Still Leaving a Beauty Mark

Times Staff Writer

Eighty-six beautiful women occupied a curving stretch of tables in the atrium of South Coast Plaza, Sharpies at the ready, as young men with camera phones and mothers with daughters in hair bows snaked past them for autographs.

Jackie Fernandez signed "Jackie, Miss Sri Lanka," sometimes with a smiley face. "Are you coming to the show?" she said brightly to a fan, sunlight catching the amber-colored bindi on her forehead. "Oh, you should! Come support Sri Lanka!"

Fernandez, 20, is on her first trip to the United States -- a contestant in Sunday night's Miss Universe pageant, which is being held in Los Angeles for the first time in 16 years. Though she swooned when she glimpsed the Hollywood sign from her downtown hotel room (shared with Miss India), Fernandez is hardly a hapless foreigner.

Raised in Bahrain, schooled in Australia, she speaks English like an American and arrived with her laptop. With her false eyelashes and TV-presenter charm -- she is a business news anchor in Sri Lanka -- she seems at least as sophisticated as, well ... a 28-year-old.

"People over here look at the sash," Fernandez said, referring to the white satin ribbon across her torso that identifies her country, "and go 'Shree? ... Sir-ee?' Then they look at me and go 'Hola?' " She laughed at the notion that people think she is a Spanish-speaking Latina.

At 5 feet 7, Fernandez -- who wants to be a TV foreign correspondent -- is surrounded by a forest of 6-foot-tall contestants who aspire to model or act. Why does she want to be in a beauty pageant?

"The most important thing for me about the Miss Universe contest is projecting an image for my country," she said, lapsing briefly into beauty-queen-speak. "My country is so in the shadows. If I can come across as someone very positive, it can actually help my country."

A burly, poker-faced bodyguard approached and took her by the arm. "OK, time to go," he said. She smiled apologetically. "I'll call you," she promised.

Welcome to the Miss Universe universe, which has parked itself in Los Angeles for the last three weeks -- in part because of the local presence of the event's co-owners, Donald Trump and NBC, and the NBC Universal-owned Telemundo. Both networks will air the show Sunday night.

At a time when most traditional beauty pageants have passed on their crowns to reality shows, Miss Universe soldiers on, a curiously sturdy relic of an earlier television era.

Miss America fell off broadcast-network TV after its 2004 pageant, a victim of low ratings. Miss Universe captured only 9 million American viewers last year, a fraction of the 36 million it pulled in 30 years ago -- though most broadcast shows have watched their numbers plummet with the rise of cable.

The strongest viewership has been overseas, especially in Asia and Latin America, where the pageant is embraced like the World Cup.

"These beauty stars are huge celebrities in their home countries," said Ellen Seiter, a professor of television studies at USC.

The pageant has updated itself with a website and interactive options, allowing fans to vote for the most telegenic contestants or send them flowers.

Although whoever reigns as Miss Universe adopts the official platform -- to speak out about HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention -- the pageant has never tried to cloak its scantily clad competition in other objectives.

"It's OK to say we're about beautiful women. It's not a bad thing," said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization. "We've changed with the times -- you're talking to a woman who runs the show. We're about empowerment of women."

Empowered to speak at the U.N. -- but still posing for bikini shots. And also fiercely chaperoned, as the contestants travel together in three shiny tour buses and stay on one floor of the Wilshire Grand Hotel in downtown L.A., guarded around the clock and monitored with cameras.

The women must always wear their sashes in public and never drink alcohol, even if they are of legal age. If they need something -- like toothpaste -- a chaperon (or supervisor, as they are now called) fetches it. No visitors are allowed -- no mothers, fathers, sisters or boyfriends.

"It's kind of like camp, and it's kind of like the military," Shugart said, referring to the daunting task of moving her charges around town. "And what if something happens to them? They're in our care."

They are, of course, adults, ages 18 to 26 (which they must prove with a birth certificate or passport), though not all are as worldly as Fernandez. "Some have never left home, some don't speak English," Shugart said. "There have been some tears."

They all knowingly signed up for this odd juggernaut of house rules, pampering and exposure.

"I know people joke about pageants and world peace," said Shugart, "but I told the contestants on the first day, 'You're never going to get a chance like this again. You're like a mini-U.N. Try to find out something about everyone.' "

One night earlier this week at the Key Club, a West Hollywood nightspot, what Miss Universe contestants wanted at that moment, perhaps more than world peace, was food. Four of them tore into a tiny plate of tinier cheese cubes and carrot and celery sticks.

Fernandez reached for the last cracker and laughed: "Wow, we're so hungry!"

In a town notorious for self-starved women, these women are actually willing to eat. Not much, of course -- after all, the next night they would have to stalk a stage in print bikinis for preliminary judging. "We know who the favorites are," said one contestant. "We know who's doing well."

But the evening was about relaxing. Fueled by more hors d'oeuvres and cans of Red Bull, they crowded the dance floor. The DJ pumped up the volume, and the group screamed its assent. All good dancers, they shimmied with abandon. One clump of dancers sang along with a Nelly hit, altering the lyrics: "I am gettin' so hot, I wanna take my sash off!"

The few invited male guests hugged the walls shyly or sat quietly sipping their beers, awestruck. The contestants seemed more worldly than some of the Americans they described meeting.

"Some woman asked me if we wear clothes," said Thuli Sithole, Miss South Africa, who is 22 and studying urban planning. "A lot of people think Africa is so backward. We are so in tune with America. We watch 'Oprah,' we watch 'Friends.' Everything that happens in the U.S. we get in Africa. People think we live in the bush and have lions in our backyards.... In South Africa, even the poorest person has a cellphone."

The next night at the preliminary contest -- called the presentation show -- the women modeled swimsuits, gowns and native costumes for the judges and an audience of several hundred rowdy partisans who had brought national flags.

Even in identical bikinis, the contestants worked hard to distinguish themselves. Some strutted across the stage, hips sashaying like Naomi Campbell; others lingered in front of the judges. Fernandez navigated an elegant middle ground, neither prowling nor hogging the stage.

The key, Fernandez said later, is not to tarry in front of the judges. "If you give them too much time to analyze you, then you're giving them more time to pick out a flaw," she said.

As Miss Sri Lanka, she wouldn't do bikini shots in her native country, saying she didn't want to mar her image as a TV anchor. But she says her colleagues have been supportive. "They knew this would be a great way for Sri Lanka to be put on the map."

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