First it was attempted blackmail, then itching powder and now it’s smear tactics. What’s going on behind all those glittering smiles at beauty pageants these days?
The latest victim of suspected pageant sabotage is Jessica Wittenbrink, whose $3,500 evening gown was found smeared with lipstick at last Saturday’s Miss South Florida Fair Pageant, a lead-in competition to the Miss America Pageant.
“I was on stage for the opening number, and after the introductions and the opening questions, I went back to the backstage area where my clothes were hanging up in the stall. That’s when I discovered the lipstick had been smeared all over my dress,” the 21-year-old told TODAY’s Al Roker on Tuesday in New York.
Wittenbrink was all smiles, the sparkling tiara that perched on her head testifying to the way she overcame the emotional shock of discovering the damage to her dress to win the pageant and the ticket to the Miss Florida competition that went with it.
But at the time, a thousand thoughts ran through her head: “Was this an accident or was this intentional? Why would this happen to me? How am I going to get the stain out? What am I going to do for an evening gown?”
She also thought of last November’s incident at the Miss Universe Puerto Rico pageant, when the eventual winner, Ingrid Marie Rivera, said someone put an irritant on her clothes, causing her to break out in itchy hives.
“I had followed her story very closely,” Wittenbrink said, “and I was just thinking, ‘Oh, God, this is it all over again.’ ”
She might also have thought of last year’s Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo, who was threatened with blackmail by someone who sent unflattering pictures of her to pageant officials.
For all the smiles, pageants are serious business. The scholarship prize for winning the Miss South Florida Fair title was $6,000, and young women who win a national or international title can use it as a springboard to big money and fame.
According to reports in The Miami Herald, Wittenbrink was sobbing when she called pageant officials to tell them what had happened. The pageant director, along with the owner of the boutique at which she had purchased her dress, frantically tried to remove the four broad smears of bright lipstick on the back of the blue gown.
“They used shop wipes, they used water, they just tried to scrub it as much as possible,” she said. The boutique owner ended up dunking the whole dress in water to remove the water spots and used Wittenbrink’s hair dryer to blow-dry it. Wittenbrink then pulled the dress on, pulled herself together, took a deep breath and went on with the show.
- Amy Schumer on Turning Down Daily Show Offer: 'Them Asking Me Made Me Cry!'
- Watch Betty White Play with Puppies and Make Paw Puns (VIDEO)
- The Highs and Lows of Being Ben Affleck
- Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner: Inside the Final Weeks of Their Marriage
- Donna Karan Retires from Her Company After 30 Years - a Look Back at Some of Her Most Memorable Gowns
‘A flawless job’
“The one thing about pageants is you do have to be the part. It’s not the clothes that make the woman. It’s the woman that makes the woman,” she said. “I knew despite the stains on my dress I still had to put that game face on and go out on stage and act like nothing had happened.”
Her mother, Gayla Wittenbrink, told Roker she had no idea anything was wrong as she watched her daughter go through her paces. “She did a flawless job,” she said. “She rose to the occasion — I was so proud. At the last minute, when they show the judges the back of the gown, I just thought it was the lighting.”
Jessica Wittenbrink was sure the entire audience was stunned when she turned around. “I just felt it was cold silence,” she said. “I was just, ‘Oh my God, everybody can see it now.’ ”
After the pageant, pageant security personnel and local police cordoned off the dressing room area and interviewed all the contestants, trying to find out who was responsible. It didn’t sit well with some of the women, and after Wittenbrink won, the Internet buzzed with speculation that she had done it herself to win the sympathy of the judges.
“Anyone that knows Jessica, knows how hard she works,” her mother said. “She works two jobs and goes to school full schedule to be able to take this level of pageantry. Anyone who knows her knows that’s absurd.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints