ALL FOR ONE The contestants congratulate the winner.
"We've had a few people pass out. We've had a few people jump off the front of the stage because the lights are so bright . . . We've had a few wardrobe malfunctions," Jim Donovan says. It's intermission at Cranston's Park Theatre and the tuxedoed, clean-shaven, perfectly-coiffed host of today's Miss Rhode Island/Miss Teen Rhode Island USA pageant has stepped off the stage to tell war stories. He's been in the spotlight for the last hour, surrounded by 60 women in evening gowns, but he isn't sweating. Donovan, a consumer reporter for CBS 3 Eyewitness News in Philadelphia, has been hosting beauty pageants as a side gig for over a decade.
> PHOTOS: Miss Rhode Island/Miss Teen Rhode Island USA pageant by Natalja Kent <
And it shows. He is a welcome dose of humor in this world of frozen smiles, spray tans, wrist-pivoting waves, and marches around stage in bikinis and high heels. He calls himself "Uncle Jimmy" and holds onto the prize for "Miss Photogenic" (a certificate for a $600 photo shoot) until after the pageant has ended, explaining to the contestants that the winner will lose track of the envelope if he hands it out now. He spices up the long list of sponsors he is obligated to read — dentists, personal trainers, dress boutiques, speech coaches, photographers — with comments like, "We're not sending anyone to the pageant with a unibrow." At one point, he shouts at the guys in the sound booth to turn down the synth-heavy background music. It's like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on crack, he says.
The stakes in Rhode Island pageantry don't come any higher than today's gauntlet; here on Sunday afternoon, it's all about the crown. The auditorium is brimming with screams and dreams. The screams erupt whenever a contestant struts across the stage or completes an answer featuring Sandra Bullock ("If you could have dinner with one celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and why?"). The dreams are omnipresent. A song blasting from unseen speakers advises, "If you just believe, you can move mountains with dreams." The contestants' adages include "Don't ever let your fears hold you back from pursuing your dreams" and "If you can dream it, you can believe it and you can achieve it."
But even the most brutal cynics are quiet today. There is a walking incarnation of these dreams in the room: Olivia Culpo, the 20-year old Cranstonian who wore a $25 rented gown in last year's Miss Rhode Island competition (her first-ever pageant), then went on to Vegas to be crowned Miss USA. Tall, tan, with flawless features, Culpo is Rhode Island royalty. She appears in three different outfits throughout the afternoon: a leather skirt and white Chanel shirt; a sky-blue cocktail dress; and a silver, floor-length evening gown. She glides through the auditorium, smiling, attracting shrieks and camera flashes at every carefully placed step. Onstage, she is ceremoniously presented with a miniature doll replica of herself. Offstage, before the competition starts, she tells me about her new life sharing an apartment in New York with the reigning Miss Universe and her sadness over giving up her Miss Rhode Island crown. "It's not even bittersweet; it's just bitter," she says. Even the fathers in the audience, who were sneaking to the lobby to catch glimpses of football games, are impressed. I heard one say that Culpo could have won last year's contest wearing a burlap bag.