ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Miss America contestants from Mississippi and New Hampshire won the first night of preliminary competition Tuesday as the pageant returned to Atlantic City after a six-year absence.
Samantha Russo, Miss New Hampshire, won a $2,000 scholarship in the talent competition by singing "Don't Rain On My Parade" from the musical "Funny Girl."
She chose the Barbra Streisand number despite being warned against it by many supporters who felt it was just too difficult.
"Everyone told me not to, but I felt really confident with it," she told reporters afterward.
Miss Mississippi, Chelsea Rick, won a $1,000 scholarship in the lifestyle and fitness competition, also known as the swimsuit competition.
As the preliminaries began, the 53 young women competing for the Miss America crown aimed to first introduce herself and her home in a humorous and hopefully attention-getting way. Some, like Miss Kentucky, succeeded before the first spectator took a seat.
"From the home of fast horses and beautiful women — better not get those two things mixed up — I'm Jenna Day, Miss Kentucky!" she said in rehearsals.
In a nod to still-sore Cleveland Cavaliers fans, Miss Ohio, Heather Wells, tweaked basketball star LeBron James, whose defection to the Miami Heat enraged the Buckeye State.
"I won't be taking my talents to South Beach because they're right here in Atlantic City!" she said, riffing on the wording of James' nationally televised announcement of where he would sign as a free agent.
Others touched on their state's role in popular culture.
"Some states turn lemons into lemonade; we turn avocados into guacamole!" said Miss California, Crystal Lee, who is one of two contestants with that name in this year's pageant.
Miss South Dakota, Tessa Dee, made a bold proclamation.
"Hey, Mount Rushmore, get ready for a new face — this one!" she said.
And Miss Utah, Ciera Pekarcik, made light of her state's former history of polygamy by noting that the pageant was 53 women competing for the same title, "not the same husband."
Pageant organizers couldn't wait until Saturday night's traditional "show us your shoes" parade to unveil the state-themed footwear the contestants will wear, basking in the competition's return to the place where it began in 1921.
"It's a monumental thing we've done, bringing back Miss America to Atlantic City," said Sam Haskell, CEO of the Miss America Organization. "We had to go to the desert for a couple years, but we're back!"
Miss Florida's shoes depicted alligators, Miss Indiana's had basketballs and hoops, Miss New Jersey had sea shells and Miss Arizona's had a cactus.
Miss Louisiana's shoes had a Mardi Gras theme, with multi-colored feathers and sequins. Several state contestants decorated boots as their footwear, including Miss Kentucky, and Miss South Dakota opted for metal-studded black leather boots that resemble those worn by Kiss bass player Gene Simmons.
The 53 hopefuls — one from each state as well as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District Of Columbia — will receive scores in categories including talent, swimwear and evening wear, and onstage interviews.
The new Miss America will be crowned during Sunday night's nationally televised broadcast.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC