ed Dorsey, have the job of restoring shine to a 61-year-old Maryland tradition.

"We're good to go this week. Everyone is eligible," Dorsey says. "I guarantee it!"

If your swimsuit keeps "creeping up on you," a product called Firm Grip can be found. The worst mistake you can make is not completely covering your derriere.

Hours before the first night of preliminary competition, the first annual Miss Maryland Trade Show is under way in the lobby of the Venice Inn. On sale are Miss Maryland programs, bunnies, glassware, cookbooks, "Firm Grip" and CURVES, "the winning breast enhancer." As Elizabeth from New York wrote in Pageantry magazine: "I was skeptical at first, but the minute I tried CURVES on, it was like a dream come true."

Dorsey says this is a new beginning for the pageant. Just look at all the scholarships and goodies available, he says. All the contestants wind up with at least $250 in scholarship money, with tonight's winner getting $26,000. The new Miss Maryland will drive a green Camaro for a year. Two pages in the program are devoted to the prizes, which include something called the Rembrandt Award for Mentorship, the Waterford Crystal Scholarship and the "Show us Your Smile" Award, sponsored by the Potomac Dental Center.

Everything is sponsored -- from the limo ride for the judges to the contestants' free frolic at the McDonald's playland. The women were also treated to the Arch Deluxe, although "treated" might be a strong word.

At 6: 45 p.m., the contestants file out of the lobby in their curlers and into an Atlantic Coast Charters bus. Some pinky wave to camcording parents. "I remember when you were this high," a police officer says to a grown-up contestant.

All politics and pageants are local.

N Recognize that you are not the only center of the universe.

Backstage at the magnificent Maryland Theatre, Terrie England stoically watches the evening's dancers limber up. England, who runs a dance studio, has been involved with the Miss Maryland pageant since 1969. She's not raring to talk about last year's controversy, though she thinks about the pageant's future. In the old days, beauty pageants were good, family entertainment. But young people don't watch pageants on TV anymore, she says.

"This might be a thing of the past, although I hope not," England says. "A woman in the '90s doesn't think she needs the pageant."

Carol Moller has her seat 10 rows stage right. She runs a china store in town and every year invites the girls over for punch and cookies.

You should know this week she received 22 thank-you notes just two days after she had the girls over. That's the kind of classy, dignified women the pageant produces, she says.

Curtain rises at 8: 20 and the cast of contestants sings "Take Me Higher." The women are between 18 and 24 years old, but they look older and always do. Most are pageant pros, with 17 of the 22 contestants returning this year in hopes of eventually doing what no Miss Maryland has ever accomplished -- becoming Miss America. But the road to Atlantic City goes through Hagerstown.

The "Mistress of Ceremonies" is Kathy Neff, Miss Maryland 1972. Neff elegantly battles a misbehaving microphone for much of the evening. Marcia Griffith, who beat out Linda Yueh to become Miss Maryland 1995, receives a standing ovation, as some crooner on tape sings, "Just look at her -- how can you help but look at her "

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