ST. PETERSBURG — Every year, the Apple sisters clamored for seats around the television.
They gazed at the women onscreen, gliding across stage with studded gowns that swept the floor and hair that grazed the sky.
From their St. Petersburg home, the girls graded the beauty queens on makeshift scorecards.
Maybe one day, they'd be the epitome of finesse and beauty. What everyone — secretly or not — wants to be.
It's simple, said Andrea Apple, now 23 and in medical school.
"You can handle anything with charm and wit."
• • •
Forty-six women are competing for the title of Miss Florida at the Mahaffey Theater this weekend.
They are Miss Tampa, Miss Largo, Miss Miami Gardens, Miss Heart of Suwannee River Valley. They are Miss Kumquat Festival, like Andrea Apple. Or Miss Bay Area, like Allison Martin, 18, who actually lives in Dover. Many have competed before. No one expects to win the first time out.
The winner gets $15,000 in scholarships and competes for the title of Miss America.
Modern pageants have been soaked in controversy — gay marriage questions, nude photos, drug use, bungled answers.
The Miss Florida women quickly point out that Miss USA, the organization owned by Donald Trump that fuels most tabloid fodder, is a different ballgame from Miss America.
"This is much more conservative than the Miss USA pageant," said Martin, who is competing for the first time.
Still, they want to be youthful and relevant. They walk with more attitude in their bikinis. They espouse platforms like going green and working out. One contestant, Rosie Justilien, invokes Barack Obama in a monologue she wrote.
They cringe at "old-fashioned."
"I hate the word," said Brittany McMillan, 21. She's Miss Southwest Florida and lives in the Keys. She uses a different word. "It's timeless."
They spray tan and stretch for dance routines. They twirl batons and play chopsticks for their talents. They answer questions about society, politics and their personal platforms in private judging rooms.
They are friends, they say. They adjust straps and give tips — throw back shoulders, refrain from wild arm swings, imagine a pole between your elbows for posture.
They'll finish competing in preliminary contests today. Saturday, the top 10 will vie for the crown.
When they're nervous, they crack a Bible.
"I have an iPod," said Janae DeLeon, 19. She's Miss Heart of Central Florida, but she's from Miami. "I play it and stay in my little corner. I visualize the crown. I visualize winning."
• • •
Andrea Apple has been in the pageant twice before. This is her sister Leja's first time.
They always knew they'd be here together.
They aspire to be like the Miss America contestants they gave high marks in the living room. Not fake. A sense of humor. Smart.
"We're ourselves 100 percent of the time," Andrea said. "What you see is what you get. We're both transparent."
Andrea's talent is clogging. Leja, 19, plays banjo. They go to college and buy matching $10 dresses from Dots and live with their parents.
They're regular gals, they said.
With charm and wit.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.