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On the Road To Miss USA

A former Miss Memphis goes for the gold -- in Gary, Indiana.


Vaseline on the teeth. Padding in the bra. A little sticky grip on the butt to keep swimsuit bottoms from riding up as contestants stride around the stage on shiny high heels.

Is that really all it takes to be in a beauty pageant? A bag of tricks to make smiles brighter, breasts bigger, and keep asses covered?

For Eli Lilly pharmaceutical rep Allison Alderson and 50 other women, it's not quite that easy. Those tricks are probably part of the trade -- although 25-year-old Alderson, Miss Tennessee USA 2002, won't own up to them -- but the road to a national pageant is littered with more than Aqua Net hairspray, red lipstick, and a hope for world peace. For some, that road takes them round and round the pageant circuit, learning what the judges like to see and hear. For others, it begins on a whim and ends with a three-week crash course in what a Miss USA's life is really like.

A 1999 Rhodes COLLEGE graduate, Alderson grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, home of the Miss Tennessee pageant.

"I grew up going to the pageant with my mom," she says. "As a little girl I knew I wanted to enter a pageant one day, but I wanted to do it at a time when it wouldn't conflict with my education."

Founded a half-century ago in Long Beach, California, the Miss USA pageant pits 51 girls -- one from each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. -- against each other in three areas: swimsuit, evening wear, and interview. The rules are fairly simple: Contestants must be between 18 and 27 years old at the time of the national broadcast, single, with no children. Delegates -- Miss USA's term for contestants -- are allowed to be surgically altered, but since 1990 Miss USA's parent organization, Miss Universe, has allowed the use of padding to discourage having surgery solely in an effort to win.

But it takes more than surgery or padding to win the crown. Training for a pageant is much like training for a triathlon. Everything has to come together in order to have a successful showing. It's a time-intensive process and, depending on how you do it, can be expensive as well. At the national level, delegates have three weeks to show themselves, and it can be as grueling as any sport. On March 1st, the delegates will have a chance to show the country what they're made of via a national broadcast on CBS. Alderson thinks she can go the distance, but her opinion doesn't matter. That's for the judges to decide.

Since her childhood exposure to the Miss Tennessee pageant, Alderson has become something of a pageant pro. In 1994, she won Miss Tennessee Teen USA. At the national level a few months later, she was the third runner-up to Miss Teen USA 1994.

Alderson's sister Amy has also entered pageants, winning Miss D.C. USA 1999, but Alderson says her family didn't push her to be Miss Anything.

"My mom was kind of surprised when I told her I wanted to do it. I'd never had an interest like that before. I was always a basketball player," says Alderson.

In February 1999, while a senior at Rhodes, she won the title of Miss Memphis.

"Ever since I was in the teen [pageant], I always thought I wanted to do it again. I didn't want to have any regrets in life," she says.

As Miss Memphis, she headed back to her hometown of Jackson to compete against 29 other girls and was ultimately crowned Miss Tennessee. Her next stop? Miss America.

Don't get confused: Miss USA and Miss America, while of the same genus, are different species and completely separate pageant systems. One of the basic differences is that Miss America contestants are judged on talent, interview, evening wear, and swimsuit, while those vying for Miss USA don't have to worry about having a talent. The titleholder of Miss USA goes on to compete in Miss Universe. And Miss America is the one with the great song.

Alderson didn't win the Miss America 1999 title in Atlantic City, but she hadn't quite cured herself of the pageant bug. Last October, she was crowned Miss Tennessee USA (the first to ever hold both Miss Tennessee and Miss Tennessee USA titles), a rung on the ladder to Miss USA and ultimately Miss Universe.

"It's kind of like playing in the SEC and then going and playing in another conference," says Alderson. "It's kind of weird that I would do both."

However much pageant experience she's had -- and it's experience that will help her at the national level -- Alderson doesn't want to be labeled what she calls "a pageant girl."

"I think there are definitely stereotypes that go along with that, but I think when people meet me, they realize I'm not like that. I don't sit around and think about pageants all day," she says.

In fact, Miss Memphis was the first pageant many of Alderson's friends at Rhodes had ever seen live. Alderson says they thought it was kind of cool, especially when they saw how much traveling she got to do after she won and how it affects little children.

It's easy to see how Alderson would be good at winning pageants. Not only is she pretty and blond, she seems something of a born diplomat, polite yet personable. She's big on volunteering and takes time to think about what she's saying before speaking.

She attributes her poise to her business-administration degree from Rhodes and the presentations she had to do for classes. She's also fairly comfortable onstage, having studied and performed voice and classical piano for about 15 years.

After winning Miss Tennessee, she traveled around the state as the governor's official spokesperson for the Safe and Drug Free Tennessee program, speaking at five to eight schools a day. "I just think it helped me hone my communication skills," she says. "I feel comfortable when I go into the interview."

The day before she leaves for the pageant, she seems at ease. She has designed her dress for the evening gown portion. "It has to be in good taste, nothing too revealing," she says. She knows her roommate for the pageant is going to be Miss Kansas and hopes that she'll be nice.

She's been keeping a healthy lifestyle, exercising when work made it possible. "I'm trying not to eat things I know I shouldn't, like sweets," she says. "I've just been leaving off desserts. I'm not on an all-vegetable diet or on the Slim-Fast plan or anything."

The other part of daily preparation has been reading the newspaper.

"With the Miss Tennessee USA program, there's the swimsuit, evening gown, interview, and onstage question. Of course, there's a physical aspect, but at the end all you do is talk. You have to know about everything," she says.

"I have to be very well read, especially on current events. You never know what they're going to throw at you."

Alderson has taken three weeks off from work. "I'm using my vacation time. My boss has been really nice about it," she says. "I never thought I would take a vacation in Gary, Indiana, but there are sacrifices in life."

As soon as the delegates arrive in Gary, they are swept up by the Miss Universe organization.

Linda Herald has been with Miss Universe for 11 years, working as a delegate supervisor and traveling around the world with the titleholder. At the pageant, delegate supervisors are a sort of den mother for four delegates during the three weeks of the pageant, letting them know where to go and what to do.

"We meet them at the airport when they arrive," says Herald. "They're always very nervous. They're looking at each other and thinking, Oh, she's so gorgeous; how can I compete?"

The delegates almost immediately begin a head-spinning schedule of public events, charity work, preliminary competitions, and rehearsals for the televised pageant.

It is a pageant boot camp of sorts. The only people the delegates spend any time with are their supervisors, the other delegates, and members of the Miss Universe staff. Alderson laughs and says that the delegates don't have to really think for themselves, that the pageant tells them what to do all the time. The staff releases the girls into their parents' custody for a day the Sunday before the pageant.

In the first few days they're in Gary, there are lots of people to visit and lots of fund-raisers to attend. The days closer to the show will be spent in rehearsals. Either way, the delegates are always up -- and usually out the door -- by 8 a.m. and back around 10 that evening.

"The city of Gary sets up all the activities, and Miss Universe just says yea or nay," Miss Universe public-relations supervisor Esther Swan explains. "A lot of them are fund-raising or something for charity." The city paid the pageant over $1 million for the honor of hosting the event, hoping it would help polish Gary's less-than-stellar reputation.

When the delegates are introduced together in public for the first time, it is at a Gary Steelheads basketball game. They stand at center court and the current Miss USA, Kandace Krueger, hands each of them the microphone in turn. They introduce themselves by name and state, sometimes throwing in a "Go, Steelheads" or their state's nickname.

They all have healthy hair, perfectly manicured nails, and -- literally -- award-winning smiles. In their jeans and T-shirts -- many of them patriotically themed -- they are the girls next door, women you wouldn't hesitate to bring home to meet your mother.

Draped across each girl's shoulders is a state sash, which has to be worn wherever they go.

"It's for security reasons," says Alderson. "It's so they know who we are and where we are. The security guards don't know Miss Wyoming from Miss Alabama."

And it doesn't hurt to have your "name" emblazoned diagonally across your chest when you've just met 50 other delegates. "I try to call them by their real names," says Alderson. "It's hard. Sometimes you don't remember their name and you use their state name."

Later in the week, they go to a Chicago Bulls game and perform part of their opening routine, decorate cookies with children in a rehabilitation center, and help Habitat for Humanity build a house in Gary.

The events serve a variety of purposes. They help the girls bond with each other, but they also showcase the pageant's sponsors and raise money for or help various charities.

"It's not just about you and you being a state queen," Alderson says. "It's about the community."

During the second week, all the community events and the rehearsing have left Alderson feeling a little run-down. She forgoes one night's activities for some much-needed rest.

Unlike Miss America, Miss USA does not choose a cause to work for. Instead, the reigning Miss USA immediately becomes the national spokesperson for breast and ovarian cancer.

"That's really why you have the interview aspect," says Alderson. "They have to make sure you're capable of assuming Miss USA's responsibilities."

The preliminary interviews -- which will help determine the top 10 who will compete during the televised broadcast -- are private and done by a split panel of eight. Delegates face the first four judges, who drill them with questions, and then it's on to the remaining four.

"There is some pressure involved, but really it's all about them getting to know who you are. They're looking for certain qualities in a titleholder and, up until then, all they've seen is the physical aspect," says Alderson.

Even the harried pre-production schedule is preparation for the title. Swan says delegates are brought in three weeks early so they have a chance to get used to the regimen of the titleholder's lifestyle.

Alderson says, "We're on a hectic schedule, but that's what your entire life is like if you're chosen. We left an event last night and got back and had more stuff to do. We're on the go all the time."

During a brief, early morning phone conversation, Alderson suddenly stops mid-sentence. "Oh! Gotta go," she says quickly. "I'm holding up rehearsals. Bye!" And the line goes dead.

It's the end of the second week. Private interviews start in three days. The delegates have done all their fittings and had their official photos taken. They've also done a swimsuit calendar shoot for one of the sponsors. The reigning Miss USA points out that it's the first time the girls have a chance to really size up the competition.

By the time the personality interview rolls around at the beginning of week three, most of the delegates are focused on what they're here to do.

"That's when they get into competition mode," says Herald. "But we rarely have problems. You hear so many wild stories about girls being mean to one another and it really doesn't happen like that."

Unlike Alderson, a majority of the delegates are fairly new to the pageant scene.

Herald says that every year some of the girls who entered Miss Teen USA return for Miss USA. Some have been on the pageant circuit for years, but a surprising number haven't.

"Some have been doing it since they were 8 years old," says Herald. "The majority have not."

Pageant experience can give girls an edge, but neither Alderson nor Herald can name a favorite for the top spot. Herald says she rarely guesses the winner, even after being with the event for 11 years. Alderson mentions that Miss Indiana gets a lot of support, but it is, after all, her home state.

"You just don't know what the judges are looking for," says Alderson. "And we have to do the private interviews, so it's totally up in the air."

When asked why she should be Miss USA, Alderson laughs a little but plays along. She talks about the opportunities Miss USA presents to its winner as well as the chance to help raise money for breast-cancer awareness.

"I would love to be Miss USA because I love being a spokesperson for the various causes I think are important. That's why most people are here, I think. There's a give-and-take to the organization," she says.

Herald and Alderson also try to dispel the myths about delegates smearing Vaseline on their teeth or using anything to keep their bikini bottoms in place. Still, Herald says, "We all have little tricks. When we get older, we have to use lip liner to keep the lipstick from running. But there's nothing really outlandish."

Alderson says that her final preparation for the pageant is going to include sleep. "I probably won't have time," she laughs. "But I'm going to try."

More likely, she'll be in the final run-through until it is time to put on her costume for the opening number. It is national television, after all.

"We're all amateurs. They want to make sure we know where we're going and that we won't forget what we're supposed to do," says Alderson.

And if the judges don't pick her, Alderson says she'll be fine.

"If I don't win," she says, "I'll go back to work Monday morning as if I'd never been here."

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