May 26, 2022

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A Memphis match made in heaven, promoters say

The union of Elvis and Miss USA was a marriage made in heaven, according to Memphis tourism and national pageant officials, who say the Graceland-hosted TV competition succeeded in boosting appreciation and awareness of beauty queens and the King of Rock ‘n Roll alike.

But if the ceremony was a success, what about the aftermath? Will the match be reaffirmed with a second honeymoon in Memphis?

Perhaps: Both Miss Universe Organization executives and Elvis Presley Enterprises officials report they are eager for a reunion that could come as early as 2021.

“We’re over the moon,” said Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, the company that organizes the annual Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants, the latter two of which were held at Graceland during the past week. 

“There are very few places we could have done the event we did, in the midst of a pandemic, and feel as safe and secure as we did,” she said.

Jonet Nichelle, Miss Rhode Island USA 2020, during a socially distant, COVID-19-compliant shoot at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, on Wednesday, November 4. The Miss USA contestants are filming, rehearsing and preparing to compete for the Miss USA crown at iconic Graceland.

“People were blown away that this was something that happened at Graceland,” said Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of Graceland Holdings and majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises. “If you watched on television, it looked like something that was done in a massive showroom in Las Vegas, or in Hollywood.”

The two-hour Miss USA pageant was telecast live on FYI — a cable channel devoted to “lifestyle programming” — on Nov. 9 from the Soundstage at Graceland, a venue located within the three-year-old Elvis Presley’s Memphis campus of exhibit halls and shops that is across the street from the Elvis Presley mansion. The spectacle was the first major television production presented live from the Soundstage. 

Meet Miss Teen USA:Hawaii’s Ki’ilani Arruda crowned during pageant at Graceland

Meanwhile, the Miss Teen USA pageant and the preliminary contests that helped the judges winnow down the 51 women in each competition to 16 finalists were held at the Soundstage on Nov. 7 and 6, respectively.

Asya Branch of Booneville, Mississippi, was crowned Miss USA during the annual pageant, held this year at Graceland.

Overall, pageant participants and organizers spent a week at Graceland. They lodged at the hotel, The Guest House at Graceland, and participated in rehearsals and the actual shows at the Soundstage across the street. 

In addition to young women dressed in swimsuits and evening gowns, the Miss USA telecast was chockablock with Elvis music, references to Memphis, and footage of contestants and past pageant winners visiting Graceland, Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum and other signature local attractions. (The footage was not nearly as expansive as it would have been without the coronavirus protocols, which also prevented the contestants from making public appearances in Memphis.)

Appropriately, the woman crowned as Miss USA 2020 represented the home state of the Tupelo-born Elvis: She was 22-year-old Miss Mississippi, Asya Branch, who hails from Booneville. The Miss Teen USA winner was 18-year-old Ki’ilani Arruda of Hawaii.

Ideal location

For Memphis and Graceland, the show provided a particularly glamorous spotlight that highlighted the city as an apparently safe and easily accessible — especially for those within driving distance — tourist destination.

For pageant organizers, Graceland provided the type of “bubble” environment necessary for a large entertainment enterprise in the age of COVID-19.

“Honestly, I thought we might not be able to have the event this year, if we couldn’t find a place where we were really comfortable with all the protocols,” Shugart said. 

But she said Graceland proved ideal because it was “all self-contained. The fact that the venue was across the street,  the way it was built, it all made sense, The stage is a little smaller than normal for us, but we were able to add to it, with the thrust of the runway, and it all worked out.

“This was an event where you had 102 girls come from all over the country, from every state, plus their families and their state (pageant) directors, and we were able to maintain safety.”

COVID-19 complications

Originally scheduled for the spring, the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants were so delayed due to the coronavirus shutdowns that the reigning pageant queens set new records for wearing the crown. Cheslie Kryst of North Carolina had been Miss USA 2019 for 557 days by the time she crowned her successor Monday night.

Shugart — a former television producer who has been head of Miss Universe since 2001 — said Graceland was brought to her attention as a potential site for the pageants by various connections between the organizations.

Meet Asya Branch:Miss USA 2020 at Graceland crowns Miss Mississippi as winner

Notably, Jonathan Seiden, associate general consul for the Miss Universe Organization and an intellectual property lawyer who previously represented Elvis Presley Enterprises, was aware of Weinshanker’s expansion of Graceland into an entertainment complex that was more than a mansion with adjacent souvenir shops.