Pageant coach Chris Saltalamacchio, originally from Long Island, prepares Miss...

Pageant coach Chris Saltalamacchio, originally from Long Island, prepares Miss Connecticut 2013 Kaitlyn Tarpey for the Miss America pageant at the Glenbrook Community Center in Stamford. (Aug. 24, 2013) Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

Chris Saltalamacchio is not your typical drill sergeant. And this is no ordinary boot camp.

"Chin up," he shouts as a woman walks across the room. "You want to make sure you're really walking, not 'pageant walking.' Do it again!"

Kaitlyn Tarpey nods, turns and walks back to her starting position. Music blares as Saltalamacchio imitates the voice of a television announcer.

"Miss Connecticut, Kaitlyn Tarpeyyyy."

That's her cue.

Tarpey, a communications major at Pace University who won her Miss Connecticut title in June, begins her walk again, in high heels and a heavy gold-beaded gown, promenading across the floor of a dance studio in Stamford. Saltalamacchio scrutinizes every glance of her eyes, every muscle movement.

"You have hips, you have a shape, you don't need any of this hip swivel," he says, working his hips up and down. "You just need to walk. Again."

He's amiable, but firm. To win Miss America, this all has to look effortless.

Saltalamacchio, 28, doesn't seem like a guy who'd know much about the most coveted beauty pageant in the United States. He stands here on a recent afternoon in shorts and a V-neck tee, looking more the supportive older brother than pageant expert.

But the Hicksville native and former elementary schoolteacher has a knack for pageants. And so he chucked his career in education and in 2012 formed his own business -- Pageantry by Chris ( He's now a rising star in the little-known field of pageant coaching, with clients across the country -- including five competitors in the 2014 Miss America pageant, which ABC airs live Sunday at 9 p.m. from Atlantic City. (Besides Tarpey, he coaches Miss Vermont, Jeanelle Achee; Miss West Virginia, Miranda Harrison; plus two others with whom he works confidentially.)

"I try to make each girl feel special," he says. "Part of the challenge is figuring out what each one needs."

A winner himself

Saltalamacchio never thought much about pageants while growing up in Hicksville or attending the University of Delaware. But after he graduated, a friend decided to run for Miss Delaware. He helped her rehearse and plan outfits. She won, and went on to compete in Miss America. And he was hooked.

"I always joked that if there was a pageant like Miss America for guys, I'd have to compete," he says.

Sure enough, in 2007 he discovered and entered Delaware's Mr. Capital contest -- and won. Later, he competed for Mr. Delaware, which included a talent portion (he sang), onstage interview, plus formalwear and (hey, it's only fair) swimsuit competitions.

He won that title, too.

Having actually competed gives him special insight, he says, into what clients go through. He also knows what holding a title requires.

"I made 100 appearances, marched in parades, gave speeches," he recalls. "I've been in the trenches and have a much better appreciation of the job of Miss America."

Not just Miss America

Not all pageants are alike. Miss America and Miss USA, for instance, are about as similar as Katie Couric and Katy Perry.

The Miss Universe organization (which oversees Miss USA) is a for-profit venture run by Donald Trump, founded by a swimsuit company. Contestants compete in swimsuit, evening gown and interview, but it's clear the pretty factor counts most.

The Miss America organization is nonprofit. Each contestant is judged on looks, yes, but also talent and a platform, like veterans' rights (Tarpey's cause). Each Miss America embarks on a national speaking tour, traveling some 20,000 miles a month to help raise awareness for her cause.

"It rewards girls who have a good heart and mind, not just a good body and face," says Saltalamacchio.

The Miss America organization also raises scholarship funds for participants, around $40 million a year, making it one of the leading providers of scholarships for young women in the world.

"They don't really publicize that a lot, but the money is significant," says Susan Powell, an Oklahoma native who won Miss America in 1981.

Powell, now a successful opera and musical theater performer living in Manhattan, also emcees and judges pageants, and in 2010 visited soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq with other Miss Americas.

"It's like being part of a special sorority," she says.

But getting in is tough, she acknowledges. And nobody does it without at least one or two trusted advisers like Saltalamacchio guiding her along the way.

It's impossible to quantify the number of pageant consultants out there, but Saltalamacchio (who has worked competitors in Miss America, Miss USA and other contests) feels sure the number is growing. There are scores of local and state competitions, and it's common for most competitors (especially once they get high up in the ranks) to hire at least one adviser to have on hand. If they don't, some state organizations will provide them.

Crowning achievement

"Miss Connecticut, Kaitlyn Tarpeyyyy."

Her cue again. Tarpey moves forward, each step smooth, even. She stops, turns her head slowly from left to right, as if casually scanning the room. She smiles -- softly, like she's remembering a private joke -- then moves on, knowing eyes will follow her every step.

"It's great! It's awesome! It's happening," Saltalamacchio shouts, and gives her a high-five.

Depending on the client, Saltalamacchio may provide vocal training. A song-and-dance man himself, he somehow finds time to perform in community theater (in November he'll have a leading role in "Les Misérables" at Commack's Star Playhouse). For others, it's wardrobe styling, modeling tips, even advice on college essays.

"These are life skills," he says. "And they're useful whether you're onstage in Atlantic City, going for a job interview or giving a speech at your son's wedding."

"One day he's a stylist, another day he's giving me a pep talk ... about a bad date," says Tarpey. "I can talk to him about anything."

"I'm an only child, and my whole life I wanted a little sister," says Saltalamacchio, chuckling. "I have like 200 of them."

Tips from a pro

Advice from Chris Saltalamacchio -- even if you have no intention of competing for a crown:

STYLE "When buying formalwear, bring along someone whose opinion you trust," says Saltalamacchio. "It will save you time, energy and money."

NUTRITION "If you're hungry, eat. And don't feel guilty about it. Your body needs fuel."

CONFIDENCE "We all face decisions and confrontations in life every day. Stand up for yourself. Be clear, honest and concise whenever possible."

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