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Hosting tonight’s Miss USA Pageant is only natural for Giuliana Rancic, who vied for Miss Maryland USA – twice!

“I actually was in the Miss Maryland USA pageant twice, at 18 and 19, and had I won, I would be going to the Miss USA pageant,” she tells me at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. “But I totally bombed twice. One time, I was not feeling confident at all, and the next year, I actually made it to the semifinals, and my interview question, I went around in circles and gave the worst answer ever. I completely tanked the interview.”

She continues, “As a little girl, I always dreamed of going to Miss USA, and I think it’s  cool. It’s a testament to the fact that dreams come true in one way or the other. My motto is, ‘if I can’t compete in it, host it,’ so I love that I did visualize it, it was a dream of mine always, and I finally made it – I took a different route than most of these girls. It’s pretty cool to be on the stage nonetheless.”

Although she hopes tonight’s contestants get thrown curveball questions, Giuliana had trouble thinking straight when asked about something simpler.

“It was something about ‘what would you do with the title of Miss Maryland?’ and I said ‘well, I want the title because it will give me – oh wow – it will give me the, um’ – what I was trying to say is that it would give me access to different organizations and opportunities, and instead, I said ‘the key to’ – and then I went ‘the city.’ It made no sense. You don’t get the key to the city. It was hilarious, and then I started going in circles. I looked down at the audience, and I saw my family looking at me like ‘what?’ It was awful, so I bombed.”

But that’s not the only area in which she needed to improve.

“I remember everyone came out – the girls were super-sexy, and they came out in their bikinis, and I wore a black one-piece – like a granny bathing suit, and everyone was laughing at me. I was insecure as a kid. I had scoliosis bad, I had a bad curve, and I was embarrassed. It was hard. It was something that, as a young girl, I wanted to build my confidence. I didn’t like the way I looked – I was always teased in school. It was a challenge for me to try it. Even though I didn’t win, it was an awesome experience. It was a real confidence booster. Even if you don’t win, you’re still so happy afterwards. You’re thrilled to have done it.”

These days, Giuliana aims to help the contestants through their jitters.

“I totally empathize with them, because I’ve been in their shoes before. I’m giving them all this advice today. They were in a huddle around me today. I felt like a coach, and I was giving them advice, telling them to be real and authentic. I love this type of thing – it’s totally up my alley.”

With Kelly Osbourne, Andy Cohen and Susie Castillo also serving as hosts, this isn’t your typical pageant.

“We’re known for saying what we want, being raw and more authentic in our hosting style. It’s cool of the pageant to want to go in that direction.”

How will Giuliana put her own spin on Miss USA?

“I don’t go by the book,” she says. “I’m not your typical cookie-cutter host. I try to have fun, be spontaneous and react to what’s happening around me, instead of going by the book and getting on to the next question that’s asked of me. I like to react and have fun. In this situation, anything can happen. As we’ve seen in past years, there’s been some interesting answers at times, in the interview competition. People trip, there’s been earrings that have flown off, all sorts of wardrobe malfunctions. I’m not going to ignore them, but play them up a little and have fun with them. Have fun with the girls, too.”

She adds, “I’m compassionate to these girls. I want them to win so badly, and I want them to feel comfortable. Unlike hosts in the past, I’ll definitely have my hand on or around their shoulders, and make them feel like it’s OK – ‘even though millions of people are watching you, it’s OK.’ I’m going to play a sisterly nice role with them.”

Catch Giuliana hosting the Miss USA Pageant tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. I can’t wait to see who wins – I was a preliminary judge!
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