Armed with lip pumice and vats of Vaseline, 52 beauty queens will arrive at the Sheraton Columbia today to start preparing for the 54th annual Miss USA pageant.
This year, though, more than an 11-carat diamond crown hangs in the balance. The contenders are fighting whitened tooth and lacquered nail for a place on network television, and in the popular culture of the 21st century.
Miss USA 2005, which will be aired live on NBC from the Hippodrome Theatre on April 11, will be the first nationally televised traditional beauty pageant since ABC announced its historic decision to drop the reigning queen of such shows, Miss America, this fall.
The Baltimore broadcast's ratings are "crucial for the future of Miss USA and Miss America as national phenomena with a mass television audience," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "You're going to see a huge spike in how much attention executives pay to it."
And - unlike the panel of celebrity judges who look for toned triceps and firm thighs - TV executives have eyes for hard numbers only.
For the past decade or so, those numbers have been nothing to flaunt. Since their peak in the '50s and early '60s, when Miss USA and Miss America first aired on national television, the ratings of both shows have fallen like flaming batons. In 1980, more than 31 million viewers tuned in to Miss USA; last year, only about 13 million watched, according to Nielsen Media Research. Miss America drew just 9.8 million viewers last year, its smallest audience ever, and now enters its 84th year with no network home and no guarantee that it will get one before the next pageant is held in September.
The pageants' declining ratings are due, in part, to the competition from cable channels that have hurt network programming. But they've also suffered because a number of new concepts stole aspects of the pageants' appeal: Reality shows, for instance, involve the same scrutiny of "regular" people - only most of the folks on those shows have a lot more flaws than, say, the reigning Miss USA, a children's book author, an advocate for the disabled and a statuesque blonde to boot. And even if Shandi Finnessey were hiding a modicum of cellulite, the judges would never highlight it with a laser pointer, as the hosts of the recent show Are You Hot? were wont to do.
Also, sexy women and sex in general is much easier to come by on television now than in 1952, when Miss USA strutted in a bathing suit before poodle skirt-swaddled audiences. Set beside modern skin extravaganzas like America's Next Top Model - not to mention the Playboy channel - those suits seem dangerously tame.
"Maintaining the girl-next-door image in the era of Paris Hilton may not make the numbers" the networks need, Thompson said.
Even mother-daughter combos no longer watch pageants with the same dreaminess they once did, according to Sarah Banet-Weiser, a media professor at the University of Southern California and the author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity.
"The definition of femininity produced by beauty pageants doesn't fit in," she said. "Little girls don't want to grow up to be Miss America anymore. I'm not sure what they want to be, but it's not Miss America."
But the nation's aspiring beauty queens are not lying around with chilled spoons on their eyes (the pageant pro's remedy for post-cry puffiness).
"Are pageants still relevant?" said Carl Dunn, CEO of Pageantry Magazine, the publication known as the beauty queen's bible. "Of course. So is any kind of competition. Our whole society is based around that."
He said that pageants still have a lock on the popular imagination, as evinced by recent knock-offs like The Swan, a reality show where women competed in a beauty pageant after undergoing extreme plastic surgery, and movie spoofs like Miss Congeniality and its sequel, which opened yesterday.
What's vital, though, is that producers recognize the need to update pageant styles, he said.
Miss USA traditionally has been willing to do this, which is perhaps why its ratings recently stabilized and even started inching back up.
Although the two pageants often feature the same women - this year's Miss Maryland USA, Marina Harrison, was third runner-up to Miss America 2004, for instance - they have been packaged differently from the start, according to Elwood Watson, whose book There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant was published last year.
Miss USA was started in 1952 by a bathing suit company that dropped its Miss America sponsorship when the reigning Miss America refused to appear publicly in swimwear.
Miss USA's willingness to bare more is borne out today. While Miss America promotes itself as a scholarship competition, Miss USA has conceded the power of female flesh and has never included a talent component.