By Michael Neill and Alexandra Mezey
Updated September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

There she is, Miss America. Or Miss Oklahoma. Or Miss Louisiana Teen U.S.A. She is smiling and crying, clutching her bouquet and trying to hang on to her tiara. Her hair is beautifully coiffed, her teeth gleaming white, and her gown proclaims that only she is deserving of this title. The gown is elegant, trim, spangled perhaps, to pick up the lights, with just the tiniest hint of décolleté. The dress obviously is the product of a glitzy fashion house in L.A. or Vegas.

Not necessarily. Chances are it is the product of Cherry Creek Designs of Norman, Okla., home of the football Sooners, a town where cleats generally outsell pleats, and shoulder pads are not a fashion statement. Three of the top five finalists in last year’s Miss America pageant wore Cherry Creek creations. At the pageant this Saturday (Sept. 10), the company’s dresses will be worn by no fewer than 28 of the 51 contestants, including Misses Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio.

Cherry Creek, which is run by sisters Sherri Hill and Kathi Paine and has been in business only two years, has already begun to attract celebrity clients as well. Cheryl Ladd owns a black, strapless, sequin gown they designed, and Reba McIntyre co-hosted this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards wearing a Cherry Creek original. But the company’s prime customers remain beauty pageant contestants, and they are legion. In the Miss America circuit alone, 50,000 to 60,000 young women start out each year at the local level. They all need gowns. Many, of course, borrow one or make their own. But, says Kathi Paine, “If they’re really serious, they’ll invest in a gown.” At Cherry Creek, which is named after the street where Sherri lives, that investment usually runs from $800 to $2,000. Gowns designed by Bob Mackie and South Carolina-based Stephen Yearick start at $2,500 and can run as high as $25,000.

The sisters (née Branum) became interested in beauty pageants in 1985, when a Miss Oklahoma contestant went to their parents’ formal-wear store in Oklahoma City and bought an off-the-rack gown. Sherri, who now does most of the designing, customized the gown, adding, among other things, rhinestones. The sisters went to the pageant to see how the owner of their dress fared and discovered a whole new market. “We didn’t think to question whether we could do it or not, we just jumped in,” says Sherri.

They also couldn’t help noticing that their contestant—who made it into the final 10—wasn’t the only one wearing that particular dress. “We thought it was horrible,” says Kathi. “That girl should not have paid $100 for a dress someone else was wearing.” (Sherri and Kathi now offer purchasers the option of registering their dresses with Cherry Creek to avoid a similar embarrassment.)

Hill and Paine’s breakthrough came three years ago, when Miss Oklahoma wore one of their gowns at the Miss America pageant. The word of mouth that followed led to a promotional deal with the Miss U.S.A./ Teen and Miss Universe pageants. “Sherri can do anything,” says B. Dan Williams, director of sales for Miss Universe, Inc. “She can do Southern belle, super glitter, cocktail, beads and sequins.”

In fact, beads are all-important; without them, says Hill, a contestant can be lost onstage. “Bugle beads are more subtle,” Sherri continues, “but the glossy, metallic sequins throw off more light inch for inch.” The flashiest gown they make is covered in rhinestones, weighs in at 12½ pounds and costs $5,600—the most expensive in the line.

Though Cherry Creek’s creations are available in boutiques and specialty shops in 30 states, many contestants travel to Norman for a personal fitting in the sisters’ wicker-furnished showroom. Hill and Paine employ eight seamstresses to finish off the beading on gowns that are made in three different locations, including Italy. Last year Cherry Creek’s sales topped $500,000; this year’s are expected to be more than $1 million. And that’s something they really appreciate in Norman, Okla.—back-to-back winning seasons.

—By Michael Neill, with Alexandra Mezey in Norman