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Miss USA hopefuls pose in racy photos

Only a year ago, controversial Miss USA runner-up Carrie Prejean drew fire when topless photos of her surfaced on the Internet. What a difference a year makes.

This year, all 51 Miss USA contestants have posed for their official photos wearing seductive expressions on their faces and not a whole lot else on their bodies. Taken by fashion photographer Fadil Berisha in dramatic black-and-white, the shots feature racy lingerie, smoldering looks and plenty of bare skin.

In fairness, the pageant is being held in Las Vegas this week, and the theme of the official publicity photos is “Waking Up in Vegas.” But judging by the photos, women in that celebrated city sleep in bustiers, high heels, fishnet stockings and garters instead of flannel jammies.

‘Pushing the envelope’The photos seemed designed to generate controversy and buzz about the pageant, TODAY’s Matt Lauer suggested to pageant president Paula Shugart.

“Yes, to some degree it’s marketing,” Shugart admitted from Las Vegas. “But we’ve always been the cutting-edge pageant. We are owned by Donald Trump.”

Responding to reported angry phone calls to pageant officials over the steamy shots, Trump himself came to their defense. “They are a little bit sexy, but I’ll tell you what — everybody’s watching, so I have no problems with it,” he told the New York Daily News. “If you look at Miss America, it’s now off network television.”

As for the contestants themselves,

Miss Vermont (left) Miss Kentucky (right)

“It pushed their envelope, but they all enjoyed doing this,” Shugart told Lauer. Besides, she added, the women in the pageant are not looking to bring peace to the world; they are all aspiring actresses and models.

“Their dream is to be in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show,” Shugart said, and the “Waking Up in Vegas” shots are good practice.

Too sexy?But some are saying the pictures of the 51 contestants, available for your viewing pleasure at the pageant’s website, are too racy for Miss USA. After all, wasn’t it just last year that Carrie Prejean lost her job as Miss California USA after photos surfaced of her dressed in little beyond her own skin?

Not so, say pageant organizers. Prejean first stirred controversy for criticizing gay marriage during the pageant. She was fired briefly when partially nude photos of her surfaced after she said she’d never posed for such pictures. But she was saved by the intervention of Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant with NBC — only to get fired for good because officials said she was not carrying out her official duties, a charge she denied.

“Carrie is not anything we need to bring up again,” Shugart told Lauer.

Lark-Marie Anton, a pageant spokeswoman, also weighed in via e-mail, telling NBC News: “We are in the business of beauty and the contestants who compete for the title of Miss USA are not afraid to be sexy. These ladies are the full package — smart, accomplished, relevant and sexy. That said, I think these photos definitely break the stereotype of what a ‘pageant girl’ looks like.”

  • Slideshow Photos

    Eric Jamison / FR156391 AP

    Kristen Dalton

    Miss USA 2009

    Find out which all-American beauty beat out 50 other girls for the coveted crown.

  • Miss North Carolina Dalton is crowned Miss USA 2009 by Miss USA 2008 Stewart in Las Vegas

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    Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton is crowned Miss USA 2009 by Miss USA 2008 Crystle Stewart during the Miss USA Pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. "It feels really natural," Dalton said of her win. "I've worked so be here and this has been my lifelong dream and it's finally here."

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Wearing it well -

    Newly crowned Miss USA Kristen Dalton adjusts her glittering tiara, worth $200,000.

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  • Billy Bush and Nadine Velazquez host the Miss USA Pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas

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    Matching judges -

    The contest was hosted by "Access Hollywood" co-anchor Billy Bush and Nadine Velazquez of the NBC sitcom "My Name is Earl." This year's judges included "Saturday Night Live" cast member Kenan Thompson, "Dancing with the Stars" winner Kelly Monaco and gossip blogger Perez Hilton.

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    The final five Miss USA candidates hold hands as they await the announcement of the fourth runner-up during the Miss USA Pageant.

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  • Kristen Dalton prepares to make her entrance in the swimsuit competition during the Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas

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    Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton prepares to make her entrance in the swimsuit competition during the Miss USA Pageant. The 22-year-old aspiring motivational speaker and entertainer from Wilmington beat out 50 other beauty queens.

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    Flipping gorgeous -

    Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton shows off her slim physique during the Miss USA swimsuit competition.

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  • Alicia-Monique Blanco

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    Leggy beauty -

    Miss Arizona Alicia-Monique Blanco of Phoenix competes during the swimsuit portion of the pageant. Nicknamed "Daddy longlegs" as a child, Blanco says she's now proud of her slim bottom half.

    AP / AP
  • Contestants take up a pose during the Miss USA Pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas

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    Strike a pose -

    Contestants entertain the crowd during the Miss USA Pageant. The show also featured rocker Kevin Rudolf, who performed his song "Let it Rock," followed by The Veronicas, who performed their single "Untouched"

    Reuters / Reuters
  • Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton responds to a question during the Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas

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    Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton responds to a question regarding corporate bailouts with show hosts Billy Bush and Nadine Velazquez.

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  • Kristen Dalton

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    Easy elegance -

    Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton dazzled the judges in a flowing, blue Grecian number that stood out among a series of white gowns. "Whoever knew you could win in a turquoise gown?" said the 21-year-old beauty queen.

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  • Kristen Dalton, Carrie Prejean

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    Sweet embrace -

    Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton, left, and first runner-up Miss California Carrie Prejean from San Diego react after Dalton is announced Miss USA. During the competition, Dalton said she enjoyed playing board games and that she hopes to pursue her dreams of being a motivational talk host.

    AP / AP
  • Miss North Carolina Dalton is congratulated by the other contestants after being crowned Miss USA 2009 in Las Vegas

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    Queen bee -

    Kristen Dalton is congratulated by the other contestants after being crowned Miss USA 2009. Her title comes with a year's use of a New York apartment, a public relations team, a two-year scholarship at the New York Film Academy and an undisclosed salary. She also will go to the Bahamas in August to compete in the Miss Universe pageant.

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Shocked and awed -

    Newly crowned Miss USA Kristen Dalton exclaimed "I've worked so be here and this has been my lifelong dream and it's finally here."

    AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
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    Miss USA 2009

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    Taking on the universe -

    Newly crowned Miss USA Kristen Dalton of North Carolia poses with Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza of Venezuela. Dalton will go to the Bahamas in August to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, where American beauties haven't been lucky in recent years. Both Miss USA 2008 Crystle Stewart and her predecessor, Rachel Smith, wiped out on stage during the evening gown competition, becoming accidental YouTube stars.

    AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
  • Miss North Carolina Dalton blows a kiss to a TV camera after being crowned Miss USA 2009 in Las Vegas

    Miss USA 2009

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    Miss North Carolina Kristen Dalton blows a kiss to a TV camera after being crowned Miss USA 2009. Her glittering crown, from Diamond Nexus Labs of Franklin, Wis., is worth $202,000.

    Reuters / Reuters

These “pageant girls” — who include Claire Schreiner, Miss Wyoming USA, who is dating Cody Gifford, son of TODAY’s own Kathie Lee Gifford — definitely don’t look like the template created for the rival Miss America pageant, which bills its competition as a scholarship pageant and not a beauty contest. But, Miss USA pageant officials say, their competition makes no apologies for emphasizing beauty.

“We're seeing beautiful, smart, intelligent, classy women who just so happen to be sexy,” Tamiko Nash, a pageant consultant and former Miss California, told NBC News.

Not everyone agrees. Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, felt the pictures convey the wrong image for young girls who may be looking for role models.

“As a mom of a 13-year-old daughter, I worry about the fact that these young women are held up in front of our young girls as symbols to be emulated, and it’s certainly a concern for American moms,” Nance told NBC News.

If the pageant is pushing the envelope, it’s only in keeping with the history of such events. Way back in 1984, before any of the current Miss USA contestants were born, Vanessa Williams lost her Miss America crown and sash after nude photos of her surfaced. Two years ago, Katie Rees lost her job as Miss Nevada because of racy photos. And last year, Miss USA had the controversy over Prejean.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Steve Marcus / X00642

    Image: Miss California Carrie Prejean

    Beauty queen scandals

    They may be beautiful, but the competition can get ugly. From blackmail to sabotage, check out the underside of the pageant circuit.

  • Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss Delaware Teen USA -

    They may be beautiful, but the competition can get ugly. From blackmail to sabotage, check out the underside of the pageant circuit.

    First up: Melissa King, Miss Delaware Teen USA, resigned her crown on Feb. 26, 2013, after a sex video featuring a woman resembling her surfaced online.

    @Melissa_M_King\Twitter / @Melissa_M_King\Twitter
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    Called Miss USA 'rigged' -

    After Miss Pennsylvania 2012, Sheena Monnin, spoke out on Facebook against the Miss Universe organization in June, calling it "trashy" and "rigged," co-owner Donald Trump threatened a lawsuit.

    Miss Universe Organization / Miss Universe Organization
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    Facing DUI charges -

    Former Miss USA Rima Fakih, pictured here on April 11, 2012 as she faces DUI charges in district court in Highland Park, Mich. Fakih pleaded no contest in the case, and on May 9 she was sentenced to probation and community service for driving under the influence and getting pulled over with an open Champagne bottle in her car.

    AP, Reuters / AP, Reuters
  • Image: Canadian model Talackova attends news conference in Los Angeles

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    A transgender Miss Universe? -

    Jenna Talackova, a transgender beauty queen, protested the decision by pageant representatives to drop her from the Miss Universe Canada competition. She was finally given the green light to go by the Donald Trump-led Miss Universe Organization. The 23-year-old will, however, need to prove that she meets the "legal gender recognition requirements of Canada," according to local media.

    Reuters / Reuters
  • Image: Shannon Marketic, Miss USA 1992

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    Miss California 1992 -

    They may be beautiful, but the competition can get ugly. From blackmail to sabotage, check out the underside of the pageant circuit.

    First up: Miss California 1992 Shannon Marketic, center, was accused of stealing almost $90 in beauty products from a Target store in August 2010. Marketic, 38, denies stealing the items and says they rolled in the cart and landed underneath her purse.

    AP, Denton Police Department / AP, Denton Police Department
  • Carrie Prejean,  Billy Bush,  Nadine Velazquez

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    Former Miss California USA 2009 -

    Hosts Billy Bush and Nadine Velazquez listen as Miss California Carrie Prejean makes her highly publicized answer to a question from judge Perez Hilton about legalizing same-sex marriage during the Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas on April 19, 2009. The controversy grew in ensuing weeks when Prejean became the spokesperson for a national group opposing same-sex unions, after which racy photos of her surfaced. Prejean blamed people opposing her views for the release of the photos. She eventually surrendered her crown after pageant officials accused her of missing events, an allegation she denied.

    AP / AP
  • Dayana Mendoza

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    Miss Universe 2008 -

    Crowned Miss Universe in July 2008, Venezuela's Dayana Mendoza kept her crown despite risque photos that showed the beauty queen topless, though covering most of her chest. The Miss Universe president said that Mendoza’s photographs had "artistic beauty."

    AP / AP
  • Playboy Playmate Athena Lundberg Celebrates At Hawaiian Tropic Zone

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    Miss Washington 2008 -

    Elyse Umemoto, Miss Washington and second runner-up in this year's Miss America pageant, was shown flipping off the camera while wearing her crown, playing beer pong, posing in her bra and making suggestive hand signs on TMZ.com.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Miss South Florida Fair 2008

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    Miss South Florida Fair 2008 -

    Jessica Wittenbrink, who was crowned Miss South Florida Fair 2008, says her evening gown was smeared with lipstick during the competition.

    Palm Beach Post via Zuma Press / Palm Beach Post via Zuma Press
  • Ingrid Marie Rivera

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    Miss Puerto Rico 2007 -

    Ingrid Marie Rivera smiles during a beauty pageant in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Rivera beat 29 rivals to become the island's 2008 Miss Universe contestant, despite applying makeup and wearing evening gowns that had been coated with pepper spray, pageant spokesman Harold Rosario said.

    AP / AP
  • Amy Polumbo

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss New Jersey 2007 -

    Amy Polumbo was crowned Miss New Jersey 2007. An anonymous person threatened to reveal "scandalous" photos of the beauty queen, but Polumbo refused to cave in to the blackmail. She took the incident public and revealed the photos herself on TODAY.

    AP / AP
  • Tara Elizabeth Conner

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss USA 2006 -

    Tara Conner, representing Kentucky, won the Miss USA title in 2006 and moved to New York City where she partied in clubs and drank despite being underage. Donald Trump gave her a reprieve, allowing her to retain the title after she agreed to enter rehab and undergo drug testing.

    AP / AP
  • MISS TEEN USA 2007 COMPETITION

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    Miss South Carolina Teen USA -

    Lauren Caitlin Upton, Miss South Carolina, became a Internet sensation with her nonsensical answer to a question during the Miss Teen USA competition in August 2007. The 18-year-old got a chance to redeem herself on TODAY when she was again asked why one-fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a map.

    Miss Universe via AP / Miss Universe via AP
  • Valerie Begue

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    Miss France 2008 -

    Despite racy photos that appeared recently in a gossip magazine, Miss France 2008 Valerie Begue will keep her crown, but will not compete in the Miss World or Miss Universe pageants.

    AP / AP
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    Miss Nevada USA 2006 -

    Katie Rees was stripped of her title in 2006 after racy photos of her appeared on the Internet. Some of the photos showed her kissing other young women, exposing her breasts and pulling down her pants to show her thong underwear. Afterwards, Rees signed a two-year, $2 million-plus deal to host a variety show at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. In April, Rees agreed to pay fines for five misdemeanor traffic violations in exchange for prosecutors dropping a charge of resisting arrest.

    AP / AP
  • Ashley Harder

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    Miss New Jersey USA 2007 -

    Ashley Harder held the title of Miss New Jersey USA 2007 and was set to compete in the Miss USA pageant before she became pregnant and voluntarily stepped down. Runner-up Erin Abrahamson assumed the title.

    Courier-Post via AP / Courier-Post via AP
  • Image: Christina Silva

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss California USA 2008 -

    Christina Silva, 24, was declared Miss California USA in November only to have her crown revoked days later. Pageant official say a mix-up in tallying the votes led to the wrong woman being crowned. Silva, who is Hispanic, is suing the pageant, alleging rigging and racial bias.

    AP / AP
  • Miss World 2004 Crowned In Sanya

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss Great Britain 2006 -

    Danielle Lloyd was stripped of her title after it was revealed that she had posed nude for Playboy and amid accusations that she was dating one of the judges at the time of the contest. Lloyd went on to star in the British reality show Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 where she and other contestants were accused of bullying and making racist comments about Indian actress Shilpa Shetty.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Bench Warmer Trading Cards Pre-Valentine Day Event

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss United States Teen 2003 -

    Former Miss Oregon Teen USA Kari Ann Peniche was stripped of her title in 2003 after she posed nude for Playboy magazine. Peniche appeared as a patient on the VH1 television show Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew but was involuntarily discharged.

    In 2009, a racy video of Peniche, "Grey’s Anatomy" star Eric Dane and his wife Rebecca Gayheart was leaked. The 12-minute video was said to be shot inside Peniche’s apartment, and within it, Gayheart said she was high.

    WireImage / WireImage
  • Image: Miss Teen Louisiana busted for allegedly skipping out on the bill

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    Miss Louisiana Teen USA 2008 -

    Miss Louisiana Teen USA 2008 Lindsey Evans was stripped of her crown 10 days before completing her reign. She and her friends skipped out on a $46 restaurant bill, and Evans left behind her purse, which contained a bag of marijuana. The women were arrested for theft and drug possession when they returned to retrieve the purse.

    Splash News / Splash News
  • FEDOROVA

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss Universe 2002 -

    Former Miss Russia Oxana Fedorova was fired less than four months into her reign for missing too many events. She was a law student at the time and complained that being Miss Universe interfered with her education. "I never had any intention of abandoning my university work," she said.

    The pageant president said contestants know Miss Universe is a full-time job and that winners spend 80 percent of their time traveling as goodwill ambassadors.

    AP / AP
  • Vanessa Williams Relinquishes Her Miss America Title

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss America 1984 -

    Vanessa Williams, representing New York, became the first black Miss America. She had to resign when nude photos taken before her beauty contest victories were published in Penthouse. The crown was given to Suzette Charles, who's also black. Williams later became a successful singer with such hits as "Save the Best for Last," and "Colors of the Wind." Some of her movie credits include "Eraser," "Soul Food" and "Dance with Me." She currently plays the scheming fashion editor on "Ugly Betty."

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Beauty Queen

    Beauty queen scandals

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    Miss World 1973 -

    Marjorie Wallace was dethroned about four months into her reign, after she was accused of dating too many high-profile men, including professional soccer player George Best and singer Tom Jones. The organizers said the first woman from the U.S. to win the title hadn't maintained Miss World's reputation. She later became a television host for "Good Morning Los Angeles" and "Entertainment Tonight."

    Everning Standard via Getty Images / Everning Standard via Getty Images

The bottom line for pageant officials is what the controversy does for the ratings. The pageant broadcasts live on NBC from the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas Sunday night (9 p.m. ET) with TODAY’s Natalie Morales and celebrity chef Curtis Stone handling the hosting duties. Trace Adkins and Boys Like Girls are the special musical guests.

The winner of the Miss USA pageant gets to live in one of Donald Trump’s condos in New York City for a year while she represents the pageant. She also represents the United States in the Miss Universe pageant.

To see all of the official Miss USA contestant photos, visit the official Miss USA website by .

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