April 2, 2007

Behind the scenes at the Miss USA Pageant

By Ryan Gueningsman
Managing Editor

As soon as Suzie Heffernan stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, she felt like a celebrity.

Heffernan, a 2004 graduate of Delano High School and Miss South Dakota USA 2007, was in The Golden State to begin preparations to compete in the Miss USA pageant that aired live on NBC March 23.

She arrived in Los Angeles March 8, and said she, along with the 50 other candidates, jumped right into different events and appearances – and received a lot of merchandise.

“You got free stuff galore,” Heffernan said last week. She said a lot of jeans and shirts were given to the candidates by YMI jeans, which was a big sponsor of the pageant. She also received bathrobes and shoes, and was fitted for gowns and swimsuits.

Throughout the first week, she said she was intimidated, at first, by the number of cameras that followed the candidates’ every move, but said in the end, it proved to be beneficial in the pageant itself.

“It’s like walking into an interview where I am judged on everything I say,” she said.

Even more than the pageant, itself, Heffernan said her favorite event was participating in the Queen for a Day program at a children’s hospital in Los Angeles.

“I was one of seven girls who got queen for a day,” she said. “We got to meet many different patients that are there for long-term . . . that was hands-down the best part of the entire pageant.”

While at the hospital, Heffernan and the other contestants painted girls’ nails, did makeup, and took photos with them once they were done.

“If you could make them forget even for a half hour why they were in hospital, it was worth it – we look to them to be our inspiration and our hope,” she said. “You make sure you’re grateful for life, you just see how hard these kids try to fight through it.”

She said many patients have been there a long time, but said the whole time she was there, she never saw a bitter person.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said.

Back at the pageant, she said every day, the contestants would get up and have breakfast, and then go to rehearsals. She said they rehearsed anywhere from eight to 13 hours a day.

“One day was from 6 a.m. to, like, 10 at night,” she said. On an average day, they would rehearse, then have an appearance of some sort.

“If you were in your room for two hours, you were getting ready for an appearance,” Heffernan said. “There was never a moment the entire time that you could get away. You were never alone.”

Even when it came to working out, the contestants weren’t allowed to leave their hotel, so they worked out in hallways, doing sit-ups and pushups, she said.

At her state pageant, Heffernan said organizers told her security would be pretty high at Miss USA, but still, it was something she didn’t expect.

She said a few different times, guys would approach her, and said that 51 girls together get a lot of attention, no matter where they were.

She saw this the most at Universal Studios, where they did the official swimsuit photo. When it came time for the photo shoot, she said it was very unnatural to be in a swimsuit in those conditions.

“It was so much fun, because there were people everywhere, but it was a little awkward,” she said. “It was an experience – it’s not every day you get to walk around in heels and a swimsuit. Valleyfair is one thing, but Universal is another.”

While at Universal Studios, there was also time to hit the rides.

“We got the all-star, celebrity treatment – no waiting in line for rides,” she added with a laugh.

A trip to Hard Rock Cafe also landed a celebrity meeting for Heffernan.

“We were at Hardrock, and I said ‘Gosh, I wonder if we’re going to meet anyone famous,’ and they said Danny Bonaduce was just here.

“I went and found him, and he is the smallest little buff guy you’ve ever seen,” she added. “He was actually really nice, I was kind of starstruck.”

Bonaduce’s wife was playing in the band that performed at Hard Rock the night Heffernan and other contestants were there.

She also saw American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who she said is also shorter than she expected, and actress Carmen Electra, who, she said, is as pretty in person as she is on television.

“We were going to hockey game, and she (Electra) was there for the promotion of a runway show that night,” Heffernan said.

Live on NBC

Heffernan said the rehearsals were more nerve-wracking for her than the actual pageant, which was aired live on NBC March 23.

“In state, you don’t do rehearsals, you just go on stage,” she explained. “I lost a lot of momentum because I had already done this.”

The morning of the pageant, the contestants did dress rehearsal with full hair and makeup. After that, they ate lunch, and did hair and makeup again.

“Right after hair and makeup, Donald (Trump) walked in,” she said. Trump partners with NBC for the competition.

As the night began, she said contestants sat behind stage when the parts they had pre-taped were showing.

“My hair was up (on the pre-taped parts), and than miraculously, it was down on stage,” she said with a laugh. “The coolest part was the crowd being so loud – there were four tiers of balconies just packed full of people. There were signs everywhere, everyone’s screaming, it’s the most amazing feeling.”

At that point, she said she thought to herself she didn’t even care how she did, it was just exciting to be in front of all those people.

She recalled when they announced the top 15, and said the word “South” – but it was followed by Carolina, not Dakota.

“I expected that,” she said, but when they were on eight and nine, she realized she probably wasn’t going to make the top 15.

“There were definitely a few surprises for me in the top 15,” she said. “It’s one of those things when you don’t get announced . . . it’s very hard because you live the past four months of your life for this one day – it’s a very emotional time.”

She said she didn’t change who she was while in Los Angeles, and said she still ate the things she wanted to, but said it’s hard not to be intimidated when she looks back and sees herself surrounded by 50 other beauty queens.

“We were rated as the toughest 51 contestants there has ever been,” she said. “You can’t feel bad about that.”

Heffernan’s roommate, Miss Utah 2007 Heather Anderson, made it into the top five, and she said she became really good friends with Miss Kansas 2007 Cara Renee Gorges.

“She’s such a down-to-earth girl, and showed you really can make it into the top 15 being in baggy shorts and a sweatshirt all day,” she said.

One of the judges for the pageant was talk show host Jerry Springer, and Heffernan said about 20 of the contestants actually attacked him.

“We were going to stage a fight because we thought it would have been funny,” she said with a laugh.

For Heffernan, this wasn’t her first trip to Los Angeles.

“I’ve driven through LA because I’ve been to California quite a bit,” she said.

“I loved it – my mom hated it,” she said with a laugh, adding that she was able to sit back and relax and was chauffeured around, while her mother, Sherry Heffernan from Corcoran, didn’t have that luxury.

Suzie also ran into some medical issues, having an infection on her foot, and an ear infection, and said it was a very stressful and exhausting few weeks.

“You never stop, you never get a moment to yourself, but looking back at it, you do so many different things in two-and-a-half weeks that I’ll probably never do again. You go through this emotional time with 50 strangers, and you definitely see how much you grow up, and how people have different personalities.”

Heffernan said she came back home March 24, following a coronation ball the night before.

“When I got home, I fell asleep at 8 p.m., and woke up at 11 a.m. the next day,” she said with a laugh.

A small family section cheered for Heffernan in Los Angeles, including her brother, Shad, Shad’s girlfriend, her aunt and uncle, who are from Rapid City, S.D., and mother, Sherry.

“Mom is just the proudest mother there ever is,” Heffernan said. “It’s like any mom, of course, she’d like to see me make top 15 and compete more, but my mom has always been my biggest fan, and will always continue to be my biggest fan.”

Heffernan thinks her mother is glad, in a way, she didn’t win the title of Miss USA, because that would have meant moving to New York, where Miss USA resides.

Throughout the entire experience of being crowned Miss South Dakota USA, and then competing for Miss USA, Heffernan said she has had tremendous support from people from Delano, people she went to school with, and used to work with.

“I’ve had so many people call and say ‘good luck’ and say how great I did,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of Facebook messages from people I haven’t talked to in years. Everyone’s been so supportive.”

Heffernan, herself, hasn’t seen a copy of the pageant video, but said she has received offers to be on several reality television shows, due, in large part to some of the answers she gave during interviews.

For right now, she is trying to get unpacked, and settle back into a somewhat normal life, living and attending college at the University of South Dakota, Brookings.

As normal of a life as Miss South Dakota USA can have, anyway.

“I will have a lot of appearances to do,” she said, as she will represent South Dakota from border to border, including some for the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally.

“My mom hasn’t allowed me to be there before,” she said with a laugh, “but that’s where a lot of family lives.”

She said South Dakota is not a big state for pageantry yet, and said hopefully, some of her appearances throughout the upcoming year will involve working with children.

“That’s my most favorite thing to do,” she said. “There’s this image when someone comes in with a crown and sash . . I don’t want to just stand there and smile – put me to work, let me do something.”

For information about promotional appearances, contact Craig or Denise at Future Productions (952) 897-1002, or visit www.futureproductions.com

“If anyone wants to have me for appearances, I’m willing to do that,” Heffernan said. “Even though I’m in South Dakota now, Delano is still my hometown.”

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