Thursday, September 30, 2010

Archives 2000. Confessions of a Beauty Pageant Loser

Have you ever looked at a picture of yourself when you were a kid?... There’s one of me in a cowboy hat, pointing a gun at the camera, trying to look like a cowboy but failing, and I can hardly bring myself to look at it now. I’ve put it back in a drawer. I keep wanting to apologize to the little guy: ‘I’m sorry, I’ve let you down. I was the person who was supposed to look after you, but I made wrong decisions at bad times and turned you into me.’
—Nick Hornby

To even make the qualifying rounds for the title of Miss Navajo a girl has to be able to perform all of the traditional Navajo women’s tasks — including slaughtering, butchering, and cooking a sheep.

Of course, I didn’t grow up in the Navajo nation, and vying for the title of Miss Nibroc back in the early 80s in my hometown wasn’t nearly so arduous. Lucky for me.

on the left
The only experience I brought to the event was a brief and glorious stint as some sort of Little Miss Homecoming something-or-other when I was five years old. I wore a fluffy pink dress, itchy white lace tights, and white patent leather shoes. My then-best friend (and later, arch-nemesis) Karen Sasser and I carried the train of the queen, Marie Cima. Or it might have been her tiara.

A dozen years later, I was ready for the real deal.

All I needed was a swimsuit, a few nice dresses, a convertible I could ride in for the parade, and a driver who’d be willing to wear something other than a t-shirt.

I didn’t have a “talent,” and fortunately, one wasn’t required.

In fact, I don’t recall doing anything especially strenuous to prepare — beyond lying in the sun, basted in baby oil, with my hair coated in lemon juice. But, I was probably going to do that anyway.

I’d like to pretend to be blasé and sanguine about the whole thing now — as if the pageant and the festival were things I just happened to do a few decades ago. Ancient history. A sign of the times that I just went along with. The same way I might now be vaguely embarrassed by pictures of me with feathered hair and leg warmers.

But that’s not true.

I had that initial taste of glory at 5 on that basketball court, and I’d been dreaming about my moment ever since. Every August I would stand in front of JCPenney’s with my family and we’d watch the candidates in their shiny Corvettes, waving benevolently at the crowd and smiling.

I thought they had it made. A handsome boyfriend in the front. A spiffy car. The adulation of thousands (maybe it was just dozens) of cheering admirers lined up to see them and talk about how pretty they were. They were the closest thing we had to rock stars.

And I fantasized about how one day I’d be the one in the convertible. (Only I — plotting with the cunning that any five-year-old might exhibit— planned to throw candy, so the crowd would really love me and applaud loudly.)

I grew up and developed real goals, of course, but I never forgot that one.

Oh sure, I got good grades. I held a few class offices, including president a couple times. I made the National Honor Society and was a National Merit Semifinalist (St. C had enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight as the school with the highest percentage of National Merit Semifinalists in the country — though it’s worth pointing out that I think my graduating class was only about 17 kids. The high school has since closed). I was even headed off to my first-choice college (thereby successfully spiting Sister Agnes Marian who’d refused to even give me an application, insisting “trust me dear, your parents can’t afford it.”)

Frankly, at 17, that was all just gravy.

I wanted a parade.

I was sure it would change my whole life.


The theme of this year’s Festival is “linking the past with the future.”

It seems appropriate as I drive through town and am struck both by how little and how much it’s changed.

The directions that I’m given for this trip are exactly in keeping with the nature of any small southern town, “turn right where the Stuckey’s used to be.”

I remember when the first McDonald’s came to town. I remember when Burger Queen became Druther’s. And I well recall the excitement of the first Pizza Hut, and how we longed in vain for something more exotic, like a Godfather’s.

Now there’s fast food from one end of town to the other. Wendy’s. McDonald’s. Burger King. Arby’s. Domino’s. Papa John’s.

A giant Wal-Mart has nearly invaded and supplanted Black’s Barn.

Bonza and Wyrick’s IGA burned down a few years ago (Mr. Bonza unwittingly foiled my incipient life of crime when I stole a blowpop in first grade and my mother made me take it back to him and confess). By then it was E.C. Porter’s.

The Southern States I used to frequent with my Uncle Don is now Farm and Garden. The former proprietor, Arlis Fuson — who gave me my first set of little yellow chicks to raise — is retired. Don tells me Arlis is now “growin’ dogs and sellin’ ‘em.” When I ask what kind, he says, “Whatever kind you want. Big or little.” But, he adds, “I believe he’s got out of the bird business.”

The Somerset Oil up the road from the Fusons’ house is now closed down.

The downtown has now been overhauled and realigned on a grid. Kentucky is now one-way south and Main Street is now one-way north. Depot is still two-way, and will lead to the old underpass, which used to flood in every hard rain.

Hall Watson still anchors Center and Depot, but Sterchi’s is now a parking lot.

Distad’s jewelry store is gone (where I got my ears pierced the first... and second time).

Daniel’s dress store just closed this year.

A Chinese restaurant sits where the old Holiday used to be.

A True Value hardware is in place of the old Piggly Wiggly (more commonly known as The Pig), and across the street the Tastee Freez has been replaced by a pizza chain. The downtown Sonic is now a car lot, and there’s a new Sonic out on “new” 25E.

The old Hippodrome Theatre on Main was torn down long before I left.

The JCPenney I worked in all through high school also relocated to new 25E. Belk Simpson moved from Main Street to the shopping center decades ago.

The nation’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken is still on old London Highway on the way into town, and doubles as a museum (also on the National Register of Historic Places)— a museum that serves fried food. Colonel Sanders knew one of my grandfathers, and I met him on several occasions as a child — but no one I grew up with cares about chicken.

All the natives from my generation know the town cuisine is all about the chili.

The Dixie, home of “the world-famous Dixie Dog”—where I used to eat on my lunch break—is still on Main Street, but under new management.

A few doors down, the Krystal Kitchen is still standing, but appears to be hollowed out.

Next to that is the Fad Pool Hall, equally famous for their chili, but also for the fact that, as long as I was growing up, women were prohibited. The ban might have been lifted at some point, but at any rate, I’ve never been inside.

Chili loyalty was and is fierce in the tri-county area, and my family came down on the side of the root beer stand on Falls Highway (on the way to Cumberland Falls, home of the Moonbow — one of only two sites in the world with a moonbow; the other is in Africa).

The stand was torn down a few summers back, and reconstructed in a site about 50 yards west.

I’d be surprised if they changed the oil.

As an adult, I’ve had to continuously explain the concept of “chili buns” to the uninitiated — it’s a chili dog without the dog. “Oh... that’s just a sloppy joe,” is the usual response. Well, no, it isn’t. And in fact, it’s blasphemy to even mention them in the same breath. (This is usually followed by a discourse about the relative merits of bun-chili versus bowl-chili — but at some point, spaghetti enters the discussion, and I’ve found that there’s no point in even attempting to talk to anyone who’d put pasta in a bowl of chili.)

I’m not sure how world-famous any of this was. Bob Green did write an essay about the chili there years ago, but I don’t remember whose side he was on.

When I worked at Penney’s, we sold a t-shirt that named my hometown and said, "It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, ‘what will I be? will I be pretty? will I be rich?’ Here’s what she said to me, ‘Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.’
—Jay Livingston and Ray Evans

One thing I know, when I was 17, I traveled light — a tube of strawberry Kissing Potion lip gloss, a comb, and a dime to call my mother, and I was set.

For this trip, I am weighed down with a digital camera with spare battery and charger; a cellphone with spare battery and charger; tape recorder, tapes, and notebooks; and a laptop.

I look like a sherpa...  a sherpa from The Matrix.

The first thing I notice about this year’s crop of candidates is that they have a healthy appetite. I had invited myself along to their brunch hosted by the Woman’s Club and held at a local hotel. (We ate at the mayor’s house when I was a candidate, but I decide it might seem... smug to point that out.)

The girls are encouraged to “go on and get your pictures made now, in case you spill something on yourself like Miss June over here.”

I was happy to see them come away from the buffet with their plates groaning under the weight of bacon and eggs and sausage and biscuits and gravy.

The president of the woman’s club, Lib Fore (former proprietor of Jack’s Market) is glad too, confiding conspiratorially, “one year they didn’t even eat enough to pay for it.”

I resist the maternal urge to tell them to wash their faces because they’re too pretty to need all that makeup. Because the other thing that strikes me —as I scan their applications and do the math — is that they were not even born the year I was in the pageant. And if I’d been a little more ... precocious... any one of them could be my daughter.

I feel very middle-aged.

I wonder if they’ve even heard of any of the characters who populated the national consciousness when I was 17 — names like... Madonna... Michael Jackson... Tom Cruise.... George Bush.

Sigh. It’s a different world.

They’ve filled out questionnaires — the same way we did — answering questions like, “what do you feel is the most pressing issue facing southern  women today?” To a girl almost, they’ve answered with some variation on this succinct response, “Southern women don’t have enough confidence or ambition to stay in school, to go on to college and get a life, rather than get married and start having children in their teens.”

Almost all of them mention the dearth of jobs awaiting the girls who do go on to school and then try to come home — only to find that most of the opportunities for women are vo-tech or service sector (nurses and bank tellers and fast food servers can usually get a gig, for example), but high-paying professional options are still limited. (Though most of them assure me they will be back.)

So the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The night of this year’s coronation, the emcee promises an evening that includes everything from “pop to country to ... interpretive dance.” I sense that I’m not the only adult shifting uncomfortably at that last item. The upcoming carnival is announced (Tuesday you can ride all night for 10 dollars). Wednesday is a gospel sing. Mitch Ryder will do a concert the following weekend, along with the guy who wrote “Flowers on the Wall” (a song “made popular by the Statler Brothers,” as the emcee reminds us — but I’m thinking my friends would only remember it because it’s on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

The 1999 queen takes the stage, and this year’s candidates are introduced, as “American Woman” plays on the sound system. The theme of the pageant is “American Beauties” (hopefully a reference to the roses, and not the movie — which would really be tragically ironic as pageant themes go). 

The “big production number” has changed considerably. The girls are in capri pants and pastel tops, and they do a spirited little set of kicks and aerobicizing to Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” which (even though it’s over a decade old) was terribly contemporary compared to the number we did.

Although almost no photographic evidence from my pageant survived the fire when our house burned down my sophomore year in college, at one point, there was a Super 8 recording of my own blush-inducing role in “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.”

First: we wore black leotards, black tights, and black bowler hats — accessorized by a neon green garter, waistband, hatband, and a tambourine.

“Way down on the levee in old Alabamy/There’s daddy and mammy, there’s Ephraim and Sammy/ While they are waitin’ the banjos are syncopatin’/ What’s that they’re sayin’?/...While they keep playin’ they’re hummin’ and swayin’./ It’s the good ship Robert E. Lee that’s come to carry the cotton away.”

Second, as we wound up to the big finale — shuffle, shuffle, step step, step-ball-change, Charleston, and HALLELUJAH HAND — they turned off all the lights and illuminated the stage with a black light, so we looked like a bunch of invisible, yet disembodied, dancers in a minstrel show.

“See them shufflin’ along./Go take your best gal, real pal, go down to the levee, I said to the levee/ And join that shufflin’ throng, hear that music and song./ It’s simply great, mate, waitin’ on the levee, waitin’ for the Robert E. Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”

This year’s program also includes an actual on-stage “swimsuit competition.”

I have to confess I feel vaguely uncomfortable watching a group of teenage girls parade around in their tankinis (they are allowed to wear two-pieces this year, a rather scandalous new development that the organizers seem a little unsure of) — as the emcee says things like, “Miss So and So plans to major in molecular biology as part of her pre-med curriculum.”

When I competed, we actually attended a “pool party”with the judges — thereby affording us a nominal pretense as to why we would be standing around on any summer afternoon in swimsuits and stiletto pumps.

Now, it should be pointed out that none of us had any intention of going in the water. And there wasn’t one girl among us who’d have dreamed of getting her carefully coiffed, Aqua-netted hair wet. But the illusion — the excuse — for the swimwear somehow provided the chimera of seemliness that the stage does not.

I am told this year’s parade route will be just like mine was — proceeding down Main and back up Kentucky. Only this year, the organizers have scheduled all the pageant events and the coronation the week prior to the festival, so the Queen’s car will be labeled, and she’ll get to —in effect — reign over the festival week, as well as the parade.

It’s a good theory, but I’m not sure I would’ve shown up for the parade if I’d already known I had zero shot at the title.

It was traumatic enough as it was.

I had managed to secure the loan of a restored El Dorado Cadillac convertible that belonged to my friend Casey’s father. The rumor was that it had been owned, at one time, by FDR. But I can’t confirm that. I do know it was the dreamiest — candy-apple red with a white leather interior and it perfectly matched my giant white ballgown with red piping.

Mr. Taylor agreed to drive it, with the proviso that his two little boys be allowed to ride in the backseat, more or less underneath my copious skirts where no one would see them. I was extremely unhappy about that last proposition, but wasn’t about to look a gift Caddy in the mouth — and their presence ended up being fortuitous anyway.

As it turned out, the car’s mint-condition appearance was pretty much confined to cosmetics, and not the engine, which stalled repeatedly while we waited for our place in the queue on Falls Highway.

By the time we had turned onto Main, and the parade route proper, Mr. Taylor had figured out a way to simultaneously pop the clutch and gun the engine so that the car would lurch forward, a few feet at a time. At which point, gravity and the car’s forward motion would propel me backwards, plastering me, face up, onto the trunk. The only thing that kept me from sliding off the back was the hearty instructions Mr. Taylor boomed to his sons, “HANG ON TO HER BOYS! WE’RE MOVIN’!” and they’d each grab a leg as we jerked and sputtered our way down Main.

I never had a legitimate shot at Miss Congeniality anyway, but I’m pretty sure the stream of obscenities this chain of events provoked on my part probably didn’t help my chances any.

My face still gets kind of warm from the memory as the girls are winding up for the final high kicks of their dance.

The production number is followed by an intermission. Then the candidates have to get through an evening gown competition, and the crowd has to get through some more “entertainment,” before the coronation can commence, and the 1999 winner can hand over her crown and title to this year’s winner.

As I’m packing up my gear, it dawns on me how tiny the high school auditorium really is. I doubt it seats more than a few hundred people, and it’s not even full.

From the stage though, I know from experience it looks as big as Madison Square Garden.

And for those of you who said I’d never amount to anything? Good call.
—Jon Stewart

Driving north on I-75 at the end of the evening, I turn off the air conditioning and roll down my windows, letting the muggy August air pour into the truck cab.

I reach into the white sack I’ve stowed in the console and pull out a neatly-wrapped, warm package. There are traces of orange around the edges of the waxed paper where the grease has soaked through.

I unwrap it carefully, and stow the paper back in the bag, relieved that the seats are leather and I won’t be able to make too much of a mess. I have rules against eating in my car, but I make this one-time exception.

I demolish about half of the (first) bun in one bite— the perfect bite of chili, sharp mustard, soft white Rainbo bun, and pungent minced white onion, followed by a long cold swallow of root beer.

I find exactly the right Alejandro Escovedo CD to keep me awake and keep me company.

In a few hours, I’ll be back in my little kitchen dicing six pounds of tomatoes for the gallon of homemade gazpacho that I’ve promised to contribute to a dinner party the next evening.

By the time I get to that party, I’ll be back among my friends — friends who probably can’t imagine me wearing four-inch stilettos with a swimsuit. I doubt they’d believe I ever danced to the ‘Robert E. Lee.’ And I probably don’t strike them as the type of girl who would’ve spent her entire childhood dreaming about riding in a parade in the back of a shiny red convertible.

But I did.

I had forgotten it all myself. Forgotten that there was another muggy August evening about 17 years ago when all this mattered, and mattered desperately.

And I miss the excitement and passion and sense of relentless, breathless anticipation I felt that summer — as if something important might happen at any minute.

Maybe something great.

--sidebar from the column--

"Accidentally leaving the pricetag on your breasts." That's one of Letterman's top ten ways to get disqualified from the Miss America pageant. Another is "when asked about hobbies, reply 'rich, elderly men.'"

As usual, Dave has the right idea here-which is not to take any of this too seriously-unlike the rest of the free world, which seems to have gotten its collective panties into quite a bunch over this whole swimsuit hoo-ha. Why, it's as if physical attractiveness actually had something to do with the pageant's outcome! Say it ain't so!

They can call it a scholarship contest all they want, that don't make it rocket science. The pageant is, after all, an evaluation of physical, feminine beauty-which is, as we know, only skin deep, so why not evaluate as much surface area as possible? I'm not saying it's right, I'm saying there's a market for it. The participants involved volunteer, they aren't drafted. And unlike more obvious forms of prostitution, it's all perfectly legal.

So I ask you, just how coy is this nation going to get? What's next? An outcry from the prize 4-H heifers at the county fair about weight requirements?

Now I can hardly hear myself think over all the meowing and hissing in the background, so let me go ahead and make a confession right now (before someone from my hometown beats me to it): I was actually in a high school beauty pageant. That's another column entirely, but let's just say I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone that I didn't get many votes for Miss Congeniality.

Nor did I win the talent competition. The things I was good at weren't necessarily anything I could show off for the judges. Although my then-boyfriend helpfully suggested that I ought to have tried sword swallowing.

If they'd had a category for irony, I might have had a shot at some points, but they didn't, so I went home with some lovely parting gifts instead. I've since managed to piece together the crumbled shards of my ego and get on with my life-but feel free to judge my ranting as mere sour grapes.

I didn't realize just how badly the pageantry circuit had deteriorated until we tuned into this year's spectacle in anticipation of the big swimsuit vote (cast, appropriately enough, by phoning a 900 number).

Apparently, the only acceptable "talent" (and I use the term loosely) is singing and/or playing piano. We longed for the days of baton twirlers, trampoline tumblers, or even a really cheesy "dramatic monologue." If they'd had a phone-in for that, Hoss was going to cast his vote for the "interrogation scene from Basic Instinct."

Mostly we entertained ourselves (while waiting for the swimsuit votes to be calculated) by proposing alternative talents for the candidates-ones we'd actually like to see. Perhaps a thematic approach where Miss Louisiana could come out and shuck oysters, Miss Kentucky could strip tobacco, or Miss Arkansas could blow the governor.

What we really wanted to see eliminated though, much more than the swimsuits, was that big production number. Not wanting to send the audience home unsatisfied, we propose replacing it with something else. Like, oh I don't know...maybe strapping Miss Congeniality to a big rotating wheel and allowing blindfolded semifinalists to throw knives at her. Now THAT'S what I call talent.

I think for me, the most excruciating portion of the evening was Regis's interviews with the contestants in which they announce their "platforms." That's where, in anticipation of a year of important speaking engagements (at state dinners, mall openings, and the like) the show ponies get to expound on issues of importance to them-such as split ends, exfoliation, and silicone. No, just kidding...that would've been great though, wouldn't it? In reality, this year's issues du jour included snoozers like sexual abstinence (for) and juvenile crime (against).

As much as I kid the show, it really was good cheap entertainment (which probably isn't the first time that's been said about some of those contestants). And there's just nothing more romantic than a man who turns to you at the end of an evening of Miss America watching and says, "Honey, I know your platform would have been much better than those girls'." Romance that is in no way diminished by the fact that he's just trying to get you to dust off your old sword swallowing act.

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