SAN DIEGO — Miss California is fixing herself a snack.
And like a motorist passing an accident or a moviegoer sitting through a horror film, you can't help yourself. You look, though you know you shouldn't.
You stare as Marlise Ricardos slaps together a sandwich: two slices of white bread, one slice of bologna, slathered with mayonnaise. You scrutinize how much orange juice she pours.
You count the number of corn chips she puts on her plate. There are 12. She eats six. You note she finishes almost the whole sandwich--except for a corner of crusts--and drinks most of the juice.
You watch her eat, and she knows you are watching her eat, because, sad as it is strange, Ricardos now draws as much attention at meals as she did when she was one of the objects of a protest at last month's Miss California pageant.
That's when Michelle Anderson, the self-described "great pretender" contestant, disrupted the televised pageant finale by screaming allegations that Ricardos was an "anorexic" who had bruises all over her body from excessive dieting.
Anderson since has emerged as an overnight media star, appearing on "Geraldo!" and fielding movie offers, basking in her 15 minutes of fame.
Meantime, Ricardos, the first Latina to win the state title, has been in semi-seclusion. She has been diligently preparing for the Sept. 10 Miss America contest behind a protective wall of pageant organizers who have kept reporters at bay, until now.
As a result, many questions about her have gone unanswered. Is she really older than 26, and thus ineligible to wear her crown? Does she pretend to be a USC student when she really is an ambitious actress who dropped out of college? Is she a Latina filled with self-loathing because she paraded as a blue-eyed blond woman in several events with the help of hair dye and colored contact lenses?
And was she, as another contestant in the event has asserted, known at the 1986 Miss California contest as "the girl with the finger down her throat" because of rumors that she was a binge-and-purge bulimic?
Though the questions would haunt most anyone else, probably even provoking tears, they haven't caused this beauty queen's carefully applied mascara to so much as smudge. Ricardos maintains she has no animosity for Anderson.
"I don't hate her," Ricardos says, wide-eyed. "Michelle has given me publicity that I couldn't have paid for. Really. I'm going to send her a thank-you note."
A thank-you note? For spoiling what should have been Ricardos' glorious moment after an 8-year pageant career and four tries for the Miss California title? And for possibly even destroying Ricardos' chances in Atlantic City, since Miss America winners have definitely--or designedly--been free of scandal since the Vanessa Williams debacle?
"No, I don't think this has ruined my chances. I think it's only going to help," Ricardos says. "I would be the perfect girl for them to choose at this point because I am exactly what this program represents."
And what is that, exactly? Pageant proponents would point to Ricardos as a super-svelte, smart and supremely talented ideal of womanhood who won the swimsuit competition three years in a row and this time captured the talent competition, too.
But she also is a savvy, steely competitor. Forget her demure, pretty-in-pink disguise: the pastel sweater dress that would be perfect for a Junior League luncheon, if it weren't paired with beige stiletto-heeled pumps; the hair artfully fanned to frame a heart-shaped face; the mouth exactly outlined in a peppermint shade of lipstick guaranteed to offend no one.
She does admit that in this year's pageant, she wore blue and green contact lenses for some events, "but it was only when my brown eyes didn't match my clothes." As to whether this signaled she was ashamed of looking Latino, her reply is nonchalant.
"I did it because various judges suggested I lighten my look."
She also acknowledges that competition gets her blood racing and "brings out the best in me."
Unfortunately, she can't always say the same about its effect on others, "the bad eggs," as Ricardos calls them.
"You'd have to interview those individual women to see what's going through their mind because I can't speak for them. I can only speak for myself," she says.
"But you have to remember that there are some girls who enter pageants, and they want to win so badly that it's hard for them to be sportsmanlike or friendly or hospitable to other contestants, especially if the other contestant is a threat to their winning the title."
As for herself, she says with confidence: "I've always been considered a strong contender because I'm a good contestant. And, because of that, it puts me at the center of things. I'm at the center of the limelight, and I'm always at the center of the controversy."
Consider, for instance, the accusations made by Elisabeth Moretti, who was Miss Los Angeles County in 1986 and competed against Ricardos for the Miss California title that year.