"Where are the sashes? Who's got the sashes?" Miss America pageant volunteer Sally Romonowski darted around a luxury tour bus stocked with two dozen beauties heading from Los Angeles to Las Vegas Saturday for the weeklong competition.
Hours after rolling out at 8 a.m., the caravan of primped contestants and pooped chaperones arrived at the Las Vegas Strip for a red carpet welcoming.
It's the first time in the pageant's 85-year history that Miss America, once an icon of American femininity, will be crowned in Las Vegas, an icon of American debauchery.
Organizers hope the move from Atlantic City, N.J., will revive the cash-strapped and ratings-poor pageant. Fifty-two young women hope the changes will keep the pageant running as a tribute to grace, poise, fitness and skill. The payoff: $50,000 for college or graduate school.
"This is the Olympics for us," Miss New York Kandice Pelletier, 24, a student and Radio City Rockette from Manhattan, said on the road Saturday.
The black sashes blazoned with the contestants state's names were found hanging in a corner. A camera crew piled on board. The women passed around newspapers and magazines. Miss California studied a list of sample interview questions.
Preliminary competitions begin Tuesday with the finale to air Jan. 21.
Most contestants are between the ages of 21 and 23. Nearly half will sing for their talent performance; six with tap dance; and one, Miss Colorado Jessica Jane Urban, will play the harp.
Many say they got started in "the system" because a coach, teacher or parent encouraged them and they needed money for school.
"I grew up poor," said 23-year-old Miss Michigan Octavia Reese, of Detroit, who said the winnings would help fund her graduate degree in linguistics. "I've had to fight the system."
Reese said she passed on a Fulbright Scholarship in France to walk the runway this year.
"This is once-in-a-lifetime thing," she said.
Though some contestants describe themselves as "not the pageant type," many covet the crown for its symbolism and glamour. For many, pageant training involves long workouts, trips to the salon, lessons on "how to stand with pretty feet" and long consultations with mothers and state pageant advisers on wardrobe choices.
Each finds a different way to pay for a stage-ready evening gown, an interview suit and a handful of cocktail dresses. Miss Kansas Adrienne Rosel, 23, says her state organization offered about $3,000 in allowance, and her evening gown was donated by a designer. New York's Pelletier has dished out about $7,000 of her own money for clothes.
"I consider it an investment," she said.
As the Las Vegas Strip came into view Saturday, organizers announced that a planned pit stop for primping, the "makeup stop," was canceled. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman was waiting to give the contestants the key to the city. The Aladdin Resort & Casino, the show's host, had rolled out the carpet.
Lipstick and hairbrushes emerged on cue. A line formed at the bathroom. Miss Michigan wondered what to do with her cello, and eager volunteers began doling out the sashes.