Miss America's walk might look effortless, but her road to success probably cost more than you think.
Ten-thousand women will compete in a Miss USA-sponsored pageant this year. That organization is just one of more than 15 small circuits, each with its own local, state and national competitions. It's a big industry. From the organizers, designers and coaches, lots of people make money — except the contestants.
Twenty-four women are in the running to become the latest Miss District of Columbia USA.
When competitor and graduate student Jessica Bermudez went to Deja Vu, an Alexandria, Va. boutique specializing in pageant gowns, the price tags were as dazzling as the dresses.
Store manager Derek Ferino pulled out a gown for Bermudez to try on — a floor-length royal blue number with rhinestones on the front. The price tag: $3,000.
Bermudez, 24, won't say how much she paid for the dress she eventually chose, but Deja Vu's evening gowns start at $700. Some cost as much as $4,000.
If you thought Bermudez's parents are signing the check, you'd be wrong. She uses the money she earns working part-time at as a technical project manager at the National Institutes of Health to pay her way through the pageantry world.
Bermudez also gets sponsored by local businesses in exchange for promoting their products, and she spends a lot of time fundraising.
A Costly Crown
Carl Dunn, CEO of Pageantry magazine, says pageants are big business.
"First of all, you have the event itself, that's what you're looking at," Dunn says. "Then behind that, you do have the designers, makeup artists, trainers, facilitators, possible sponsors."
Victory Mohamed, the current Miss Baltimore and third runner up in this year's Miss Maryland America competition, works as a pageant coach. She says if you want to compete seriously, you need to be prepared. And that means money.
"If you're doing it right, you would have to spend at least $500 to $2,000 on a gown for a U.S.A. Pageant, $200 for an interview outfit, including accessories, shoes that whole thing, and $50 to $300 on a great swimsuit," Mohamed says.
That's just the clothes – not even the makeup. And then there's coaching, which can range from $40 to $300 per hour. Mohamed charges $50.
"But I think, doing it right, I would definitely invest in the coaching, in the fitness trainer, in the makeup, in the outfit," she says. "You can't get to Miss America or Miss Universe without doing it right, doing it all the way."
It can pay off though. Mohamed says she won a scholarship that helps her pay for graduate school. Pageants also helped launch her professional pageant and image consulting company that she runs out of her basement studio.
'Well Worth It'
If Bermudez can persuade the Miss D.C. judges to give her the crown, she'll win a cash price of about $1,000 and the opportunity to compete for the title of Miss USA next summer. But even if she doesn't win, she says competing in Miss D.C. USA is a great investment.
"You get experience with public relations and getting your message out there," Bermudez says. "My personal message is to promote STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — so I think it's very well worth it."
Bermudez says she feels confident about her chances.
"You always go in with high hopes," she says. "You go in as prepared as you can, but you never go in expecting anything."
It seems like the only thing all the contestants can expect is a hefty price tag.
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GUY RAZ, HOST:
Ten thousand women will compete in beauty pageants sponsored by Miss USA this year. Fifteen other organizations sponsor similar contests at the local, state and national level. It's a big industry, and there's lots of money to be made - money for the organizers, the designers, the coaches - everyone, it seems, except for most of the contestants. NPR's Brenda Salinas has our story.
BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: This weekend, 24 women compete to be the next Miss District of Columbia USA. Jessica Bermudez wants that title badly. She's come to a boutique in Virginia specializing in pageants to pick the perfect gown.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.
DEREK FERINO: Hello.
JESSICA BERMUDEZ: Hey, Derek.
SALINAS: She knows the manager, Derek Ferino, very well. This is the third time she's buying a pageant gown from the store.
BERMUDEZ: I think I got it.
BERMUDEZ: Do you want to see?
FERINO: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. Wow.
BERMUDEZ: It's beautiful. I mean, it's one of a kind. It's been one of my favorite colors, the royal blue.
SALINAS: Jessica won't tell me the price of the one she bought for the competition, but this is what some other dresses in the store cost:
FERINO: This one is 1,427. This one's only $900, $3,000, just $1,700. This one is $3,750.
SALINAS: Jessica is a full-time student. She's getting her masters of public health at the University of Maryland. She works a part-time job just to be able to compete in pageants. On top of that, she has local sponsors. Hair salons and gyms give her money to promote their products. And she needs that money. The fee just to enter Miss D.C. USA is $995.
CARL DUNN: It's a big business. We've made our livelihood in it for many, many years.
SALINAS: That's Carl Dunn. He's the CEO of Pageantry magazine. He's been in the business 30 years, and he says there are lots of people making money in the beauty pageant industry.
DUNN: First off, you have the event itself. That's what you're looking at. Then behind that, you do have the designers, makeup artists, trainers, facilitators, possible sponsors.
SALINAS: And there are professional pageant consultants too. Victory Mohamed is one of these coaches. She's the current Miss Baltimore and the third runner up in Miss Maryland. One of the prizes she won was a scholarship that helps her pay for graduate school. Here she is in her basement studio examining a client's dress.
VICTORY MOHAMED: I want to add something. Even if it's just like a rain shower of stones...
SALINAS: The consultation is $50 per hour. The rhinestones? That'll be extra.
MOHAMED: If you're doing it right, you would have to spend at least 500 to $2,000 on a gown for USA pageant - 200 on an interview outfit, including accessories, shoes that whole thing.
SALINAS: And if Jessica does it right, she might get...
BERMUDEZ: The official Miss District of Columbia USA crown and banner with roundtrip travel expenses to the Miss USA pageant, an official engraved trophy, a $45,000 scholarship to Lindenwood University.
SALINAS: Scholarship at the Missouri liberal arts college aside, the cash prize is only about a thousand dollars. But even if Jessica isn't crowned tomorrow night, she insists that her money is well spent.
BERMUDEZ: I choose to do this because I think it's a great investment. You get experience with public relations and really getting your message out there. My personal message is to promote STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. So I think it's all very worth it.
SALINAS: Not surprisingly, Carla Crawford, the director of Miss D.C. USA, agrees. She says that apart from the thrill of competing on stage, the contestants gain valuable skills.
CARLA CRAWFORD: At the end of the day, it's very rewarding. They get the interview skills that they get out of it, they can go into any setting and be able to interview for jobs and colleges. They get so much out of it in the end.
SALINAS: Jessica is feeling cautiously optimistic.
BERMUDEZ: You always go in with high hopes. You go in as prepared as you can. But you never go in expecting anything.
SALINAS: Expecting, that is, anything more than handing over a decent amount of cash. Brenda Salinas, NPR News.
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RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.