Lawrence will be the Miss USA pageant capital of the state this weekend and home to two competitions.
For the 74 contestants who arrived Friday afternoon in Lawrence, John Vannatta had some welcoming words of wisdom: Don't tell people what they want to hear. Stand out in the crowd and embrace your differences with other contestants.
"This weekend is about celebrating your individuality and uniqueness," said Vannatta, the president of Vanbros and Associates Inc., which has produced state pageants in the Midwest as part of the Miss Universe organization for 15 years.
For the first time, Lawrence will play host to the Miss Kansas USA and Miss Kansas Teen USA pageants at the Lied Center. The presentation show, or preliminary rounds, begin at 7 tonight.
After judges narrow the fields down to 15 and then five contestants, two new winners will be crowned Sunday night.
The contestants from across the state arrived and registered at the Lawrence Holidome on Friday afternoon.
Before setting up their rooms, posing for photos and rehearsing their group dance performance, the chatty contestants were all business during orientation once Vannatta started talking.
The weekend demands of performances, stage presence and interviews will be a relatively new experience for some.
"I walked around my house in heels to get used to that, so that my feet don't hurt. I just hope that nothing goes wrong, like I trip or something," said Courtney Hart, Miss South Olathe Teen USA.
Others have been in competition several times and hope to take home the title this year.
"Absolutely, I'm back. That's why I'm here," said Sarah Jump, Miss Midwest USA from Basehor, who will compete for her fifth time.
Miss Kansas 2004 Megan Bushell competed in the Miss America pageant. Now she says she wants the opportunity to represent Kansas again at the national level through the Miss USA pageant.
"I don't think it gives me an advantage, because just like any girl this is all a different system from the Miss America program and a lot of hard work does go into this," said Bushell, a Pepperdine University graduate student whose parents, Barbara and Don, live in Lawrence.
This weekend's pageants also will feature judges who are former title holders from Vanbros-produced pageants across the Midwest. The Miss Universe organization and NBC have agreed to allow the all-female team of judges.
Scott Voorhees, a Vanbros spokesman, said the agency chose Lawrence this year because several members of the Vannatta family are Kansas University graduates.
Last year's winners, Miss Kansas USA Ashley Aull, 21, Lansing, who will attend KU next semester, and Miss Kansas Teen USA Gentry Miller, 18, Wichita and a KU freshman, advised this year's contestants to make friends and to relish the time on stage.
"I think it's really special for girls that are quiet and not as outgoing because it can really bring you out of your shell," Aull said.
Today's presentation show includes evening gown and swimsuit competitions. All contestants will take part in personal interviews Sunday morning before each field is narrowed down to the semifinalists for Sunday night.
Both pageants include several Lawrence-area residents and Kansas University students. The coronation show, which culminates with the crowning of each winner, will begin at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Lied Center. To purchase tickets, call the Lied Center's box office at 864-2787. If seats are available, tickets will be sold at the theater ticket office before each performance. Tickets are $26.50 today and $36.50 on Sunday.