It’s lunchtime at the Beauties of America pageant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the windowless hotel conference room is a girly hive of contestants with perfect makeup trying to daintily eat messy sandwiches. A national pageant in its 27th year of, as its website proclaims, “celebrating beauty and achievement at every age,” Beauties requires competitors in its annual August event to pony up the entry fee and meet certain basic requirements, such as being a “naturally born, genetic female” who has “not appeared nude in print, film or live.” Although the bigger, more elite “Mrs.” pageants accept married competitors only, Beauties welcomes single, widowed and divorced women as well. Contestants (aka delegates) are split into divisions—“Teen,” “20s,” “30s,” etc.—so they are judged only against women their own age.
After serving themselves at the lunch buffet on pageant day, the delegates gravitate to tables by age. That may be predictable enough, but the territory claimed by each group is not: The Teens and 20s settle on the fringes while the 40s and 50s hold boisterous court in the center, the handful of 30s scattered among them. The tight economy has made the smallish pageant even tinier this year, with only 35 competitors. Still, the mix runs the gamut from excited first-timers to driven veterans who pop up on so many runways that the circuit has a name for them: crown chasers. There are a pair of evangelical Christian retiree sisters (one representing New York, the other Florida), a mother-daughter duo from North Carolina, a willowy blond Manhattan CPA who brought her professional hair and makeup artist, an insomniac Southern belle who twirls batons in the parking lot at midnight and a reserved Arizona woman who’s competing without family or friends in the audience.
“Don’t get your sash in the mustard!” someone warns as Johnson, now 52, leans forward to tell a story about her 10-month-old granddaughter. The contestants are still in their tailored suits and dresses from the morning’s interview segment of the pageant, which constitutes 40 percent of the final score. Debra Gilmour, the reigning 50s-division queen, laments that the South Carolina humidity is making her feet swell too much to be crammed into her high heels. Across the table, a curvy brunette in purple with a matching barrette in her hair is openly admitting that she wanted a tiara so badly, she finally just went and bought herself one, while Annette Watkins, the 50s delegate from Florida, hands out little gift envelopes to the other women. “It’s nothing big, so I apologize,” she says. Exchanging presents is traditional at these pageants, and entire online boutiques exist to fulfill the demand for leopard-print makeup bags or compacts, brooches and other trinkets embellished with tiny rhinestone crowns. Savvy contestants also stock up on less glamorous accessories for themselves, like roll-on “butt glue” to hold swimsuit bottoms in place and gel falsies to fill out the tops.