"Anything can happen on a night like this!" Those were the foreshadowing lyrics that opened the 49th annual Miss USA Pageant, as the much-anticipated event beamed for the second year from the "live entertainment capital of the world" -- Branson, Missouri. The multi-million viewing audience watched as the evolving face of Miss USA offered another glimpse of the changing styles and visions of the generation whose mark is now being made and whose contributions will become as much a part of the pageant's rich history as the 48 years that preceded it.
A new look and attitude permeated the production, as vexing camera angles and lighting led viewers through a maze of seldom-seen backstage dressing areas, curtain pulls, props, and noir-like fades reminiscent of a photographer's darkroom. "Redefinition" seemed to be the elusive description surrounding the event, as pageant fans and followers forecasted who among the 51 contestants was the real Miss USA.
The delegates were introduced wearing designer pink-shaded, below-the-knee slip dresses, making individuality a non-comparable criteria and thus complicating predictions. Two groups of judges would have to be charmed in order to emerge as a contender for the title. A preliminary panel of locally recognized individuals was granted the privilege of selecting the ten delegates that the rest of the nation would see on final night. Those ten then competed before celebrity judges who included former Miss Teen USA, Martial Law's Kelly Hu and chart-topping singer Usher.
The ten luckiest girls in the USA were called in random order: Lisa Rabon (South Carolina), Tiani Jones (Colorado), Jensie Grigsby (Iowa), Bridget Vezina (New Hampshire), Tiffany Meyer (Kansas), Jill Dobson (Michigan), Jina Mitchell (Alabama), Lynnette Cole (Tennessee), Patti Dunn (Georgia), and finally, Carrie Tucker (New York). Three elements of competition now lay ahead which would decide the winner.
The familiar rapid-fire, question-and-answer segment (dubbed the "Press Test") began with the contestants spontaneously answering a wide variety of questions, much like those that Miss USA is asked throughout the year of her reign. At the press conference, Miss TN Lynnette Cole was judged tops, partly due to her response to the question, "If you could have given the Tennessee Titans a piece of advice (referring to the Super Bowl's heart-stopping finale), what would it have been?" Lynnette jokingly answered, "I wish your arm was longer!"
The Speedo® Swimsuit Competition followed, again with each girl in identical two-piece swimsuits. Pop-star Lou Bega kept up the pace performing his hit Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of...). Alternating between a pageant and a mini-concert, pop-sensation Christina Aguilera sang the appropriately titled What A Girl Wants, her second recent #1 song. At the parade's end, the $1000 Swimsuit Award was presented to the apparent leader, Tennessee's Lynnette Cole. The evening-gown event would decide the top five.
On the eve of her 50th anniversary, the Miss USA pageant went uptown and upscale. Couture invaded the hallowed wardrobe of the world's most glamorous pageant. The shimmering beaded and luscious chiffon gowns, that in past years made the Evening Gown Competition the most beautiful segment of the contest, were bypassed in favor of cutting edge fashion. The trend mirrored Hollywood actresses who experienced a public backlash not long ago when they appeared in unembellished styles at events such as the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. Back At One became a duet by soul-crooner Brian McKnight and country's Mark Wills, as the gowns gently swept by. Still, some of the girls' selections made the grade. The frontrunners were Alabama's figure-hugging, black gown and Tennessee's traditional glamorous gown which rose to the challenge and were the leaders of the pack. The votes were in, and a Top Five spot was on everyone's mind.
In a spin-off of the popular NBC game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the five finalists -- Alabama, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Kansas -- were put through paces as "contestants" of "Who Wants To Be Miss USA?" as MTV host Carson Daly reprised the Regis Philbin role. Though the pageant was broadcast by CBS, former Miss USA Ali Landry and Entertainment Tonight's Julie Moran commented that the segment was designed to reveal how the girls handle themselves under pressure, not whether they answered correctly. The segment used its own lifeline to make the final cut to three: Misses Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Alabama.
The final question posed, which became the deciding factor in choosing Miss USA, was: "Monica Lewinski is back in the news making tons of money for a diet company, and lots of people are apprehensive because of the way she became famous. How do you feel about the whole thing?"
Though Misses New Hampshire and Alabama seemed to waffle somewhat on how they felt, Miss Tennessee shone through, just as she had throughout the competition: "Well, unfortunately, it had to do with the Presidency to get her famous status. But hopefully, she can take this opportunity and turn it into a good one by getting the focus off of how she got there and, hopefully, help other younger people or older people lose some weight as well." It was a good solid stance.
As her reign as Miss USA concluded, Kimberly Pressler appeared on stage to take her final walk, and she was beautiful and sincere in her farewell comments. The time arrived to announce the special award winners and the moment everyone had waited for: Voted Miss Congeniality was Hawaii's Michele Kaplan. The Internet-voted Miss Photogenic Award went to Miss Minnesota Paige Swenson, and the Clairol Hydrience Style Award was won by Miss Florida Kristin Ludecke. The nerve-inducing drum rolls sounded the announcement that would change someone's life forever. As the tension mounted, the Second Runner-up spot went to Miss Alabama Jina Mitchell. As New Hampshire's Bridget Vezina heard her name called as First Runner-up, Lynnette Cole reacted with both shock and delight, realizing that she was the Miss USA that the judges had found.
Prior to the pageant, the 21-year-old beautiful lady reflected on a variety of subjects that inevitably arise during one's reign.
On self-discovery: "Through reading books on self-guidance, I have learned to evaluate myself on a more intimate level. I have become more self-aware of my fears and weaknesses. And, more importantly, I have learned how to emphasize my strengths."
On being a titleholder: "Miss USA is a physical symbol that dreams really do come true through determination and dedication. She is a symbol of rewarded hard work who has an obligation to provide encouragement to others as well as conduct herself as a professional and articulate woman representing a very impressive parent company."
Finally, when asked what her most treasured possession is, she responded, "My adoption papers, which I received at the age of two, are a symbol of my rebirth and the wonderful opportunities my parents have given me."
From two seats in Branson's 4,000-seat Grand Palace, Lynnette's proud parents watched along with the world as their daughter became the symbol of which she so eloquently spoke, and she boldly accepted the wonderful opportunities that lay ahead for our Miss USA 2000.
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