Photo by Chris PanaiaNot that many years ago, no self-respecting newspaper reporter would pass up an invitation to a press conference featuring a couple of dozen gorgeous models, free food and free booze. But on June 25, the cream of OC's print and broadcast media passed up exactly that. I know because I had the run of the place.

The press conference—a party, actually, considering the invitation was a glossy card featuring a voluptuous, bikini-clad blonde—was held on the fifth-floor Sun Deck of the Hilton across from the Anaheim Convention Center. Its purpose was to introduce the first round of 2002 Venus Swimwear Southern California Model Search contestants to the local media.

A $20,000 prize package and a trip to the finals in Florida await the winner. And like similar contests, this one comes equipped with a bunch of big-name sponsors selling things such as shoes, energy drinks, action sports and airline tickets.

The local TV affiliates, the E! cable network and even The Orange County Register were all invited. They never showed.

“There was some freeway chase, so ABC said they couldn't make it,” said event publicist Scott Moore. “The Register said we'd get a listing and a feature, so they should be here. I think we'll send B-Roll [non-interview video footage] to the E! Network.”

Even so, at least one contestant was disappointed. “I was told there would be big-name press here tonight,” she said. “It's nothing personal, but they said Fox and the E! Network would be here.”

The models, web photographers and promotions people who did succumb to the invitation were offered a wide variety of food, including one appetizer consisting of a bit of prosciutto toothpicked to a grape. A bar offering beer, Skyy vodka martinis and a Red Bull knockoff from Asia called Shark—one of the contest's “anchor sponsors”—was also a major attraction.

On hand was Paige Brooks, 1998's Miss Alabama USA who has a bit part in Men in Black II. She'll host each of the Sunday House of Blues pageants.

“I've known about Venus for at least a decade,” said Brooks, a self-described “Barbie look-alike.” “It's fantastic, an international opportunity. It's well-respected.”

“Well-respected” was a phrase we heard a lot.

“We are really geared to the ingnue who wants to be discovered,” said publicist Michael Conley. “It's kind of like the old studio system. Look at [E! Network's Wild On host] Brooke Burke. She got her start in this pageant. The pageant is very well-respected. It's a well-established, respected entity. It's a really good chance for a girl to get discovered in a reputable way.”

Conley said he has been doing public relations for 20 years. “This is a joy for me,” he said. “I'm surrounded by beautiful girls who are very intelligent. The pageant builds positive values and self-esteem. We told the girls to wear eveningwear tonight to epitomize the class of the event.”

Conley wanted to introduce us to Nicole—”she's a biochemist”—but failed because she never showed. He then became a bit distracted as another contestant entered the party. “Wow, look at this one,” he muttered as she walked by. “She is stunning. She looks better than Cameron Diaz.”

We may have missed Nicole the biochemist, but we met Amber, a blond, brown-eyed Laguna Niguel resident. “I'm the fake lifeguard in the Mercedes commercial,” Amber said. “That was my first audition ever, and I got it. My second audition, which I also got, was for a WWE commercial for a fat-burner called Stacker 2. It only airs during Smackdown and things like that. I play the campy bimbo in black. I still don't get to show the intellectual side within me.”

Then there was Natalie, a tall brunette. “I'm originally from Anchorage, Alaska,” she said. “I wanted to try something different, so I'm here. Someone told me this is where Brooke Burke got her start. So I thought this was a good place to start.”

And we met Joy, a 24-year-old Redlands resident and fitness trainer originally from Boston and one of the only girls not wearing a black cocktail dress. “I'm from part of the country where you only wear your bikini two months a year,” Joy said, clad in a red geisha dress. “I'm kind of a smarty-pants. I don't swear, drink, smoke, do drugs or eat meat.”

Joy also doesn't drink Shark because the sugar content is too high. “Girls should have a low-sugar diet,” she advised.

“I'd love to go in the direction of modeling and acting, but I've never been a very primpy girl,” she said. “I'm shower-to-door in 20 minutes. I went to South Coast Plaza for the first time the other day—oh, my god. I'm not about all those expensive name brands. I shop in Chinatown. I don't want to blend in.”

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