Pageant brings glamor to city - and a crown for Kentuckian

April 22, 2006|By TANIKA WHITE | TANIKA WHITE,SUN REPORTER

Three weeks of primping, praying and preparing came down to lights, camera, action last night as the Miss USA 2006 pageant aired live from 1st Mariner Arena, and 51 hopeful contestants were narrowed to one lucky winner - Tara Elizabeth Conner, Miss Kentucky.

"I think the stars were in my favor tonight," said Conner, 20, adding that her confidence and strength likely impressed the judges.

Conner, the first Miss USA from Kentucky, also said she was proud to "represent the South." Her crown was assured when the hosts announced that her lone remaining rival, California's Tamiko Nash, 26, was first runner-up.

After the pageant, Miss Maryland, Melissa DiGiulian, dragged her suitcases through the emptying halls of the arena and chatted with family members on her cell phone. The Ocean City native was calm and confident, with nary a tear blurring her mascara.

"It's not the end of the world," said DiGiulian, 20. "I think there's more in store for me. And in the long scheme of things, it's a beauty pageant. I'll just be taking it day by day."

Although Miss Maryland did not make it past the first round of cuts, the pageant was a boon for the state.

For the second year, Miss USA called Baltimore home, bringing beautiful, leggy ladies, small-screen celebrities, out-of-state tourists and millions of dollars into the city.

But some of the charm of last year's pageant - held at the elegantly renovated Hippodrome - was missing from last night's telecast, which officials moved to 1st Mariner, a bigger venue, to increase ticket sales.

Despite the slick props and glossy decor, the cold and colorless arena still looked more like a concert hall than the stage for a national beauty pageant. But what the broadcast lacked in elegance, it made up for in star quality.

Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, sat front and center next to Mayor Martin O'Malley and the state's first lady, Kendel Ehrlich.

Hosts Nancy O'Dell of Access Hollywood and Dancing with the Stars winner Drew Lachey worked the stage and the screen, and color man Carson Kressley, of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fame, was laugh-out-loud hysterical.

Throughout the broadcast, the audience - mostly made up of contestants' family and friends - cheered raucously, waving homemade signs and screaming until hoarse.

As pageant officials hoped, some audience members came to the broadcast simply because of its proximity - without a contestant in particular to root for.

Sandy Van Fleet of Ocean City and her daughters, Pam Wilkins and Taryn Walterhoefer, brought 92-year-old Eleanor Hogate of Pasadena - by limousine - to the pageant to celebrate her birthday.

The great-great-grandmother, dressed in a pink suit, wore a tiara and beamed throughout the production.

"We crowned her our Miss USA," Walterhoefer said.

The Miss USA pageant - owned by Trump - is a high-gloss affair. The ladies were beautiful. The hosts were beautiful (even if Lachey is short). Even Baltimore looked beautiful, thanks to Miss USA.

Along with each state's beauty queen, the show's production crew has been in town for three-plus weeks, shooting in and around some of the city's and state's most photogenic locations.

For the camera's benefit, the contestants frolicked at a Havre de Grace horse farm, traipsed around Annapolis and took over the Inner Harbor.

They pounded crabs at Obrycki's and shook hands with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and O'Malley. Miss USA 2005, North Carolina's Chelsea Cooley, even made a visit to Maryland's hinterlands - Garrett County - where she showed her skills at snowshoeing, tubing and snowboarding.

The show's hosts couldn't stop talking about the "merry old land of Maryland," as Lachey called it, breathlessly praising the "breathtaking landscapes and historic attractions."

Many of this year's contestants have finished college and are pursuing advanced degrees in science, math, law or politics. Some of them speak multiple languages; others fish or ride motorcycles.

Still, the pageant ultimately boils down to beauty, poise, grace, figures.

"They're all beautiful girls," said Natalie Hare, Miss Alabama Haleigh Stidham's great-aunt from Houston.

"It's just that one is more beautiful than the others," said Stidham's other great-aunt, Lou Justilian of Houston,

She didn't have to say which girl she meant.

tanika.white@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Rob Hiaasen contributed to this article.

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