This is Joy Wadsworth’s fourth time trying for this particular title. A vivacious 43-year-old Alabamian who works in the beverage industry, Wadsworth felt the economic pinch this year but paid the entry fee anyway. “The washing machine died, and guess where the money came from for a new one? My pageant fund,” she says. “So I’m wearing last year’s dress, but it’s fine. I enjoy the experience and the camaraderie. My husband thinks it’s a total waste of time, but he watches professional wrestling, so it all evens out.” Wadsworth is spending most of her time catching up with Vienna De La Garza, a cool blond Texan competing in the 50s category, whom she met at last year’s pageant. A special--education teacher, De La Garza considers pageantry not only a fun pastime but also a way to advocate for kids with learning disabilities. “I’ve stepped in for the Corpus Christi mayor four or five times for a chance to speak about autism at fund raisers,” she says. That’s not the only attention she enjoys. She describes a recent outing when, her long hair in a high ponytail and her eyes framed by oversize sunglasses, she drew an appreciative greeting from a hot guy idling beside her at a stoplight. “What do you call yourself?” he hollered over from his car. “So then my teenage son leans across the seat and says, ‘I call her Mom.” De La Garza laughs.
The room is starting to get stuffy, and Wadsworth fans her face. De La Garza grins knowingly.
“Are you having a personal summer?” she jokes. Instantly, talk at the entire 40s and 50s table turns to menopause—hot flashes, hysterectomies, someone saying she’s got ovarian cysts the size of pomegranates. It’s the loudest, liveliest table in the room, and the younger contestants keep shooting the older women curious glances, clearly wondering what’s so funny.
Lisa Thomas, Minnesota’s 50s, drinks it all in with an eager smile. This is her first pageant. Her two daughters competed in pageants in their teens and won titles in the same year. Now they’re both grown, and a grandbaby is on the way.
“It’s not laundry, it’s not grocery shopping. It’s Cinderella time,” says Thomas, who works in the insurance business and has been married 30 years. “Doing this is kind of like rediscovering me.”
Mary Gentile knows the pageant scene well—this is the sixth one this year alone for her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren—but it’s the first time Gentile has morphed from pageant mom to competitor. “I was empowered by losing 45 pounds,” the North Carolina 50s delegate announces. With her vivid blue eyes and fashionably choppy blond crop, Gentile is striking, but clearly not cut from the Farrah Fawcett mold favored by the veterans. Gentile has heard that one woman spent $4,000 on her evening gown. “I’m not nervous,” she insists. (Evening gowns count for 25 percent of the final score, as does fitness; 40 percent depends on the interview, and the remaining 10 percent is awarded for being photogenic.)
Virginia delegate Radiah Hyatte, 36, has been on the circuit since she was a young teenager and had to beg her feminist single mother to let her try pageantry. “I’ve been competing for 22 years now, and I’ve never won,” she allows without a hint of bitterness. She competes in the Miss Galaxy system as well as in Beauties of America. “It’s really a numbers game. Sure, you plan to win, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t,” she says. “I love to do volunteer work and community service, and pageantry has opened so many doors for me.”