Miss Bikini and Miss Pretty Legs of Sacramento were in contention; so too were Miss Hollywood of 1984 and Miss Best Potential Model in the Delaware Valley. From the casinos of Atlantic City to the beaches of San Diego, they arrived in full-figured force, a buxom army of 31, including college students, a cosmetologist, waitresses, dental assistants, professional models, blackjack dealers—even a topless dancer from the Booby Trap Lounge in Detroit. They represented the statuesque elite, chosen from some 800 hopefuls who had competed in six U.S. cities this spring to reach the finals of the Tropicana Hotel Ultimate Showgirl Contest in Las Vegas. The winner of the four-day extravaganza would earn a place on a sequined Las Vegas chorus line and the chance, perhaps, of high-kicking into big-time showbiz.
“I can work on teeth the rest of my life,” philosophized Lisa Rife, 20, from Lansdale, Pa., whose plans to become a dental hygienist had been put on hold so that she-could compete for the coveted chance “to walk away with a brand new career.” In addition to a one-year $25,000 contract for two shows a night at the Tropicana’s Folies Bergere (whose notable graduates include Claudine Longet and Bobbie Gentry), the hotel promises its Ultimate Showgirl such perks as a $12,000 mink, a one-year lease on a 1929 custom-built Mercedes-Benz and “a potential $100,000 in prizes and modeling contracts.”
Old-fashioned girls might have blanched at the Tropicana’s criteria for selecting its superstarlet. Larry Lee, 35, producer of the Tropicana’s Folies Bergere show, scrutinized the bared breasts of his contestants one by one in the privacy of his office, then rated them on a one-to-five star scale. Most of the examinees were resigned to the so-called breast checkups. “You gotta do it,” said Donna Hackney, 30, a part-time model from San Diego. “You’ve come this far, they have to check for no bags and no sags.” Others emerged in tears or visibly shaken. “It has to be the worst experience of my life,” said actress and fitness trainer Connie McClain, 28, from Dallas. “I feel like I’m gonna puke, but it’s part of the gig.”
The rest of the gig was more fun. The women spent their days rehearsing in custom-made T-shirts and white shorts for the Saturday pageant. At night they partied, gambled and ordered up strawberry daiquiris and brandy Alexanders with their Tropicana VIP charge cards. They consulted with their boyfriends, mothers and other companions (who had been flown in courtesy of the contest sponsors), applied Band-Aids to the blisters caused by their new white pumps and somehow managed to retain their sense of wonderment.
“People have a misconception about show girls,” said Ilene Murphy, 21, a former waitress at a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco. “They think of them as sort of being hookers. But they’re absolutely wonderful. When they came out in those costumes the other day, they were so glamorous, I said, ‘I want to win.’ ”
For Murphy, the dreams of glitter and glamour became a reality on Saturday night. When emcee Bob Anderson, “America’s greatest singer-impressionist,” announced her as the winner, the nearly packed house of the Tropicana’s 1,150-seat Tiffany Theatre went wild. Twenty photographers swarmed round as Ilene, a rhinestone crown atop her head, her shoulders swathed in her $12,000 mink, clutched a bouquet of roses. “Look excited! Look happy!” they shrieked. “Smile Las Vegas style. C’mon, Ilene honey, smile Vegas!” And, with her shoulders thrown back and her No. 5 chest held high, the Tropicana’s Ultimate Showgirl did just that.