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More than skin deep?

The Miss USA Pageant airs tonight from Gary, Ind., and some residents are hoping that the show provides more than a cosmetic touch-up for the city.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


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[AP photo]
Miss Minnesota, Anne Marie Clausen, left, and Miss Missouri, Larissa Meek, snap photos of other contestants during a Valentine’s Day gala at a Gary casino. “It’s not your mother’s pageant,” Meek said of this year’s show. “We’re not afraid to poke fun at ourselves a little bit.”
GARY, Ind. -- At first I thought it was a joke.

This year, the Miss USA pageant will be telecast from Gary, Ind.

My hardscrabble hometown.

At first glance, there wouldn't seem a city less suited to the task. Built on the back of the steel industry, this Northwest Indiana town saw its own fortunes bottom out with serious downturns in manufacturing during the '70s and '80s, bringing record unemployment and homeless rates. For three years in the 1990s it had the most murders per capita of any U.S. city.

But my own doubts didn't come from crunching numbers. I was raised in Gary and learned its rules early on.

After watching the steel industry slide from more than 30,000 jobs to fewer than 8,000, I learned not to apply for work at a fast-food joint. Those gigs were going to ex-steelworkers with families to feed. (Fortunately, that's no longer the case).

At 11, I learned what violence looks like up close, watching as an acquaintance was shot and wounded for missing a gang meeting. Later, I learned what grief looked like when my best friend's brother was killed by the police while resisting arrest at the end of my block.

Even now, walking through downtown Gary means traversing blocks of boarded-up buildings, piles of trash and vacant lots -- a desolate landscape that seems to embody the city's reputation as a rust-belt relic.

So when pageant organizers announced they would telecast their 50th anniversary pageant from Gary -- in exchange for nearly $3-million in funding from the city -- I had to go see how my old hometown was going to pull this one off.

In the process I learned something about hope and dreams, Gary-style.

* * *

The sign reaches at least 100 feet high and features a smiling model welcoming the Miss USA Pageant, "Gary Style." But the real purpose of this towering poster -- built for $30,000 in city money -- was to cover downtown's worst eyesore, a crumbling, long-closed Sheraton hotel.

From his office nearby, Ben Clement couldn't see the sign. But as the city's director of economic development, he knew some would view the facade as the perfect metaphor for staging a beauty pageant in a city as deprived as Gary. After all, the city is spending millions on Miss USA while residents complain of backed-up sewers and the homeless still haunt downtown.

"It's a chicken and egg kind of thing. Do we wait until we have all these great things to bring an event like this here, or take advantage now?" he said, slipping easily into the patter of a man used to talking past the city's most obvious shortcomings. "One of the biggest challenges I face in trying to attract new industry here is (overcoming) the negative image that precedes us. This pageant can change that."

mapMayor Scott L. King and tycoon Donald Trump (who owns half the Miss USA pageant with CBS) hatched a deal to stage the event in Gary for three years. For Trump, the show is a perfect way to funnel attention to a riverboat casino and hotel he owns at the city's northwestern edge. "I asked Mr. Trump point blank how much him owning the pageant had to do with Gary getting it," Clement added. "He said, "Everything.' But he has a big ego."

The city, bolstered by $25-million in annual tax revenue from two riverboat casinos, had cash to lure the pageant. And a promised 9 to 12 minutes of promotional time during tonight's broadcast will help Gary counter images of dilapidated neighborhoods with glitzy shots of busy gaming tables and beaches along Lake Michigan.

Clement said the deal also gives the Miss Universe organization (which produces the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants) a chance to take some credit for spurring an ongoing revitalization that includes plans for a $15-million public safety building and a $20-million minor league baseball stadium.

"With all the media attention and merchandise out there, somebody might decide "I need to take another look at Gary,' " said Clement. "That's what we're banking on."

Left unanswered: Can a beauty pageant really accomplish that much?

* * *

On a street on the city's south side, four Gary police officers huddled around a squad car, comparing notes while searching for a man suspected of dealing drugs in the neighborhood.

Just a few yards away, inside a silent auction at Indiana University's Northwest campus, Miss Florida 2001, 23-year-old Julie Anne Donaldson, was focused on a brass sculpture of frolicking dolphins.

The Jacksonville native and recent University of Florida graduate stood with the pageant's 50 other delegates (don't dare call them contestants) and explained that she had given the dolphins to the auction to raise money for charity. She seemed a typical Miss USA participant: background in modeling, hopes of a showbiz career as a TV talk show host or entertainment reporter, and a keen knowledge of what's required in her current gig -- smiling and selling.

The 51 women, housed at Trump's hotel and guarded by rotating shifts of city police officers, have spent nearly two weeks shuffling to events across the area, lunching at Chicago's tony Drake Hotel, dining with high rollers at Trump's casino, touring local hospitals, singing karaoke at a suburban bar.

Shielded and pampered, they've been steered past dilapidated neighborhoods to the city's best locations for prime media exposure -- and they know it.

"Miss USA is going to be a huge advertisement for Gary . . . and we're part of that," said Donaldson, who told family members and friends to disregard the worst they've heard about Gary. "I get a chance to tell people the (city's reputation) is a little harsher than the reality."

Organizers promise the event will feature less old-school pageantry and more new-school irony. Star Trek icon William Shatner, fresh from playing a kitschy pageant host in the Sandra Bullock film Miss Congeniality, does it here for real. (Celebrity judges include Martha Stewart and Ernie Hudson, the black guy from the Ghostbusters movies.)

Expect percolating club music for a fashion-runway feel; the swimsuit segments were filmed like an MTV video inside an old steel mill.

"It's not your mother's pageant," said Miss Missouri, Larissa Meek, 22, citing what has become the pageant's unofficial mantra. "We're not afraid to poke fun at ourselves a little bit."

Residents got a peek at Miss USA's new look Monday, during a two-hour show that allowed judges to choose 10 finalists for tonight's pageant. (They won't be announced until the beginning of the telecast.)

Second-tier celebrities like Time magazine's Joel Stein and ex-Survivor castaway Joel Klugh served as judges -- watching the women clamber over a corrugated metal set that looks like a cross between an airplane hangar and rave club.

"This is a form of reality TV that has been around for decades," said Klugh, still basking in the attention he got from the contestants. "I've never seen anything like this before."

Still, for many residents, the pageant's arrival remained serious business. At an autograph signing, roofer Tony Mitchell clutched a promotional photo bearing signatures from all 51 women. But with a 14-year-old stepdaughter about to graduate from modeling school, Mitchell, 47, wanted to show her that she can have a life beyond Gary's industrial landscape.

He was among several hundred who showed up for the autograph session -- thirsty for the taste of glamor and hope the pageant provided.

"At first I thought, "With all the stuff we need in Gary, why are they bringing a beauty pageant here?' " Mitchell said. "But it's a glimmer of hope . . . when everybody chumped off Gary as a ghost town."

* * *

Local attorney Doug Grimes, co-chair of a committee opposed to the mayor's expensive development plans, sneered at the idea that minor-league baseball and beauty pageants can help reverse 30 years of economic decline.

"We're being used," said Grimes, whose committee recently held a protest prayer breakfast that drew 600 people. "These beauty pageants no longer hold any relevance for black people. We are giving away valuable resources . . . while people are struggling to survive every day."

As it often does in Gary, race forms a subtle backdrop.

During Gary's decline, a black-run city government saw mostly white-owned businesses make a steady exodus -- even the local bank and newspaper removed Gary from their names and reached out to the suburbs.

So when Mayor King, who is white, brings a beauty pageant whose field of contestants is about 80 percent white to a city that's 85 percent black, old wounds are reopened.

And with the pageant's viewership steadily declining -- from 14.5-million viewers in 1998 to 11.9-million last year, according to CBS -- the value of exposure on tonight's telecast may also be shrinking.

"I'm just not sure the kind of racism and media demonization that hurt Gary for years will be wiped out by nine minutes on national TV," said Richard G. Hatcher, who became the city's first black mayor in 1967. "The reasons businesses don't invest here go beyond the negative images."

I'm pretty sure the Gary viewers see tonight won't be the city of my youth -- and that's probably a good thing. Who wants to see blocks of abandoned buildings and steel mills belching smoke into the sky, when sandy beaches and TV-ready "delegates" beckon?

But the truth of whether the pageant can help rescue this still-troubled city probably won't be known until long after Miss USA 2001 dons her tiara.

* * *

AT A GLANCE: The Miss USA Pageant airs live at 9 tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10. William Shatner hosts.

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