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Miss North Dakota describes pageant behind the glitz

Miss North Dakota 2006 Jacqueline Marie Johnson

Miss North Dakota Jacqueline Johnson glimpsed the throbbing lights of Las Vegas from her room at the posh Aladdin Resort & Casino. She glided right through them during a regimented tour of the Strip.

But she and her 51 fellow Miss America 2006 contestants couldn't plunge headlong into the glitzy jungle of casinos and nightclubs. They weren't allowed to gamble. They were also under intense surveillance, with a pageant hostess tagging along on restroom trips and a bodyguard everywhere else.

"I definitely bonded with these huge, 300-pound guys who escorted you everywhere," says Johnson, who returned home to Fargo last Sunday, a day after the pageant's 85th edition closed with Miss Oklahoma, Jennifer Berry, crowned Miss America.

For the first time in its history, the pageant swapped its Atlantic City, N.J., home for flashy, decadent Las Vegas. At the same time, it clung closely to tradition and its guarded image of wholesomeness.

For Johnson, a pre-med sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and part-time cello teacher, the experience was equal parts glamour, stamina and sleep deprivation.


The experience started with a swanky week in Los Angeles. There, Country Music Television, the program's adoptive host after ABC dropped its ratings-challenged staple, aggressively promoted the show.

Johnson strolled down Wisteria Lane while touring the Universal Studios set of "Desperate Housewives." She strode along the star-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame after Mayor Oscar Goodman gave the contestants keys to the city. Then, three luxury buses whisked the contestants to Vegas, where 10,000 onlookers cheered as they descended the red-carpet-lined grand staircase to the Aladdin.

"It was definitely a celebrity lifestyle," she says. "It was a lot of fun."

But it wasn't all sheer fun.

Whenever the girls weren't taking part in promotional events, they rehearsed the lavish final-night production numbers.

"By the end, the balls of your feet were exhausted," Johnson says. "When you got a chance to wear tennis shoes, you jumped at it."

She only managed three or four hours of sleep each night. She was allowed to see her family for 15 minutes every other day, not counting when her father, Gary, escorted her onstage during the evening gown portion of the competition.

The women clustered in an outdoor dressing tent behind the hotel, where each reigned over a 2-foot-wide cubicle. On each of the competition's four nights, the tent turned into a frantic beehive. Contestants had as little as two minutes to change outfits, fluff hair, touch up makeup and dash back on stage.


Keeping her cool

Johnson braced for cattiness, but ended up recruiting potential bridesmaids among her rivals, including winner Miss Oklahoma.

"Nobody had their claws out, trying to rip other girls' dresses," she says.

But the competition was indeed fierce, and she needed every ounce of poise she had. To an audience of 7,000 during the talent portion, she played Mark Summer's "Julie-O," the most challenging cello piece in her repertoire, a contemporary blend of jazz, rock and funk she picked for its "shock factor."

During the interview portion, she faced seven deadpan judges, immune to her normally contagious smile, who colluded to stump her with a nonstop barrage of questions. She responded to predictable queries on her platform, blood donation, and off-the-wall questions such as, "If you were crowned Miss America tomorrow, would you cut your hair off?"

Before host James Denton, the heartthrob from ABC's "Desperate Housewives," asked her practice questions during a rehearsal, she apologized for not looking him in the eye. "When you're talking to him, you forget what you're saying because he's so dreamy," she says.

Sure, she was disappointed when she didn't make the Top 10. But the winner, she thought, was meant to be Miss America from the moment she was born.

The theme of this year's show was a return to tradition, with organizers cutting out recent gimmicks such as the game show-style contestant interviews and peppering the show with black-and-white archival footage. Still, Johnson was sorry she didn't get a taste of Atlantic City pageant lore like the Boardwalk parade. But Las Vegas seemed a prime location for re-energizing the program: "It has all the glitz and glamour Miss America stands for."


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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