It was early November, the rain was falling in sheets outside of Isabella’s on Columbus Avenue, and Miss Universe wasn’t happy. Mpule Kwelagobe, a quiet and regal 19-year-old from Botswana, was locked in a staring contest of sorts with the waiter, a guy with a grungy rock-and-roll beard, who was ribbing her for ordering a Coca-Cola “with one ice cube” in her perfect, clipped British English.
“Sure you don’t want two ?” he said, chuckling.
Ms. Kwelagobe, who is 5 feet 11 inches and has a 24-inch waist, simply stared at him for an uncomfortably long period of time. He slinked away.
Across the table sat Miss U.S.A., Kimberly Ann Pressler, a perky, 21-year-old pug-nosed beauty from upstate Franklinville, N.Y. (population 1,700). She filled the silence by talking about her secret for dominating the question-and-answer portion of beauty pageants. “This is what I tell girls when they want to know how to prepare: Honestly, you have to know yourself ,” she said, pointing in the air with her manicured nails, nodding and intoning the words with every ounce of earnestness she could muster. She looked for affirmation from Ms. Kwelagobe, who had handily defeated her at the Miss Universe pageant six months ago in Trinidad & Tobago. “Am I right? You have to know what your opinion is about everything. Am I for this? Am I against this? You have to know what you think. And if you know that, you can answer anything that they throw at you.”
Miss Universe and Miss U.S.A. are Manhattan roommates: For their yearlong reigns, they are being put up in a 30th-floor apartment in the new Trump Place at 70th Street overlooking the Hudson River. The building, of course, is owned by Donald Trump, who bought the Miss Universe Organization, which presents Miss Universe, Miss U.S.A. and Miss Teen U.S.A. pageants, in 1996 for $10 million, which he swears was a real bargain.
“I’d never seen an asset before where you could make money and look at beautiful women,” Mr. Trump told The Observer . “Usually when you look at beautiful women, you lose money.”
Miss Universe and Miss U.S.A. each have their own bedroom; Miss Teen U.S.A., Ashley Michelle Coleman, sleeps on their couch when she visits, about twice a month, from her home in Delaware.
The title of Miss U.S.A. has always been a low-rent version of Miss America. Mr. Trump wants to change that, so now the women have to sign up for a cause, a disease or something, just like those goody-two-shoes Miss Americas. So Miss Universe got AIDS, Miss U.S.A. got cancer (breast and ovarian). Miss Teen, of course, ended up with drug and alcohol abuse.
And they all got a den mother: an accountant named Maureen Reidy, whom Mr. Trump hired to be president of Miss Universe. She replaced the judges with guys like supermodel photographer Patrick Demarchelier. She asked the girls to stop getting breast implants. She got designers like Tommy Hilfiger to dress the contestants. And starting with Ms. Kwelagobe and Ms. Pressler, she moved the winners from a Beverly Hills apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard, which housed the pageant winners for about a decade, to New York.
But there is one problem. Lo and behold, the beauty queens found themselves tossed into a place called Manhattan, where stunning women stride down every block. Where corn-fed American wholesomeness loses out to plumped lips and exotic features. The most beautiful girls in the world moved to the Upper West Side, and nobody noticed. “It has only been six months since I brought them here,” said Ms. Reidy.
“Botswana is the worst country in terms of AIDS, per capita,” Ms. Kwelagobe was saying, as the waiter very cautiously placed her skewered chicken and french fries in front of her. “We have a population of just over a million and a half, and approximately 400,000 of them are H.I.V. positive. It’s scary.” While noting that she had not personally known anyone in Botswana afflicted with the disease, she said, “The scary thing is the proposition that we might not have a future in Botswana if this keeps going on. I don’t know, it’s very sad.”
“Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.” Ms. Pressler was nodding, though her meal was full of distractions. Her fork had what appeared to be a big piece of dried spinach stuck to it. She had ordered a Caesar salad with grilled chicken and shrimp, but only three anemic shrimp had arrived on top, and the butternut squash soup, well, she winced after one bite. But she did not complain.
Ms. Pressler, whose father is half-Japanese, and who looks a bit like one of those racy animé depictions of a Western girl action hero, is the kind of young woman who has doubtlessly been called “a real trouper” a number of times in her life, by her cheerleading coach and her “powderpuff” girls football coach in high school, by her pageant directors. She competed three times in the Miss New York U.S.A. pageant before winning and then going on to win the Miss U.S.A. At the Miss Universe pageant last May, in an upset defeat for the United States, she was not chosen as one of the top 10 finalists.
“I’m scared in a different way than she is,” Ms. Pressler said, nodding. “It makes me nervous, because I have an extremely high chance of catching-not catching, but being diagnosed with-cancer. My mother had stomach cancer. My grandmother had cancer of the legs. My great-aunt has breast cancer. My other great-aunt had ovarian cancer and is a survivor. And this is all in my immediate family! So I’m scared of the genetics in my family. I have a good chance of being diagnosed with cancer sometime in the next 20 years.”
The mood was getting heavy. Ms. Kwelagobe sat silently above her mostly untouched plate of food. Ms. Pressler put a pretty good dent in a “chocolate sack” filled with raspberry mousse and berries. The rain had stopped, and the pair hopped into their radio car. After dropping off Ms. Pressler’s videos at Blockbuster ( The Matrix , Rush Hour) , they headed over to designer Pamela Dennis’ showroom on Seventh Avenue, where Ms. Kwelagobe had to borrow a dress for a Children’s Friends for Life AIDS gala that night.
While Ms. Kwelagobe disappeared into a dressing room, Ms. Pressler tried on an off-white gown with clear plastic sleeves, even though the last V.I.P. who had borrowed it brought it back with red lipstick smeared all over the front. “Uuugh,” she said as she smoothed the dress in the mirror. “It makes my hips look big!” She started poking her head into the various rooms of the showroom, searching for her roommate. “Where’s Mpule?” she asked. “Hey, where’s Mpule?” She was told that Ms. Kwelagobe had gone to Brooklyn to get her hair done. “Hmm,” said Ms. Pressler, shrugging.
So Ms. Pressler went downstairs and stood in the middle of Seventh avenue, in her waist-length leather jacket, looking at the lights of Times Square and trying to figure out where she was and how she could get to Union Square for her acting class at Lee Strasbourg. In class, she’d be doing a scene from the Abe Burrows play Cactus Flower as Stephanie, the part Ingrid Bergman played in the 1969 movie.
Ms. Pressler’s home town, Franklinville, has only one stop light and no fast food restaurants. After her reign, Ms. Pressler hopes to have dual residences in both Los Angeles and New York, and become famous in films and television without taking her clothes off.
She stood on Broadway and thought about taking the subway. Since she gets only a limited taxi stipend from the pageant, she takes subways when she can. “I learned not to be afraid of it,” she said. “You hear bad things about the subway, and it’s not that bad. You know what you need to know? You need to know the street is above the subway. You need to know where the 1 and the 9 is going and where to get off.” She held out her hand and hailed a taxi.
A few days later, Ms. Pressler and Ms. Kwelagobe were relaxing in their apartment in Trump Place. The following day, Ms. Pressler was scheduled to go to Miami, and Ms. Kwelagobe would be traveling to South America to make an appearance at the Miss Colombia Pageant. Ms. Pressler stood at the kitchen window and proudly pointed out the view of the Statue of Liberty in the distance. She ignored the muddy slag field of a construction site next door. The apartment, which looks to be about 1,500 square feet, has three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms and a fresh coat of white paint. As for interior decorating, it resembles nothing so much as a college dorm: standard-issue torchiere lamp, a sand-colored couch, a television and V.C.R., a box filled with candy that some Mexican people sent after Ms. Kwelagobe visited their country, and an enormous sombrero. There’s a fax machine that spits out their daily schedules of store appearances and charity events.
There is no art to be seen, though there are three large mirrors in silver frames above the couch, into which Ms. Pressler at one point gazed deeply and concluded, “Omigosh, I have really fat cheeks.”
The bare walls are a source of some household consternation. “No comment,” said Ms. Pressler, saying that The Observer should ask Ms. Reidy where the art was and, while we were at it, also find out what happened to the kitchen table they had been promised.
The kitchen did boast two blenders and a refrigerator-freezer filled with steaks, juices too numerous to mention, bags of chicken nuggets, frozen shepherd’s pie and yogurts in various flavors. The kitchen also had a George Foreman grill that Ms. Pressler picked up on a recent visit to Wal-Mart and has sworn by ever since. In the cupboard were Barnum Gummy Animals, Honeycombs, Apple Jacks, Twizzlers and Tootsie Rolls. Nancy Torres, who works for the Miss Universe Organization, shops for them every week. Ms. Pressler makes the list and does all the cooking. “She cooks. I eat,” Ms. Kwelagobe explained.
Ms. Pressler said cooking is how she shows affection, especially to men. “I’m the type of person that needs to feel needed, you know what I mean?” she said. “So I like to do things for him. I like to make sure he has dinner on the table when he gets home. I like to make sure he has everything that he needs before he even asks for it. That’s how I show that I care.”
The Observer , perhaps unwisely, commented that they were like an old married couple, with Ms. Kwelagobe playing the role of the man.
Ms. Kwelagobe glowered. “Am I supposed to be complimented by that?” she said.
After a long period of silence and a refusal to answer any questions with anything more than “Yup,” and “Nope,” The Observer rashly asked Miss Universe to lighten up, at which point she said she was considering throwing the visitor out the window, just like she had the cheese sandwich that caught fire the last time Miss Teen U.S.A. tried to cook in the apartment.
“I’m not sensitive,” she said, “but if somebody says that you’re the old man of the family-I’m not even a man!”
She said that The Observer had annoyed her two days before, but would not say why. “It is not open for discussion! I am beginning to fall asleep!” She left the room.
“It’s not you,” whispered Ms. Pressler. “She just gets like that sometimes.”
Asked about Miss Universe’s apparent short fuse, Miss Teen U.S.A., Ashley Michelle Coleman, later said by phone that it wasn’t at all like that. For example, she explained, when the three beauty queens went on the Fox network’s Fox and Friends , Ms. Kwelagobe was not really angry at the host. “The guy who interviewed us had interviewed her previously, and he could never pronounce her name. She was just cracking jokes at him, like, ‘I’m never going to forgive you.’ She likes to play like that.”
Ms. Pressler let The Observer take a peek at the owner’s manual that came with the Miss U.S.A. crown. It outlines reimbursable expenses ($100 per month for makeup, $50 for hosiery) and nonreimbursable expenses (“The building does not have valet parking. If you have a car you can pay $260 per month in the building garage. NO ONE CAN USE THIS SPACE BUT YOU.”). It also says: No guests in the apartment after 10 P.M.; a 10 P.M. curfew when Miss U.S.A. has an appointment the following morning; no partying in hotel rooms while on the road; no drugs (duh!); no major hair changes without consulting the “director of talent development,” no smoking in public or even carrying cigarettes to events. Miss U.S.A. is also advised “to use discretion” when accepting alcohol at cocktail or dinner parties: “It is perfectly acceptable to use your water glass to participate in ceremonial toasts.”
And watch that pretty mouth! “Slang and foul language have no place in the vocabulary of Miss U.S.A.,” says the manual. “Think of the public’s perception of what you do and say.”
It goes without saying that porking out is not an option-who can forget Mr. Trump’s very public reaction when 1996′s Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, gained 40 pounds. “She obviously had some sort of eating disorder,” Mr. Trump told The Observer .
Ms. Pressler pulled out a couple of tubes of Pringles and a bucket of prepared French onion dip. Ms. Kwelagobe sat nearby. They talked about the stuff they had won. A $40,000 salary. Mikimoto pearls. Phone cards. Cell phones that ring with Bach cantatas. A Camaro sports car. Ms. Pressler was given a $15,000 Chopard watch with a bunch of diamonds floating underneath the crystal. Ms. Kwelagobe didn’t get one. “You know what happened?” Ms. Pressler said. “The guy that owns Chopard, he died.”
“Oh, nice excuse,” said Ms. Kwelagobe.
When Ms. Kwelagobe won Miss Universe, Botswana rejoiced: 250,000 people showed up for her homecoming in the capital of Gabarone. The government gave her a house. People she didn’t know gave her livestock. Her mother now signs autographs at the grocery. Whether or not the rest of the world took note of the pageant, Botswana believes that Ms. Kwelagobe has put their country on the map. “My homecoming was big, but the more I go there, it seems, the bigger I get,” she said, taking a glob of French onion dip and spreading it uniformly over a Pringle with her finger. “I was there three weeks ago, and I had police escorts 24 hours a day, whereas the last time, I had just four bodyguards. This time I had four bodyguards, plus police escorts. The government is setting up a committee that is going to make sure that from now on, I will always have the same respect and the same status within Botswana. I will always get bodyguards. So it’s like a President whose term is over, but still gets the same attention.”
Still, in the pageant business, somebody’s always got it better. Miss Colombia once told Ms. Kwelagobe, “When you win Miss Colombia, you just become like the President’s best friend. You travel everywhere with him!”
Ms. Pressler jumped in. “This place from back home-You know what a double-wide is?-they want to give me one, no joke,” she said. “It’s a home that you can pick up and move! It’s a $70,000 double-wide! They just called yesterday!”
Ms. Kwelagobe looked confused.
“I don’t think I’d sell it,” Ms. Pressler continued. “I have a lot of family. I’d rent it out. This is the way I’m looking at it: It will be good real estate for me.”
Even though she didn’t make the top 10 finalists for Miss Universe, Ms. Pressler thanks God every day that she won Miss U.S.A. She’s been spending a lot of time with the Baldwin brothers, whose mother, Carol, runs a nonprofit for fighting breast cancer, and she got to meet former Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno, one of the people who have inspired her to work out harder.
Ms. Pressler’s town put up a plaque at the town line and has decreed Sept. 27 to be Kimberly Ann Pressler Day. Her parents, as she puts it, “are beaming with pride from every oracle of their bodies!” Her old co-workers at the West Valley Nuclear Demonstration Project, where she was a data entry specialist, threw her a party. The Franklinville kids made a Kimberly Ann Pressler quilt and got a half-day off from school. Her mother put up a “Mother of Miss U.S.A.” sign in front of her house, and when “all these people came out of the woodwork,” she delisted her phone number. “She’s not a real people person,” Ms. Pressler said. Miss U.S.A. won’t talk about her boyfriend, though The Daily Telegraph of London reported that his name is Chad Williams and he works in a cheese factory.
It was getting dark, and Ms. Pressler was cooking pasta shells and cheese on the stove for her guest. “Velveeta’s better,” she said. She was also boiling some mashed potatoes and marinating a steak, which she would cook in the George Foreman grill for herself. Ms. Kwelagobe was in her room, packing for her trip. Unfortunately the trip to Miami, about which Ms. Pressler had been jumping up and down a couple days before, had just been canceled because the sponsor had trouble buying a plane ticket. Instead, she would go to Pittsburgh for the weekend to visit a girlfriend.
She plunked down in front of the television and popped in the Miss Universe tape. She used the remote to fast-forward to the part in the telecast where she did a little tourism spot for Trinidad & Tobago, in which she has a milk mustache and asks, “Got coconut milk?”
“That was Wite Out,” she said of the mustache.
Then she rewound to the beginning of the show and pointed out that when supermodel judge Stephanie Seymour was introduced, you could see her whole breast, nipple and all, through her sheer black dress.
Then she fast-forwarded through the evening gown competition. The Observer asked her if her segment was coming up.
“I didn’t make top 10, remember ?” she said. She looked hurt, and would not take her eyes from the television.