By Samantha Miller
December 13, 1999 12:00 PM

It’s 7:30 a.m. when a knock on the door rousts Miss Universe from a deep slumber. Mpule Kwelagobe, a 20-year-old native of Botswana, groggily rises, looking more like Miss Bad Hair. “Phone for you,” says the manager of the apartment, Nancy Torres, apologetically. At 7:45 in the next bedroom, the alarm buzzes—the cue for 22-year-old Miss USA, Kimberly Ann Pressler of Franklinville, N.Y., to shuffle down the hall and plug in her curlers before flopping back into bed.

It could be reveille in any college dorm—except these roommates really do need their beauty sleep. For the past five months of their yearlong reigns, the two crowned heads split a pageant-supplied 30th-floor luxury apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they unwind in decidedly unglamorous fashion between charity events, movie premieres and first-class flights. Miss Teen USA Ashley Coleman, 18, sometimes crashes on the couch on weekends away from Delaware State University. “It’s literally like a dorm room,” says Pressler. “We’ll all end up watching TV. Someone raids the fridge.”

And—sorry to disappoint anyone hoping for a catfight—the two sovereigns get along fine, even though Kwelagobe beat Pressler for the Miss Universe title last May. No jealousy? “Absolutely none,” Pressler says. “I cried for 10 minutes backstage. Then it was over.” Adds Kwelagobe: “We check our titles at the front door.”

And stash their tiaras in a closet. But in the 3-bedroom, 2½-bath pad, the 5’11”, 115-lb. Kwelagobe and the 5’5″, 106-lb. Pressler don’t live much like royalty. Miss USA serves as cook: “She’s always making Rice-A-Roni or pasta with Velveeta cheese,” says Coleman. Miss Universe caused the apartment’s biggest crisis to date when her attempt to grill a chicken breast started a fire. Torres (who deems herself “more like a live-in companion” than a chaperone), 40, came to the rescue.

When they aren’t navigating red carpets, the two—whose contracts bar non-tiaraed overnight houseguests—tend to stay in. “We’re big at Blockbuster,” says Kwelagobe. But they’re no couch potatoes. Assigned by pageant producers to a charitable cause, Kwelagobe has spoken about AIDS in 12 countries, while Pressler works with breast-cancer activist Carol Baldwin, mother of the acting Baldwins. “When people think of beauty queens, they think of airheads,” Pressler says. “We’re trying to distinguish ourselves.”

Both have already done so. Reared in the capital city of Gaborone by her mother, a divorced accountant, high school track star Kwelagobe was Botswana’s first Miss Universe contestant. Mother Dibelang, 48, says her “very ambitious” daughter wants to one day run for president of her homeland. Aspiring actress Pressler, the daughter of a U.S. Air Force master sergeant and a homemaker who are now divorced, started competing in pageants in 1992 and worked three jobs to pay for community college.

They triumphed amid a pageant makeover: In 1996, Donald Trump bought the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contests to give the better-known Miss America pageant a run for its TV ratings. The Trump-owned Manhattan digs are part of the lure (winners used to bunk more modestly in L.A.), as are swankier prizes. The two each got a $40,000 salary, scholarships and pearl necklaces; Pressler also won a Chevrolet Camaro. And when Kwelagobe toured Botswana, countrymen gave her a cow (a traditional bridal present) and a horse. “I love having the horse,” she says (it’s stabled back home), “but I don’t know what I’m going to do with the cow.” Then she holds up a tiny beaded bikini a designer gave her. “If I can get into this,” she jokes, “I should get 50 cows.”

The roomies burst out laughing.

Samantha Miller

Sharon Cotliar in New York City