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N.C.'s Cooley takes crown
Front foot at 3 o'clock, back foot at 12. Shoulders back, chest out, hips under. Smile! Fifty-one beauties struck the classic pageant pose when Miss USA 2005 aired live on NBC last night from the Hippodrome and Miss North Carolina USA, Chelsea Cooley, a 21-year-old from Charlotte, was crowned.
And in the background, the city of Baltimore - and the state of Maryland - didn't look so bad either, particularly to tourism officials who estimated the 12 or so minutes of pre-filmed footage of the contestants traipsing about was worth about $4 million in national publicity.
"The city just bloomed," said John Fairbank, both a proud native (of Baltimore) and a proud father (of Miss Hawaii). "This Miss USA pageant is helping Baltimore tell its story. This place went to the dogs, but now it's back."
The two-hour broadcast began with the contestants variously draped over the cannons of Fort McHenry, lounging at the Inner Harbor in front of the Hard Rock Cafe and otherwise decorating familiar local landmarks. The camera zoomed in on the city's shapely skyline, not quite as often as it sought out the ladies' silhouettes, but often enough.
There were shots of the local museums (the Walters, the Museum of Industry, Great Blacks in Wax), Camden Yards and the Ravens stadium, the Edgar Allan Poe House, Bo Brooks Restaurant in Canton and the Washington Monument.
The pageant footage also included scenes from all corners of Maryland. The belles leaned against the columns of historic buildings in Annapolis as though they were shoulders of handsome boyfriends. Flanked by surfboards, they smiled on the beaches of Ocean City and power-walked down the boardwalk there. They shopped in Arundel Mills.
All of which tended to draw enthusiastic responses from the visiting beauties. "I love Baltimore!" the women screamed on screen, in unison.
Inside the theater, people were screaming, too. For all the silk sashes and trailing dress trains, the atmosphere was reminiscent of an Orioles game, with more homemade signs than a picket line and more displays of partisanship than a Senate hearing.
"This is unbelievable," said Marilyn Pick, a Baltimore fitness expert who managed to snag a balcony seat to the sold-out show. "Baltimore! This is, like, national."
The historic Hippodrome, itself the recent recipient of a $64 million makeover, also played up its assets, thanks in part to extra lighting the pageant team installed in the theater in order to emphasize architectural details, such as the ornate plasterwork of the archway that frames the stage.
Nestled in the theater's depths were such celebs as supermodel Molly Sims, The Contender co-host Sugar Ray Leonard and Raj Bhakta, from The Apprentice 2, all of whom sat on the judges panel.
Also serving on the bench was 19-year-old Towson native Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming sensation.
"I'm pumped," Phelps, in formal attire rather than his usual swimwear, said.
Donald Trump - that's right, the billionaire with the hair - was also in the house. A co-owner of the pageant, he seemed impressed with the city's pretty features.
"Last year it was in L.A.," he said. "We chose Baltimore because it's a great progressive city."
He was seated next to Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich, who had another Donald - Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - at her other elbow.
Also filling out the first row were Trump's new bride, Melania, Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Katie, and 1st Mariner chief Ed Hale.
The lovely spring weather impressed at least one judge, Frederic Fekkai - hairstylist to the likes of Ashley Judd and Renee Zell-weger. After greeting the contestants with a week of rain upon their arrival a little less than three weeks ago, Baltimore at last smiled down with baby blue skies.
"You can see the sun in the sky here," he said. "It's so much cleaner than New York."
The state's representative, Miss Maryland, Marina Harrison, made it through two cuts, getting eliminated when the final five were named, but at least her hometown stayed in the forefront.
The locals were also looking good as they swanned up to the theater's entrance, proceeding under the watchful eyes of police on foot, in cars, on horseback and on bicycles. You almost got the feeling this was a popular shift.
Looking on also was Barbara Chapman of Glen Burnie, who had come into the city simply to observe the pageantry unfold.
"I think we're pulling this off," said Chapman. "This is similar to an opening night in New York. All the pomp and circumstance, and everyone smells delicious."
At the beginning of the show, hostess Nancy O'Dell asked the crowd:
"Is it possible for a city to handle this much charm and beauty in one place?"
By the end of the night, the answer appeared to be yes.