STACI BALDWIN'S CHEEKS GLISTENED with tears of joy as she strode down the stage at the Miss Washington USA pageant in Longview, Wash., on April 23. Proudly wearing the red-and-white satin sash that proclaimed her the winner, she was delighted to have won the right to compete in next February's Miss USA pageant and a chance at reaching the 1996 Miss Universe contest. "I can't describe the elation, the sense of accomplishment I felt at the moment I was crowned," she says. "This was an open door for me, and I was ready to fly through it."

That door slammed shut less than three weeks later. On May 12, Baldwin was awakened by an early morning phone call from Washington State pageant coordinator Donna Lee. "They were calling to ask me to send back the trophy, banner and my tiara," says Baldwin. "They said I was too old."

At 26, her age had seemed fine for the Miss Washington USA pageant. The entry form clearly states, "For single girls only, you must be between the ages of 17-26 to enter...." Unfortunately, Baldwin turned 27 on June 11, making her ineligible for February's Miss USA pageant. "They told me I should send it all back—Federal Express," says Baldwin, an auditor and Seattle Seahawks cheerleader.

She refused. Instead she filed suit in U.S. district court in Seattle on June 6, seeking reaffirmation of her title as well as $1 million damages from pageant organizers for emotional distress and for loss of the untold value of national exposure from the televised Miss USA pageant and promised valuables, including a diamond bracelet, a designer evening gown, a personal trainer and a year's worth of hair and nail care. "This is not about a million dollars. It's about getting the opportunity to run in Miss USA and getting the break to become a successful actress," says Baldwin, who notes that Michelle Pfeiffer parlayed her 1978 Miss Orange County, Calif., crown into a movie career. "I played by the rules. I won the right to compete. I'm just as capable now of being Miss USA as when I was 26."

While Lee has been unavailable for comment, other pageant officials disagree. "Being in any kind of contest, there are requirements," says Kellie Totten, spokeswoman for the Miss Universe Pageant, which oversees preliminary Miss USA state contests. "I can't drive in the Indy 500 [because] I don't meet the requirements. Our requirements are that you have to be female, you can't be married, and there has always been an age requirement."

Baldwin has long sought a life outside the ordinary. An extroverted child, she enjoyed entertaining her brother Jason, now 20, and her parents, Stephen, 48, a Seattle computer programmer, and Wanda Corcoran, 44, a secretary at Boeing aircraft. At Meadowdale High School, Baldwin became a cheerleader during her sophomore year. After graduating in 1986, she held down two jobs while attending night school and soon won a place on the Seahawks' Sea Gal cheerleading squad, with whom she has performed for seven seasons. Since earning her degree in accounting in 1993, she has worked for the state department of revenue, and until last month, she was moonlighting as a waitress to pay for exotic vacations to Australia and Europe.

Baldwin's record in beauty pageants has been mixed. At 18, she failed to win the Miss Lynn wood contest even though there were only two other contestants. Then, last year, she was second runner-up in the Miss Washington pageant. This year, after paying a $600 entry fee and renting a white evening gown for $300, she was crowned Miss Washington. "I cried," she says, recalling the shock of learning that she was to be deposed. "I was devastated. One day I was on top of the world, and then all of a sudden all my dreams were going down the drain."

She was not alone. Last April's Miss Oregon USA winner, Kimberly Swopes, of Portland, was also notified that, at 27, she was too old to reign. But she accepted the decision of Donna Lee, who coordinated the Miss Oregon USA pageant as well, and chose not to sue. Baldwin, however, isn't the first winner to go to court after her title was threatened. In 1980, Kathy Patrick of Texas successfully retained her Miss New Mexico USA title after organizers attempted to strip her of it for violating pageant residency requirements. "What this all boils down to is a business contract," says Baldwin's lawyer, Jeffrey Smyth, of Seattle. "Staci lived up to her end of the contract. She won. And one of the things she is now owed is the right to represent Washington in Miss USA."

Now that she's fighting back, Baldwin says she finds comfort in the Bible—and elsewhere. "I pray every day," she says. "I need a lot of peace and strength to deal with this problem. And that's what I prayed for—peace and strength. And a good lawyer."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
MIRO CERNETIG in Seattle

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