LAS VEGAS (AP) — Beauty pageant contestants danced in multicolored knee-length dresses onstage at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip as the 92nd Miss America competition got under way Saturday night.
The show is the culmination of a week of preliminary competitions and months of preparations for the titleholders from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The contestants have been staying at hotel-casino, but the humming slot machines have been little more than a blurry backdrop for a tight schedule of rehearsals, media events and one-on-one interviews with the judges.
Among the preliminary winners were Miss Maryland and Miss Oklahoma. Miss Puerto Rico sprained her ankle while showing the judges her flamenco talent, and returned for the swimsuit preliminary on crutches after fainting from the pain backstage.
Hosts Brooke Burke-Charvet, of "Dancing with the Stars," and Chris Harrison, of "The Bachelor," are preparing to announce the field of 15 finalists. The women who survive the initial cut will face off in swimsuit, evening gown, talent and interview competitions, with cuts after each round.
Organizers have added an "American Idol"-inspired twist in which fans can bring back a favorite contestant through online and mobile phone voting.
Preliminary scores and the talent competition each count for 30 percent of a contestant's score, while swimsuit and evening gown competitions each count for 20 percent.
The top five finalists will answer a question posed by the panel of judges.
At the end of the night, the reigning Miss America, 24-year-old Wisconsin brunette Laura Kaeppeler, will hand over her crown.
The crown carries with it a $50,000 scholarship and a yearlong run as an advocate and role model. The winner will go on tour, speaking to groups around the country and raising money for the Children's Miracle Network, the pageant's official charity.
The pageant started as little more than an Atlantic City bathing suit revue. It broke viewership records in its heyday and bills itself as one of the world's largest scholarships programs for women.
But like other pageants, the show has struggled to stay relevant with the advent of feminism and the civil rights movement. More recently, the rise of reality television has provided a superabundance of options for Americans interested in seeing attractive young people in competitive pursuits.
The beauty queens are also striving to rebrand themselves.
"Every pageant girl, it's become the thing to say that you were a big tomboy growing up," said Miss District of Columbia, Allyn Rose, before going on to describe herself as a kid who loved to play in the dirt.
Rose plans to undergo a preventive double mastectomy after the competition to reduce her risk of breast cancer, the disease that killed her mother and grandmother.
She is one of several contestants who have grabbed headlines this year because of their unusual backstories. Other include Miss Montana, the pageant's first autistic contestant, Miss Iowa, who struggles with Tourette's syndrome, and Miss Maine, who lost more than 50 pounds to win her state crown.
Judge Mary Hart said these hard luck personal histories will not sway her scoring because every contestant has overcome adversity. What she is looking for is "really the full package."
"Each in their own way is so admirable, and has faced the odds, that they're already winners in life," said the former "Entertainment Tonight" host. "Each woman is capable in her own right of being a role model, and already in fact is."
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier
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