Girlish

Reflections of a beauty pageant survivor

Library of Congress

My family didn’t have a lot of extras. Mom and Dad both held down multiple jobs at a time. Sending me and my sisters to college was going to be a hardship. The deal was that my parents would pay my tuition, room, and board at the nearby state university, and I’d earn any additional pocket money myself. I worked part-time at the candy store in the student union, but it was tough staying on top of the cost of books and supplies, so I was always looking for side hustles. Halfway through my first year of college, my then-boyfriend pointed out a poster advertising the Miss Oswego scholarship pageant. First prize got you money, a wardrobe, and entry to compete in the Miss New York State pageant. That winner went on to the Miss America competition. Second and first runners-up won $500 and $750 respectively, and that got my attention.

It was 1980. I’d have to shave my legs, buy a dress, and try to look fancy—I thought I might be able to fake it. At the time, the second runner-up's prize, $500, would cover a lot of textbooks. I didn’t know how to tap dance or juggle or baton twirl, so I wrote a speech about the wonders of Oswego County (the poorest county in New York State) and I smiled, smiled, smiled.

At the orientation meeting, Carla, the director, cast a narrow eye over my Talking Heads T-shirt, then crossed her arms and sighed loudly when I announced that my talent would be public speaking. Carla had a frost-tipped shag, shell-pink lipstick, and matching nails. She favored a twenty-year-old contestant from Fulton named Mitsy. Mitsy’s talent was singing—the same talent as eleven of the fourteen other contestants. When she belted out her operatic rendition of “The Way We Were,” Carla covered her lips with the tips of her fingers. This, she told us, this was pageant material.

A number of the girls turned out to be serial pageant contestants. They had intel on false eyelashes and spray tans and double-sided tape. Several of them had started competing in pageants when they were around JonBenét Ramsey’s age. Their mothers turned up for the rehearsals. These girl-women collected trophies and pageant earnings and entered one contest after another. When I took the mic and gave my speech, Carla’s eyes hardened. They told me: You don’t belong.

 

The pageant was held in a school auditorium filled with a sea of faces. Who were these hundreds of people attending a local beauty pageant? Even if each girl had brought ten friends, it wouldn’t account for the size of the crowd. My mother, sisters, and grandmother were all in attendance. Dad had opted out, saying that this was something “for ladies.” That was fine with me; I was rapidly losing heart, convinced I didn’t have a crack at even the floral bouquet for third runner-up.

Strategically padded, cranked up, and colored-in, it was as if I’d entered the maw of some great apparatus. My mother had raised us in her straightforward way, with little artifice, so the amount of cosmetic preparation was a shock to me. They called it a “scholarship pageant,” but we still had to appear in swimsuits. There was also a gown category, in which we had to walk across the stage (wave, smile) in evening gowns, turn (wave, smile) and walk back. The interview category was supposed to be more meaningful, giving the judges a chance to delve beneath the surface. One interviewer asked how I picked my gown. (It was the one I’d worn to the prom. Did the other eighteen-year-old competitors have additional evening gowns?) Another asked why I didn’t straighten my hair. When I confessed that it hadn’t occurred to me, she commended me for forging my “own path.” I imagine, she added, that your mother must be very proud.

My mother couldn’t fathom why I was doing this. Don’t you have classes to attend? she asked, frowning as I practiced my walk in a pair of silver stilettos. They were horrendous ankle-snappers—less stable than the three-foot circus stilts I’d owned in fifth grade. You had to strut down the center of the stage, put one foot in front of the other and pivot without moving your feet. The audience then got until the count of two to study your backside. Nearly six feet tall, with a strong frame, my mother was un-girly, practical, pragmatic. She didn’t pluck her eyebrows or wear makeup besides brick-red lipstick. She wore her hair short around her ears and gave my sisters and me equally short, “creative” haircuts until we rebelled in middle school. 

Perhaps there was a part of me that just wanted to see if I could do it—masquerade as an American woman convincingly enough to trick a panel of judges. I’d always suspected there was something off about my upbringing—slightly fraudulent. Maybe all children of immigrants feel this way: that your parents (and, by extension, you) eat the wrong foods, speak the wrong language, celebrate the wrong holidays, and wear the wrong clothes. And at times, my American mother seemed almost as unconventional as my immigrant father: she didn’t fuss over hair and clothes, she was busy trying to raise three kids and hold down a job or two and keep her husband from spinning off into outer space. When I got my first period, she hugged me briefly, showed me the box of pads, and zipped off to work.

 

If my parents were unusual, the pageant girls seemed like another species. They glimmered. They were friendlyish but wolfish. These serial competitors traveled from distant counties, and they weren’t enrolled in college. Most were there because they believed that pretty would be their best hope, their best shot at life. And they were ready to fight.

Pageant night, we opened with a lightly choreographed number involving kicking and smiling. Then it was time for evening wear. When I took my turn at the front of the stage, my little sisters leapt onto their chairs, whistling and screaming. They riled up the audience, who burst into shouts and applause through the rest of the evening.

I had an almost uncanny sense of unease, the unheimlich, as I tottered along the runway. Looking back on it from the safety of several decades, it seems that so little has changed. I think the wide margin we maintain for women between being qualified and being “appealing” is why Hillary Clinton had so many personal detractors. There was a firmness, perhaps a hardness, about her mouth, a certain determined set to her eyes. Poise and charm were big pageant words. Contestants were expected to have a hint of vacuity, the sweetness of ignorance, a desire to please—to be soft, helpful, and girlish, taking silent, inoffensive steps. Between Hillary’s brows was a vertical line, a mark of thought and effort, like a slash through the word girlish. And how fitting that a renowned misogynist like Donald Trump was a co-owner of the Miss Universe contest. Whether they claim to judge scholarship or beauty or poise or talent, these contests zero in on the female body—how best to control and display it.

I wasn’t graceful or poised, but I sent my smile forth. In my speech, I extolled the dairy cows and apples of central New York and decried its poverty and illiteracy. It was a wooden speech, but I felt what I was saying: these weren't mere platitudes to me. I’d been raised in an aspirational family, half in and half out. I’d witnessed the poverty all around us. I know who you are, I wanted to say to the audience. We grew up together. I see you.

As we stood onstage waiting for the finalists to be read, I was so certain that I’d blown it that when they summoned the three finalists, I didn’t register my own name. They had to call me a second time before I moved forward. As we were instructed to hold hands and wait for the final verdict, I was already spending the $500 in my head.

When they announced the second runner-up I was confused for a moment, as another girl’s name was called. I realized I’d been bumped to first runner-up. $750! It was all supposed to go to books and classes, but now I was factoring in a monster dorm party. The platinum blonde to my right was rigid with nerves. I got ready to congratulate her and she seized both my hands, squeezing so hard my ring cut into my finger.

And then an envelope was torn open and they were reading a name and why were my sisters shouting and going wild? And what the heck. A sash? The bone-crushing blonde threw her arms around me and wept into my neck and some unseen person was jabbing bobby pins and a rhinestone crown into my head. All I could think was that a terrible mistake had been made.

 

When you enter one of these local contests, you have to sign a contract up front agreeing to all sorts of duties and obligations, including competing in the statewide pageant at the end of the year. In dismay, I pulled out my copy of that agreement. I’d won a thousand dollars, but I was going to have to work for it.

Parades. So many parades. So many antique convertibles. Miss Oswego was required to sit enthroned and waving from cars. I spent a lot of time baking on top of those cars thinking about what an idiot I was. Sometimes the organizers would give me bags of candy to toss to children and I’d eat most of it. There were fishing competitions, restaurant openings, hospital visits, and ribbon cuttings. I had to tell my Existentialism professor that I was going to miss class because I needed to go shake hands with the winner of a chili-chugging contest. I regularly snuck out of workshops and lecture halls, cursing the Miss America pageant and all its subsidiaries.

Then came Miss New York State—the final obligation. Part of my prize package was makeup and modeling lessons, presumably to ready me for the big contest. So once a week I was required to carpool with Carla and three would-be models to a studio in Syracuse. At the time, Carla’s best friend was coaching a young woman named Vanessa Williams who would, in a few years, go on to become the first Black Miss America. On the way to modeling lessons, for forty unceasing minutes, once a week for ten weeks, Carla rhapsodized about Vanessa’s face and body, her singing and acting, the funny thing she’d said in the grocery store, the way she ate her lunch, the stitching on her jean pockets. Vanessa was an angel descended directly from heaven. (Vanessa, if you’re reading this, I don’t hold it against you.)

Almost a year after Vanessa Williams became Miss America, Bob Guccione got his hands on some nude photos, taken when Vanessa was young, published them in Penthouse, and wrecked her reign. The Miss America organization went into a fainting swoon. How dare she, they demanded. How dare she decide to remove one layer more than the pageant decreed? How dare she exhibit some awareness of her own sexuality? How dare she make decisions about her own body? And how dare she be Black while doing it? 

Even back then, before I’d heard of Guccione or paged through an issue of Penthouse, I couldn’t stop seeing myself and the other girls as pawns in some sort of larger game. We were trinkets, display objects, used for the entertainment of the pageant-goers, which was just one arm of a behemoth industry dedicated to monetizing women’s bodies. I spent every Tuesday evening learning how to spackle my skin with peach-colored foundation. The instructor taught me to circle my eyes with liner and spoke of the universal need for blush. When I got home from these sessions, I stared at my caked-on face in the bathroom mirror. One evening, I sat on the bathroom floor, exhausted, and cried the liner down my neck.

 

Carla was to be my chaperone at the Miss New York pageant. I practiced and wobbled and turned and recited my speech and wore the provided inflammable wardrobe, until she announced that, with enough work, I might not be a total loss. When we got to Buffalo for the state competition, I met my suitemate at the hotel—a charming girl named Kelli whose routine involved six batons. Day after day, we sang and danced and practiced together. I told Kelli I was rooting for her.

But you’re competing too, she said, startled. Aren’t you?

Yeah, I said. But I’m rooting for you.

For my mother, the joke had grown stale. She’d raised me with the wonderful slogan, “It’s only money.” And she’d started pointing out early in the process that no amount of scholarship cash was worth all this. It was time, she thought, to get out.

But I couldn’t let Carla have the satisfaction of thinking I was weak. I wasn’t just another of those privileged girls from Long Island or Manhattan who went to Oswego University only to run home once they had their diploma. I’d grown up twenty miles away in Syracuse; I’d worn the sash, held babies, attended Kiwanis fundraisers, and kissed grandmothers for a year. I was Miss Oswego.

Honey, my mother said, genuinely worried. What are you going to do if you win?

When it was time for me to cross the stage (wave, smile) and do my talent, I had a little surprise in store. Instead of delivering the speech about the glories of Rome apples, I unfolded a short story called “The Beauty Queen.” The main character spoke in a weird southern accent. She talked about the many appliances and other household trophies she’d stockpiled in her beauty career—including her husband and her baby, who was insufficiently beautiful but would soon be improved by the addition of eyeliner. As I recall, it ended with the beauty queen jumping in front of a train. Hey, it was my first crack at satire. I was terrified of accidentally winning another pageant (this one required that the winner drop out of school for a year). When I finished, I heard a few startled laughs and very sparse polite applause. Glancing backstage, I could see lightning bolts leap from Carla’s eyes.

Kelli finished her performance by setting her batons on fire. She received a house-shaking standing ovation. After she was crowned Miss New York and had hugged each competitor, she quietly asked me, smiling and scolding, if I’d deliberately “thrown” my performance. I suppose I had, but she would have won either way. To this day, I remember her clearly, spinning and catching those fiery wands—so dangerous there had to be a fire squad waiting in the wings. She threw them into the rafters, laughing as the flames streaked past, as if she couldn’t have cared less if she won or lost, as if to say: Here I am, a woman. This is what I can do, and I fear nothing.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

Thanks for sharing this.

Layla Cable | December 2022 |

I was in college with Diana at the time, and I do remember a picture of her in the newspaper as Miss Oswego County, holding up a fish! She is an important voice in revealing the real world of beauty pageants. Of course, I also love reading everything she writes. The world is lucky that she is willing to share her talent with the rest of us.

Cathy | December 2022 | The Finger Lakes of New York State

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