Miss America contestants love to distinguish their pageant from Miss USA's with one simple, yet loaded, response: "We have a talent competition." Crystle Stewart, the reigning Miss USA, however, has a different clarification.
"Miss America is the girl next door," she says. "But, Miss USA is the girl you wish lived next door."
Her distinction is hard to dispute. Especially considering most Miss USA contestants think of modeling as their talent. Stewart contends, though, that there's no ill will between either organization and, while Miss America has her talent competition, Miss USA has a global competition.
Stewart's own participation in the Miss Universe pageant spurred disbelief worldwide. After she slipped on her gown and spilled to the floor during the evening gown segment, Stewart set the kind of record most beauty queens want nothing to do with. She was the second consecutive Miss USA to take a tumble. Regrets? Hardly. Stewart insists she wouldn't change a thing. Not even her gown's hemline.
"I never thought I'd fall in front of a billion people, but things happen for a reason," she says. "This was just the way the cards were dealt."
It's a far cry from the attitude that got her the crown that started it all. Stewart didn't capture the Miss Texas USA title until her fifth go at it, when she says she finally presented her true self. The African-American beauty counted on what she refers to as "the three P's" to keep throwing her tiara in the circle: patience, persistence and perseverance.
At 27, Stewart's one of the more mature titleholders. She prefers a "Rock of Love" marathon over VIP status at a nightclub and supposed must-have fashion trends make her cringe. Case in point, the harem pants fashion magazines can't get enough of lately. Stewart scrunches up her face when she discusses them, as if she just sunk her teeth into a lemon. She subscribes to the timeless, less is more style philosophy. But fit supersedes even that. The one pet peeve Stewart can't get over is a woman wearing clothing that's either too small or too big for her body.
Although she prefers the classics, Stewart admits her Miss USA stylist nudged her adventurous side. When wearing a tangerine jumper, for instance, brown shoes were replaced with sunshine yellow pumps. Stylists aside, New York City -- where she, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe shared an apartment -- acted as her biggest fashion influence over the past year. The fashion capital is responsible for introducing the beauty queen to the one accessory she couldn't live without: a knit scully hat.
"When I'm getting ready as Crystle Stewart (not Miss USA), I put on some lotion, then mascara, a little powder and then put my hair back in my hat and I'm ready to go," she says.
Shower included, Stewart can be out the door in 30 minutes when a publicity appearance isn't scheduled. Any event that calls for her sash and crown, though, piles on an hour of prep time. She clips in extra extensions, glues on extra lashes and smooths on extra lipstick. So, when does she feel most beautiful?
"When I'm in my hat. It's because when you get a compliment and you didn't try hard, that's when you feel good," she explains. "I can make anyone look great with makeup and lashes."