Pageant coach has his eyes on Miss America contestants, and on the crown

     Chris Saltalamacchio, a University of Delaware graduate now working as a pageant consultant, has five clients in this year's Miss America. (Amy Z. Quinn/ for NewsWorks)

    Chris Saltalamacchio, a University of Delaware graduate now working as a pageant consultant, has five clients in this year's Miss America. (Amy Z. Quinn/ for NewsWorks)

    Among the thousands of people who have gathered this week at Boardwalk Hall to watch the Miss America preliminaries, Chris Saltalamacchio has more at stake than most.

    He’s a pageant consultant — a hired coach who helps contestants with the walking, talking, dressing, singing and other skills needed to nail a crown. Think of the Michael Caine character in “Miss Congeniality,” but without the English accent and younger. Like, much younger. 

    Only 28, Saltalamacchio has five contestants among the 53 women vying to be Miss America 2014. Three of them he’ll talk about — Miss Connecticut, Kaitlyn Tarpey; Miss West Virginia, Miranda Renee Harrison; and Miss Vermont, Jeanelle Achee — but the other two are confidential.

    A strong showing by any of them would boost his Pageantry By Chris consulting business. A finalist or winner could make his career.

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    Eyes on the prize

    This week, Saltalamacchio has attended rehearsals and each night of preliminary competitions, dishing play-by-play on gowns, talent performances, winners and the other stuff that happens at Miss America. Tuesday night, it was a Sept. 11 remembrance and a visit from a group of former Miss Americas including a cane-swinging octogenarian.

    On Twitter, his fast-growing followers list now includes current and former contestants, winners, and organizations, pageant enthusiasts nationwide, even judges. With the preliminaries not live-streamed on the Web (here’s hoping for next year) Saltalamacchio has become an essential set of eyes and ears on Miss America’s return to Atlantic City.

    His tweets, from @PageantChris, come fast and furious and sometimes seemingly in code:

    Snakes on a dress! Snakes on a dress!!!! Ahhhhhh

    — Pageantry By Chris (@PageantChris) September 12, 2013


    That was on a contestant’s detailed evening gown. On Wednesday night’s results:


    — Pageantry By Chris (@PageantChris) September 12, 2013


    Translation: Miss Oklahoma, Kelsey Griswold, wins the lifestyle and fitness award for Night 2; Miss Minnesota, Rebecca Yeh, wins the talent portion for Night 2.

    When I met Saltalamacchio in Atlantic City on Monday, he was tired from having been up late into the previous night coaching contestants who were set to have their private interviews with judges in the morning. At one point, we paused so he could field a phone call from a girl who’d just finished her interview and needed to dish.

    Asked to handicap the field on Monday, he said Miss South Carolina, Brooke Mosteller, could be a spoiler. Tuesday night, Mosteller, a brunette law student with a platform to aid students in college applications, won an award for her fundraising efforts. 

    “She’s not the typical Miss South Carolina. She has this straight dark hair,” Saltalamacchio said. “I’ve watched her talking with kids, and she is just incredible.”

    He also likes Miss Virginia, Desiree Williams, whom he calls “a leader, with a killer body,” and is keen on Miss Mississippi, Chelsea Rick, a favorite to land in the top 15.

    Been around the block

    Saltalamacchio graduated from the University of Delaware in 2007 and became an elementary school teacher. He’d also done vocal performance, one of his specialities with clients now. As a desire to work with pageants grew, he switched from teaching to work in a bridal salon, selling pageant fashions and competition gowns.

    He was also a local Miss America Oraganization volunteer and even a contestant: In 2008, he was crowned Mr. Delaware while working as a third-grade teacher. It was an unofficial title, but he took it seriously, and was featured in this video by WHYY’s Andrea Boyle

    A college friend and former Miss Delaware 2005, Rebecca Bledsoe, suggested he try pageant coaching. Saltalamacchio said he whipped up a rate sheet and went to work, and has coached clients to wins and finalist placings in Miss Delaware, Miss Maryland, and Miss America’s Outstanding Teen. In July, 2012, he made it his full-time job.

    The idea of coaches for hire doesn’t always sit well with some in the Miss America orbit, who often spend decades volunteering on local and state pageants and help contestants find sponsors. 

    Saltalamacchio said he can’t worry about that. To him, he’s still teaching. 

    “I took tennis lessons to get better at tennis,” he said. “I wanted to be a teacher, and it’s still teaching. And I love that.” 

    His approach, he said, is about helping contestants be comfortable being themselves and not trying to mold them into a cookie-cutter pageant robot. It’s about making the woman feel good, not bullying or cajoling or smothering.

    “The last thing I said to all of my girls on the phone this morning was to have fun,” he said.

    The return to A.C.

    Like many of the younger volunteers and contestants, the Las Vegas version of Miss America is the one Saltalamacchio cut his teeth on. They don’t know from Show Us Your Shoes. For the city and many locals, Miss America’s return is also a return to a beloved annual ritual celebration, but Saltalamacchio has noticed some differences.

    In Las Vegas, the entire event took place in one casino complex, but in A.C. the contestants are sprinkled across several hotels, hitting social events and making appearances. It’s less centralized, but Saltalamacchio said he’s seen how being out and about in town has energized some of the contestants. 

    Also, he said, Las Vegas was home to enough pageants that Miss America wasn’t the only game in town. In Atlantic City, she reigns supreme. 

    “In Vegas, we were just another event on the schedule. Here, people are excited,” he said.

    He’s an unabashed fan of the current Miss America, Mallory Hytes Hagan, who has thrown herself into an abbreviated tenure and embraced social media. 

    “She is impeccable, and I am so sad to lose her as Miss America,” he said. 

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