GUY RAZ, HOST:

Ten thousand women will compete in beauty pageants sponsored by Miss USA this year. Fifteen other organizations sponsor similar contests at the local, state and national level. It's a big industry, and there's lots of money to be made - money for the organizers, the designers, the coaches - everyone, it seems, except for most of the contestants. NPR's Brenda Salinas has our story.

BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: This weekend, 24 women compete to be the next Miss District of Columbia USA. Jessica Bermudez wants that title badly. She's come to a boutique in Virginia specializing in pageants to pick the perfect gown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

DEREK FERINO: Hello.

JESSICA BERMUDEZ: Hey, Derek.

SALINAS: She knows the manager, Derek Ferino, very well. This is the third time she's buying a pageant gown from the store.

BERMUDEZ: I think I got it.

FERINO: OK.

BERMUDEZ: Do you want to see?

FERINO: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. Wow.

BERMUDEZ: It's beautiful. I mean, it's one of a kind. It's been one of my favorite colors, the royal blue.

SALINAS: Jessica won't tell me the price of the one she bought for the competition, but this is what some other dresses in the store cost:

FERINO: This one is 1,427. This one's only $900, $3,000, just $1,700. This one is $3,750.

SALINAS: Jessica is a full-time student. She's getting her masters of public health at the University of Maryland. She works a part-time job just to be able to compete in pageants. On top of that, she has local sponsors. Hair salons and gyms give her money to promote their products. And she needs that money. The fee just to enter Miss D.C. USA is $995.

CARL DUNN: It's a big business. We've made our livelihood in it for many, many years.

SALINAS: That's Carl Dunn. He's the CEO of Pageantry magazine. He's been in the business 30 years, and he says there are lots of people making money in the beauty pageant industry.

DUNN: First off, you have the event itself. That's what you're looking at. Then behind that, you do have the designers, makeup artists, trainers, facilitators, possible sponsors.

SALINAS: And there are professional pageant consultants too. Victory Mohamed is one of these coaches. She's the current Miss Baltimore and the third runner up in Miss Maryland. One of the prizes she won was a scholarship that helps her pay for graduate school. Here she is in her basement studio examining a client's dress.

VICTORY MOHAMED: I want to add something. Even if it's just like a rain shower of stones...

SALINAS: The consultation is $50 per hour. The rhinestones? That'll be extra.

MOHAMED: If you're doing it right, you would have to spend at least 500 to $2,000 on a gown for USA pageant - 200 on an interview outfit, including accessories, shoes that whole thing.

SALINAS: And if Jessica does it right, she might get...

BERMUDEZ: The official Miss District of Columbia USA crown and banner with roundtrip travel expenses to the Miss USA pageant, an official engraved trophy, a $45,000 scholarship to Lindenwood University.

SALINAS: Scholarship at the Missouri liberal arts college aside, the cash prize is only about a thousand dollars. But even if Jessica isn't crowned tomorrow night, she insists that her money is well spent.

BERMUDEZ: I choose to do this because I think it's a great investment. You get experience with public relations and really getting your message out there. My personal message is to promote STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. So I think it's all very worth it.

SALINAS: Not surprisingly, Carla Crawford, the director of Miss D.C. USA, agrees. She says that apart from the thrill of competing on stage, the contestants gain valuable skills.

CARLA CRAWFORD: At the end of the day, it's very rewarding. They get the interview skills that they get out of it, they can go into any setting and be able to interview for jobs and colleges. They get so much out of it in the end.

SALINAS: Jessica is feeling cautiously optimistic.

BERMUDEZ: You always go in with high hopes. You go in as prepared as you can. But you never go in expecting anything.

SALINAS: Expecting, that is, anything more than handing over a decent amount of cash. Brenda Salinas, NPR News.

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