Rubbernecking was unavoidable as the fire truck braked in front of Pinocchio restaurant to watch a gaggle of blondes in four-inch heels and brunettes in Vegas club-worthy dresses strut down Southwest Park Avenue. Firefighters gawked, asking the more than two dozen beauty queens to "hop on" their bright red engine while cameras flashed and smiles were handed out like after-dinner mints. The United States Miss Earth pageant had arrived.
Billed as "beauties with a cause," the U.S. Miss Earth Pageant was held for the first time in Portland last Wednesday and plans to return next year. It's the national portion of the 6-year-old international Miss Earth pageant, which "actively promotes the preservation of the environment" and boasts more delegates from more countries than Donald Trump's Miss Universe pageant.
But despite the hippie-ish connotations of the pageant's name (hemp gowns, makeup-free skin radiant with patchouli oil), the real U.S. Miss Earth has no real "earth-friendly" requirements. The only prerequisites for entry are age (18 to 26 years old) and height (over 5 feet 4). In fact, one doesn't even need any prior pageant experience to enter the national competition, although you must possess "good moral character."
The most environmentally friendly duty asked of last year's winner, Amanda Pennekamp, was participation in an international tree-planting ceremony. Watching this year's three-hour pageant, little suggested that the competition involved anything with the prefixes "eco-" or "green."
Instead, the 26 contestants, including two Oregonians, vied for the $10,000 diamond-and-pearl crown (at least that's "recycled" every year) by donning bikinis and answering questions like, "If you were a road, what kind of road would you be?" in a modest hotel ballroom 150 yards from the Portland airport.
Well, it's a start. Tiaras and $500 evening gowns may seem like an odd fit in a no-frills city like Portland, but given our enviro-friendliness, a pageant titled Miss Earth is easier to swallow than most showy displays of an antiquated tradition. At least Sheraton Portland Airport general manager Kevin Dowdell thinks so.
Dowdell, whose mom was a former Miss World runner-up, joined the Sheraton Portland team last year to build business. His pet project is pageants. The hotel will host the Miss Oregon and Miss Teen Oregon competitions this November as well as Ms. Plus America, a plus-sized beauty pageant that Dowdell's assistant will even compete in. And by getting the national Miss Earth pageant under his belt, he hopes to host the 2009 or 2010 international Miss Earth competition, which, unlike the U.S. pageant, is televised in multiple Asian countries.
"Pageantry serves as a way to bring more attention to Portland," Dowdell says, "and it brings a '50s-style elegance for guests to see pageant girls traipsing through your lobby. My goal is to bring more Asian business to Portland, and they love a pageant over in Asia."
The 2-year-old U.S. portion of Miss Earth has a much lower profile than its global parent pageant. After being courted by Dowdell, U.S. Miss Earth director Evan Skow—an Arizona banker who's worked behind the scenes in pageants for 13 years—moved the pageant from Laughlin, Nev., to Portland. Even though Skow doubled the number of Miss Earth contestants this year, many of the participants still weren't finalized until weeks ago and not every state was represented. Miss Earth Oregon Kelci Flowers, also crowned 2006 Miss Teen Oregon, learned about the pageant through her waitressing job at the Sheraton. (The organizers gave her the Miss Earth Oregon title.)
It's not so glamorous a job: Participants pay a $575 entry fee to compete, although that covers their hotel stay and meals. The pageant winner gets a free trip to compete at the international pageant, 500 bucks, and a few perks from sponsors.
"Not all pageants are bad. And it's frustrating when you knock on [a sponsor's or contestant's] door, trying to explain who you are, and they hear the word 'pageant' and it's a no," says Skow. "Legitimacy is the hardest thing I fought for, that I still fight for."
Although many of the contestants were models, several engage in activities that work well with Miss Earth's eco-gimmick. Curiously, green questions were absent from the pageant itself, but voluntary "environmental presentations" (which were not seen or scored by the judges) were held the evening before the pageant. Contestants in semi-formal dresses were filmed by Stonehaven Productions, makers of the Keanu Reeves-narrated eco-documentary The Great Warming. The company asked the Miss Earth delegates to pitch environmental service projects. The winner would be filmed for a new documentary.
Prepared contestants like Miss Earth Southern Florida Lauren Hall discussed the business of her employer, a pizzeria that only uses hybrid vehicles and organic ingredients and offers their employees gym memberships to stay healthy. Miss Earth Northern California Heidi Mueller, a tap-dancing farm girl, displayed 4-foot diagrams demonstrating how she implemented a "school garden project" for low-income kids. "[One child,] little Carlos, came home from school and asked his mom to make him a salad," Mueller noted.
What other contestants lacked in eco-knowledge, they made up for in enthusiasm. Portlander and Miss Earth Northwest Marnisha Marberry, a former Miss Oregon contestant, joked how canvas grocery bags are "cuter" than plastic ones. Miss Oklahoma Bonnie Gillis spoke about recycling cell phones and Miss Earth New York Marshana Ritchie declared, "You can go green and still go fabulous."
Skow would like to introduce more environmental elements into Miss Earth, but this year his priorities were more basic: securing anyone to get on board. "The Miss Earth pageant is about likability and personality," he says. "They have to be able to sell the product, and in this case that product is the environment."
A quiet man with a serious work ethic, Skow produced this year's pageant on a tight time frame and a tighter budget. His right-hand woman is Carol Hirata, his former boss when they produced the Miss Teen Montana and Miss Montana pageants. Skow's sisters, nicknamed the "Glitter Twins," designed the Sheraton's minimal palm frond-decorated stage. His choreographer, Kristy Kay Jones, is a former Miss Montana Teen he took under his wing, and the pageant auditor was Jones' husband, Nicholas.
One of the judges was the owner of the hotel's gift shop.
The opening dance number of the pageant last Wednesday night captured Miss Earth in full: A show tune from Dreamgirls played softly over the sound system, several of the two dozen long-legged girls in black mini dresses spun in the wrong direction, while others posed with their left arm in the air instead of their right. Skow, sweaty in a modest navy suit, dove behind the shallow stage, checked plugs and played DJ. Later, he cued up the girls, escorted the judges and asked emcee Lacy Matthews to stall for 10 minutes several times.
While the show attracted an audience of 400, most of the $30 tickets were given away to friends, family, media and hotel employees.
"Did you ever have one of those nights where everything goes wrong?" asked Skow after announcing yet another delay due to a tie among the judges. "Well, this is one of those nights for me."
Dowdell was more optimistic about the end result of Miss Earth 2007. "Despite the glitches, overall, this year's pageant was making more people aware of what Miss Earth really is," the Sheraton manager explained.
With more money and support, Miss Earth may have more time to focus of the "Earth" portion of the competition next year. For now, the top "environmental" seller turned out to be Miss Earth Kansas Lisa Forbes. The former Miss USA contestant (she was also once on ABC's The Bachelor) was crowned Miss Earth United States 2007. Skow says he lost money on the event, but he will still pay for Forbes to compete for the international Miss Earth crown this October in Manila.
Forbes did not make an environmental presentation the night before, but she was an instant standout, articulating her responses to questions about childhood memories with grace and towering over her competitors by half a foot. Plus, the plunging neckline of her ocean-colored gown way surpassed those of her competitors.