Sheep Wish: A contestant in the Price Is Right model search hopes to advance beyond Sleepy?s showroom. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Nikki Poteet knows how to compete against other good-looking women. The blonde college student from Richmond took home the tiara in the 2007 Virginia Coed contest.

Last weekend, she competed for the title of Miss Fredericksburg.

Yet conventional beauty pageants can’t quite prepare Poteet, 21, for the sort of judging that’ll take place inside an Alexandria strip mall on a Thursday morning in late August. Sure, Poteet will need to look good and smile.But the judges will be looking for her to “naturally gesture to or show off a prize” and “walk gracefully frontwards and backwards.”

Poteet and nearly 30 others have lined up outside a Sleepy’s mattress store near the Van Dorn Metro stop with aspirations of winning a nationwide contest to become a model on their grandmother’s favorite game show, The Price Is Right.

Auditioning for the role of product arm candy won’t simulate the complete Price Is Right modeling experience, considering there’s no showcase to hawk (anchored by the Alaskan cruise or a brand new Chevy Malibu!) and no Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner to display.

The role-playing, though, does involve a staple of Price Is Right giveaways. At some point, contestants must do a hand sweep over their choice of either a stuffed Sleepy’s sheep or a mattress sample.

Then they must say: “This mattress courtesy of Sleepy’s—the mattress professionals, the most trusted name in mattresses.”

The opportunity to rehearse graceful gestures in the proximity of consumer goods brings out a healthy cross-section of Mid-Atlantia. Lois Esterbrook, a 48-year-old married mother of two, has ambled over from her home just down from Sleepy’s. She wears a turquoise tank top and tight black Capri pants. She brings along a folder with multiple headshots and a typed sales pitch: “My hobbies are fishing, knitting, and word search puzzles.”

“I’m very photogenic,” Esterbrook says outside Sleepy’s.

Others come out of need—the 19-year-old Benning Heights woman whose main experience is being ogled at Love as an “over-

achiever model;” the wife of a Marine who laments that her mom thinks she is too small and not pretty enough; the stay-at-home mom from Winchester whose insurance company stiffed her on $15,000 in medical bills and whose husband cut off a few fingers in an accident.

All show poise waiting for their tryout. When fake diamonds start falling out of her thick bracelet, Timmira Jones, the Love model, doesn’t freak out. Nor does she have a problem explaining her job as one of Love’s over-achiever models. “[It’s] basically eye candy for the club,” Jones says. “I was one of the first girls picked.”

Poteet dresses like, well, a Price Is Right model, in a bright blue department store cocktail dress and super high heels. She says it took her about two hours to get ready.

“Do we get to see the scores after we’re done?,” Poteet asks one of the WUSA-TV officials coordinating the contest.

“No,” the official replies.

The contest starts in the back room of Sleepy’s, where each woman is given a two-minute audition. They must stand before a camera and answer questions like:

“What is your name?”

“Where are you from?”

“What do you do for a living?”

And then, two stumpers: “Why do you want to be a Price Is Right model?” and “What is something interesting or embarrassing you could tell us?”

Two judges rate each woman on a scale of 1-10 in categories that include naturalness, poise, and comfort level, in addition to the gesturing and walking skills exclusive to the Price Is Right.

It’s work. Maybe it’s not work like the jobs the women are here to escape—like babysitting, nursing school, and waiting tables at the Fredericksburg Cracker Barrel. But it is all business, says Devan Monako, 27 (“24” on her Web site).

The night before the contest, Monako flew to D.C. from Nashville. She arrived at the strip mall in a tight plaid dress, designer shades, a perfect tan, and pink martini lipstick. Watching over her from the parking lot is her paid driver leaning against a late model black Lincoln Town Car. His name is Zinah.

Monako is the ringer. She has stories about working with Bruce Willis. “He’s not a happy person,” she says outside of Sleepy’s. She explains that she just wrapped “background” work as a robot extra on an upcoming Willis sci-fi flick called The Surrogates. She has also appeared in Planet Muscle magazine and in a video for Justin Moore’s “Back That Thing Up.”

The Price Is Right audition has come at the right time for Monako. It would mean a wholesome kind of modeling, something even Willis couldn’t promise. To her, it’s worth spending $1,000 on a flight from Nashville, a room at the Westin in Alexandria, and the cost of Zinah waiting in the parking lot.

As her turn approaches, Monako thinks she knows what the judges want. They don’t just want a pretty face and pretty smile. “They’re looking for the complete package,” she says.

But when Monako gets behind closed doors and steps before the camera, the cameraman, and unflappable judge A. Shawn Jones Clarke, she does little more than offer a pretty face. The ringer chokes.

She can’t remember the lines about Sleepy’s, the mattress professionals.

“Ugh,” Monako says before the light and camera. “Memory.”

“Take a couple deep breaths,” a judge offers.

After a few takes, Monako is offered a cheat sheet. It doesn’t help.

Monako walks back outside into the bright parking lot. Zinah starts the car and pulls up next to the Sleepy’s entrance. “Wow. That was terrible,” Monako says to Belle Goodwin, the Cracker Barrel waitress. “Time to fly back.”

Goodwin just looks at her. “You flew in for this?”