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Bikinis, tattoos, lobster high heels, and more style secrets from the Miss America pageant

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Image Credit: Miss America Organization

America’s original reality competition is back! The Miss America pageant will air live on ABC this Sunday night, with 53 contestants from around the country vying for the coveted crown.

“It’s going to be a loving tribute to Atlantic City and also a hip, relevant look at Miss America from music choices through to the presentation,” pageant Chairman and CEO Sam Haskell told EW of returning to Atlantic City — after six years in Las Vegas — for the 93rd annual event. “We’re bringing the runway back, which we lost going to Las Vegas, as part of an elite production number. The girls will model their swimsuits and gowns on the runway.”

This year’s hosts are The Bachelor‘s Chris Harrison and Good Morning America‘s Lara Spencer, with former ‘N Sync singer Lance Bass, New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire, violinist Joshua Bell, comedian Mario Cantone, Shark Tank‘s Barbara Corcoran, The Chew‘s Carla Hall, and former Miss America Deidre Downs Gunn serving as judges.

Following pageant tradition, the women will compete in talent, community service, swimsuit, and evening gown competition categories. With so much emphasis placed on the latter two, EW asked Haskell to explain how each contestant decides what she’ll wear, who makes the much-discussed swimsuits, and how the organization feels about the first-ever tattooed contestant. Read on for all the details.

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Image Credit: Miss America Organization

Entertainment Weekly: Who decides what the women will wear?
Sam Haskell: We have many different wardrobe mistresses that are brought on staff during pageant week to help the girls with alterations, but most of them have their wardrobes overseen by the board of directors from each of their states. There is a team in each state who prepares each of the girls, and they help them with their clothes. Then the wardrobe mistresses here are able to help them if they have a snag or lose a bead or a hem. They actually help remake [clothes] if there’s a rip or anything else.

How many people are involved in the process?
We have 53 contestants — [representing] the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. We have hostesses who are like mothers and guardians that help them with anything they need. We have two for every six [contestants] and there’s a wardrobe mistress for every six.

Do the contestants choose their own hostess and wardrobe teams?
They are actually chosen by the board of directors of each state organization. They, of course, all migrate to Atlantic City to watch and cheer and be a part of it, but we have such an incredible organization of hundreds of thousands of volunteers all over the United States. They all are completely experienced and thrilled to be a part of the preparations. They feel like a part of them is up on that stage too.

Where do they get their gowns and swimsuits from?
We have a swimsuit sponsor. Catalina provides the swimsuits and the girls have a couple dozen choices they can choose from. They can wear a one piece or a bikini.. We had a couple of girls a couple of years ago wear tankinis, which shows just a tiny bit of the midriff, but most of them wear the bikini. The gowns are a different subject altogether. Most of our women are in this program because they want to earn scholarship dollars to go to school, so they don’t have a lot of personal funds to draw from to buy these expensive designer gowns. However, some of the states find ways to raise money and develop relationships with designers and gown stores or retail stores that sell beautiful, pageant-type gowns. They’ll get sponsors to come together and help raise the money to help buy a woman’s wardrobe. A girl could be in a designer gown, or a gown that she’s rented from a company like Rent the Runway… but the decision is ultimately made by their state boards. It’s important to know what the girl thinks, and as long as everybody is in sync it works out great.

What restrictions or guidelines are the contestants given when it comes to their gowns?
They know that they need to be appropriate. We’ve really never had an issue with a girl wearing something that’s slit too high or cut too low. But if they do, then we have to send them to the wardrobe mistresses to do a little [altering].

How many times has that occurred in the past?
I would say you could count them on one hand. The girls are incredible and they’re totally appropriate and classy. When you have people like Angelina Jolie out there walking the runway in a dress cut as high as hers are cut, some of them want to emulate that, but most of them are completely appropriate. I’m not saying Angelina Jolie is inappropriate, I’m saying she really pushes the boundaries with her fashion choices.

How far in advance do you approve their choices?
We completely train our state organizations. Otherwise, we do a rehearsal every day for each group in the evening gown competition and our wardrobe mistresses [make alterations] the day of the pageant if there are any adjustments needed.

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Image Credit: Miss America Organization

How do the contestants avoid wardrobe malfunctions? 
I don’t really know about any malfunctions that we’ve had in my eight years doing this, but I think that’s where the wardrobe mistresses come into play. I’m sure there are zippers that break or hems that fall out or sleeves that are ripped, but nothing more than that.

Who makes the crowns and sashes?
We have a company called K.A. Concepts that we brought in eight years ago. They make all the local, state, and national crowns. They’re all purchased directly through K.A. Concepts through the local and state boards. All of our crowns are similar. it’s just the shape base [of the Miss America crown] that is different from the state and local crowns. The Miss America crown is the largest of all, but they all follow the same pattern that’s been used since the mid 50′s.

This year’s Miss Kansas will be the first-ever tattooed Miss America contestant. 
I think we’ve probably had girls with tattoos before who chose to cover them and she’s chosen not to cover them. We embrace every young woman’s individuality and however she wants to present herself. We allow them to do that. This is her choice and we embrace that.

Are there any additional costumes we can expect to see on Sunday? 
You won’t see these on Sunday, but where you’ll really see costumes is our “Show Me Your Shoes” parade. We just unveiled 53 pairs of shoes that are covered in rhinestones, jewels, flowers, lobsters, and alligators. It’s the most unbelievable thing. The girls designed them themselves or they got someone in their home state to help them with it. The shoes all match their costumes that they’ll be wearing to exemplify where they’re from and what their state is about. Maybe it’s lobsters from Maine or it’s a lighthouse from Connecticut. The shoes are unbelievable. The press was here today and went nuts. We had every single pair of shoes out on 20 tables and when we unveiled them the lights were flashing so fast and furiously. It was crazy! The shoes are incredible, but the costumes are out-of-this world. If people like fashion, they’re going to go nuts over them.

Will the girls wear the shoes on Sunday’s show? Were they part of the preliminary competition in any way?
No, [they're not being judged], it was just part of the fun. The Miss America parade is something that [Atlantic City locals love]. Everyone is so excited about the parade. That’s where those 53 state costumes will be displayed. It’s going to be magnificent.

Where do all of the swimsuits, gowns, and shoes go after the pageant?
The gowns and shoes go back with them to their state. Their personal wardrobes — if they were borrowed or rented them — go back to the person who loaned it or rented it to them. A lot of the shoes and some of the costumes are donated to our Miss America museum at the Sheraton Hotel [in Atlantic City].

The 2014 Miss America pageant airs live this Sunday on ABC at 9 pm/ET.

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