LAS VEGAS - Beauties from every state are competing for the Miss America crown Saturday night, an honor that 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 organization's official charity.
The competition at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip 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. Each one has already proven her poise, charm and volubility by winning her state crown.
The queens have been staying at Planet Hollywood, but the humming slot machines and flashing marquees have been little more than a blurry backdrop for a tight schedule of rehearsals, media events and one-on-one interviews with the judges.
After an opening number Saturday, hosts Brooke Burke-Charvet, of "Dancing with the Stars," and Chris Harrison, of "The Bachelor," will announce 16 finalists. The remaining women will face off in swimsuit, evening gown, talent and interview competitions, with cuts after each round.
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 seven judges.
At the end of the night, the reigning Miss America, 24-year-old Wisconsin brunette Laura Kaeppeler, will hand over her crown. Kaeppeler, whose father served time in prison for postal fraud, has spent her year advocating for children of incarcerated adults.
The Miss America Organization, which started as little more than an Atlantic City bathing revue, 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 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."