May 11, 2010

Miss USA hopefuls pose in racy photos

Only a year ago, controversial Miss USA runner-up Carrie Prejean drew fire when topless photos of her surfaced on the Internet. What a difference a year makes.

This year, all 51 Miss USA contestants have posed for their official photos wearing seductive expressions on their faces and not a whole lot else on their bodies. Taken by fashion photographer Fadil Berisha in dramatic black-and-white, the shots feature racy lingerie, smoldering looks and plenty of bare skin.

In fairness, the pageant is being held in Las Vegas this week, and the theme of the official publicity photos is “Waking Up in Vegas.” But judging by the photos, women in that celebrated city sleep in bustiers, high heels, fishnet stockings and garters instead of flannel jammies.

‘Pushing the envelope’
The photos seemed designed to generate controversy and buzz about the pageant, TODAY’s Matt Lauer suggested to pageant president Paula Shugart.

“Yes, to some degree it’s marketing,” Shugart admitted from Las Vegas. “But we’ve always been the cutting-edge pageant. We are owned by Donald Trump.”

Responding to reported angry phone calls to pageant officials over the steamy shots, Trump himself came to their defense. “They are a little bit sexy, but I’ll tell you what — everybody’s watching, so I have no problems with it,” he told the New York Daily News. “If you look at Miss America, it’s now off network television.”

“It pushed their envelope, but they all enjoyed doing this,” Shugart told Lauer. Besides, she added, the women in the pageant are not looking to bring peace to the world; they are all aspiring actresses and models.

“Their dream is to be in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show,” Shugart said, and the “Waking Up in Vegas” shots are good practice.

Too sexy? But some are saying the pictures of the 51 contestants, available for your viewing pleasure at the pageant’s website, are too racy for Miss USA. After all, wasn’t it just last year that Carrie Prejean lost her job as Miss California USA after photos surfaced of her dressed in little beyond her own skin?

Not so, say pageant organizers. Prejean first stirred controversy for criticizing gay marriage during the pageant. She was fired briefly when partially nude photos of her surfaced after she said she’d never posed for such pictures. But she was saved by the intervention of Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant with NBC — only to get fired for good because officials said she was not carrying out her official duties, a charge she denied.

“Carrie is not anything we need to bring up again,” Shugart told Lauer.

Lark-Marie Anton, a pageant spokeswoman, also weighed in via e-mail, telling NBC News: “We are in the business of beauty and the contestants who compete for the title of Miss USA are not afraid to be sexy. These ladies are the full package — smart, accomplished, relevant and sexy. That said, I think these photos definitely break the stereotype of what a ‘pageant girl’ looks like.”

These “pageant girls” — who include Claire Schreiner, Miss Wyoming USA, who is dating Cody Gifford, son of TODAY’s own Kathie Lee Gifford — definitely don’t look like the template created for the rival Miss America pageant, which bills its competition as a scholarship pageant and not a beauty contest. But, Miss USA pageant officials say, their competition makes no apologies for emphasizing beauty.

“We're seeing beautiful, smart, intelligent, classy women who just so happen to be sexy,” Tamiko Nash, a pageant consultant and former Miss California, told NBC News.

Not everyone agrees. Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, felt the pictures convey the wrong image for young girls who may be looking for role models.

“As a mom of a 13-year-old daughter, I worry about the fact that these young women are held up in front of our young girls as symbols to be emulated, and it’s certainly a concern for American moms,” Nance told NBC News.

If the pageant is pushing the envelope, it’s only in keeping with the history of such events. Way back in 1984, before any of the current Miss USA contestants were born, Vanessa Williams lost her Miss America crown and sash after nude photos of her surfaced. Two years ago, Katie Rees lost her job as Miss Nevada because of racy photos. And last year, Miss USA had the controversy over Prejean.

They may be beautiful, but the competition can get ugly. From blackmail to sabotage, check out the underside of the pageant circuit.

The bottom line for pageant officials is what the controversy does for the ratings. The pageant broadcasts live on NBC from the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas Sunday night (9 p.m. ET) with TODAY’s Natalie Morales and celebrity chef Curtis Stone handling the hosting duties. Trace Adkins and Boys Like Girls are the special musical guests.

The winner of the Miss USA pageant gets to live in one of Donald Trump’s condos in New York City for a year while she represents the pageant. She also represents the United States in the Miss Universe pageant.
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