A busy week's crowning moment

After miles and smiles, Miss USA contestants view the diamond-pearl tiara they all want to wear


One-hundred and two long-lashed eyes stared up at Chelsea Cooley, the reigning Miss USA, who was about to reveal for them what they'd waited all week - in some cases, all their lives - to see.

Dark-suited men with sunglasses brought it in mafia-style, in a metal case.

A crowd circled around. Cameras snapped. Tanned and glittered cleavage pulsed with anticipation.

And then, there it was.

The Crown.

"It's surreal," whispered Kimberly Krueger, Miss North Dakota USA.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Miss Colorado USA, Jacqueline Madera. "Just to see it in person, there's just this feeling of joy."

The crown is beautiful, with its curves and symmetry and near-blinding brilliance. And it costs a pretty penny, too - $200,000 worth of diamonds and Mikimoto cultured pearls.

But for many of the 51 contestants, the Miss USA crown represents more than beauty or wealth. It's the realization of a once-in-a-lifetime dream come true.

"It's been so busy since we've gotten here, sometimes you forget why you're here," said Krueger, 21. "But then you see the crown, and it's like, there it is. It's really happening. This is something that some girls prepare their whole lives for."

The unveiling of the crown on Friday at Radcliffe Jewelers in Towson capped off a whirlwind week for the Miss USA contestants, who arrived in town a week ago yesterday and haven't stopped moving..

The crowning moment will come April 21 when the Miss USA competition is held at 1st Mariner Arena. It will be televised nationally on NBC (WBAL, Channel 11).

Last week, the contestants toured the area by bus: Inner Harbor highlights and downtown delights, Ocean City and O's games.

The women learned to say, "Hey, hon!" at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse on Tuesday, wearing the colorful boas and cat-eyed sunglasses given them by Baltimore's beehived Hon herself, Denise Whiting, owner of Cafe Hon in Hampden.

They played flag football with the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, and Miss Maryland USA, Melissa DiGiulian, threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

They fed giraffes at the zoo, and romped on the beach at Ocean City. They handed out care packages to deploying troops at the airport, and visited wounded servicemen at Bethesda Naval Hospital. They toured Maryland's own house-of-beauty, the Cover Girl factory in Hunt Valley. They managed a movie at Arundel Mills.

They have been living a week-long Baltimore commercial and loving every scripted minute of it.

"When they said we were coming to Baltimore, I kinda had to look it up," admitted Miss South Carolina USA, Lacie Lybrand. "But now that I've been here, it's so gorgeous, I just love it. The buildings. The architecture. It's really beautiful because it's kept its history."

"Baltimore is giving us the best positive energy," said Tiffany Kelly, Miss Massachusetts USA. "You're really seeing that Southern charm. They're just so giving and generous."

In particular, Baltimore's men, who have grinned and guffawed, proposed marriage and, at the crown unveiling Friday night, offered to buy the contestants expensive jewelry. Other clever devils had more geographic-based pickup lines.

"When my wife leaves me, I'll come find you," Ira Geller of Lutherville called out after Miss South Carolina, as she waved and smiled. "South Carolina's not far from Maryland at all."

"I go to camp in West Virginia," Geller's son Edison, 9, said to Jessica Wedge, Miss West Virginia USA, as she smiled.

"So you're from Idaho?" Chris Smith, of Towson, asked a sash-bearing Miss Idaho USA, Allyson Swan.

The women, for their part, seemed neither to revel in nor to be repulsed by such awkward ardor.

"I'm oblivious to it," said Madera. "You just walk around and smile."

"We're thinking about our boyfriends back home," admitted Leeann Tingley, Miss Rhode Island USA.

In their down time, in fact, that's a lot of what the contestants do. After 12- to-14-hour days of smiling at strangers. they whip out their cell phones on the tour bus and call friends and relatives and faraway beaus.

When they get back to their temporary home at the Wyndham Hotel - where they've taken over three floors - there's make-up to wash off, stairs to run, sit-ups to do, outfits to choose for the next day.

So the calls are short ones, mostly.

Because for a precious few minutes on the ride back, they get to steal what all pageant contestants wish they could get more of.

"When we're out and about at stuff like this, it's fun," said Ashley Aull, Miss Kansas USA, at the crown unveiling. "But as soon as you hit the bus, it's time to go to sleep. You're out."


For ticket information for the Miss USA competition, go to baltimorearena.com.

For comprehensive coverage of the Miss USA competition in Baltimore, go to baltimoresun.com/missusa.

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