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Raining on the Miss America festivities

The arrival ceremony took place on the mezzanine level near where Holly Madison works in the topless review “Peepshow.”

Of the 53 contestants for the 2010 Miss America pageant, only 50 made it to the official welcoming ceremony at Planet Hollywood. This was a little over a week before Saturday’s contest, and Las Vegas was surprisingly going through days of rain. This wrought havoc on air traffic as well as to the Miss America organization schedule, where officials like to keep things under strict control.

One of the final arrivals, rushed from the airport by a Planet Hollywood car direct to the event stage, Miss Florida, Rachael Todd, 22, apologized to the several dozen tourists on hand and pageant officials for wearing blue jeans while the others wore dresses.

Later she explained her jeans while preparing for dinner with the 52 other contestants in a restaurant just off the Strip: “We circled over Las Vegas for 45 minutes, and then they had to land us in Ontario, Calif., because we might have run out of fuel. Then we spent three or four hours on the runway in the plane waiting for a takeoff time. I ran into the hotel, and they were starting the arrival ceremony.”

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Yes, even beauty queens fly commercial. Outside the weather, this is Miss America’s fifth year in Vegas, and the contest has put systems in place to keep the program running smoothly during the days coordinating and chaperoning the contestants through filming segments and preparing for the big finale.

Miss America President and Chief Executive Art McMaster was not so confident in Vegas when the pageant left New Jersey to reinvent itself here five years ago: “Initially, we were very nervous. As you can imagine living in the safe conservative confines of Atlantic City, there was a lot of pressure on us about taking Miss America to Las Vegas. I was so worried the first year because there was so much more media.”

But nothing went wrong. Nothing ever goes wrong, according to Miss America officials. This is not by chance -- McMaster notes that the twentysomething contestants are closely watched during their time here. “We do not allow the contestants to wander around by themselves.”

Ask any contestant and she will speak of her love for Vegas, but McMaster makes clear that does not include certain key elements of the local culture. “There is no drinking and no gambling while they are here.”

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To Miss Alaska, Sydnee Waggoner, 23, who grew up watching the pageant, the move to Vegas was a natural. “I think they are embracing the modern, fresh young image that Miss America should be representing. I don’t think they have had that for a long time, and they have been working on it for the last five years. And Las Vegas has become such an iconic city for America. I think it is a great place for the pageant.”

Although Miss America may not draw a lot of people to Vegas that doesn’t mean the contest doesn’t add to the Vegas image and vibe. “Having Miss America make its home in Las Vegas is really important to us,” said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. There is international press and national television, and that is great exposure for Las Vegas as a destination.”

Miss America these days is fighting not only to remain relevant to the culture but for attention against the slightly more edgy and younger Miss USA pageant. The primary difference between the beauty contests is that Miss America is a scholarship organization whereas Miss USA is owned by Donald Trump.

To make matters more confusing, Miss USA also takes place at Planet Hollywood. Last year’s Miss USA contest made headlines thanks to the scandal over Perez Hilton’s question about gay marriage to Miss California, Carrie Prejean, and her response.

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Despite the Miss Amercia contest’s desire to get attention, McMaster says, such a question would not be allowed at the pageant. Asked why, he answered, “Sometimes the question can overshadow the contestant. And we are about keeping the spotlight on our contestants.”

Perhaps a telling difference between the pageants is that while Miss USA went for Perez Hilton, Miss America this year has opted for radio show host Rush Limbaugh as celebrity interviewer. McMaster defended the choice as nonpartisan, noting that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews held that chair recently.

Miss America was at one time a broadcast network institution that drew millions. Now the pageant is finishing its contract with cable TLC, and to some extent, MacMaster noted, its future in Vegas depends on Saturday’s ratings.

As for Waggoner, like her state’s Sarah Palin she is ready to go rogue as soon as Miss America gets crowned. “I am staying in Las Vegas for four days after Miss America to get some fun stuff in and wild stuff in.”

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