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Swimsuit contest shows tourists go for pageantry

We’re poolside at the Golden Nugget when Miss Scotland strokes my left arm with a soft hand, the oldest trick in the book to melt an interviewer. She wants to win the international Miss Hawaiian Tropic pageant.

She stands 5 feet, 9 inches in a swimsuit, with a tiny nose dotting a delicate face engulfed by Scottish-red hair.

I tell her she’s “saucy.” Miss Scotland (her mother knows her as Clair Cooper) smiles and objects, “That’s slander!”

The next night, Miss Scotland becomes a crowd favorite at Saturday’s finals of the Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest. It’s on an outdoor Fremont Street stage, where 50 rivals swagger in gold and silver bikinis and black heels and clear heels in front of 1,000 or more people gulping beer from plastic jugs shaped like footballs.

Emcee Jonny Moseley introduces Miss Venezuela with a seduction:

“She wants to have children, my friends. Anyone want to help her with that?”

A roar erupts.

As women in sashes sashay the stage, men yell, “Oh my God!” and “Helloooo!” Many women in the audience cheer; some scowl.

Pageant judges are athletes and corporate-sponsor executives whose names you wouldn’t recognize. Some in the crowd eyeball the judges and ask, “Is that Lorenzo Lamas?” “Is that Lennox Lewis?” They are blatantly not Lorenzo Lamas or Lennox Lewis.

The Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest seeks a suntan lotion poster girl who exhibits beauty, poise and elegance. Contenders aren’t asked to twirl a baton or end world hunger. They are asked to look good for TV cameras filming the display for syndicated broadcast this summer.

So Miss Australia’s heaving and spilling cleavage elicits enormous hoots. Miss Croatia wears a belly chain and a tattoo around one bicep.

Miss Scotland is named Miss Congeniality (a $100 prize) and Miss Photogenic (another $100 prize). Officially then, she’s the nicest sash-wearer graced with the best two-dimensional image.

But Miss England is named Miss Hawaiian Tropic. This causes a disruptive contingent of fans of Miss Scotland’s to scream in protest, “Where’s Scotland!?”

Miss England and four finalists toe it to the end of the catwalk to wave good night. Just then, someone in the crowd tosses an empty plastic football/beer container at their heads. Miss Puerto Rico spots it zipping toward her face. She catches it with one hand, smiles and points as if to say “Ha! Got it!” The crowd goes wild. And finally, the band Everclear plugs in guitars to rock some exit songs.

Meanwhile, down on the Strip, a quieter cultural moment is happening, proving by contrast such pageantry is necessary to engage tourists:

Unceremoniously, the serene Guggenheim Hermitage Museum is closing its doors forever, after 1.1 million people paid $15 each to see 10 shows in six and a half years.

With the success of Miss Hawaiian Tropic stuck in my head, the museum looks as if it could use glitz. So I ask museum chief Elizabeth Herridge if art galleries and museums should spice up Picassos.

I suggest: Maybe they should bring in go-go dancers, booze bars, music, paid celebrity appearances, giant bouncers and velvet ropes to create “false” lines to make art seem more entrancing. I realize this is heresy. I also realize this is Las Vegas.

Herridge looks at me as if I’m crazy and doesn’t respond.

I ask if she ever marketed the museum with posters of famous paintings adorned by naked women as eye-catchers.

Calmly, she stares at me. She does not run her hand up my arm.

In all her years, she admits, the best marketing move was hosting one of Picasso’s grandsons for a book signing while a TV crew followed him.

“It’s a celebrity culture,” she shrugs.

Herridge says she may have made one big mistake. She didn’t model this prime Venetian location wholly as a tourist attraction. She turned it into a hybrid, part tourist attraction and part community space, a silent “sanctuary” from loud and colorful Vegas.

“That wasn’t the best idea,” she says.

Which is my obvious point. Vegas attractions are dominated by drinkers, songs, barely clothed barely legals, and sponsors who get their names splashed on walls.

Displaying banner ads above van Goghs would be very gauche. But what’s a curator to do? Starry nights in Las Vegas will always be washed out by the bright light of pretty things.

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 383-0391 or e-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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