Beauty Pageant Queen at Any Age

Never mind the Toddlers & Tiaras kids and their rabid stage moms. The real action is on the multiage beauty pageant circuit, where ferociously focused 30-, 40- and 50-somethings compete.
 

By Tamara Jones
Beauties of America, pageant, Karli Barnett, Terri Lyda, Jessica Cassidy
Outgoing Beauties of America winners huddle with 2010 contenders. From left: Karli Barnett, Terri Lyda, Jessica Cassidy
Photograph: Eric Ray Davidson

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.”

First Published May 10, 2011

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Comments

06.06.2011

Congratulations to MORE Magazine for publishing a great article on Beauties of America and recognizing that women of age are beautiful too. Love the banners as well!! www.pageantbanners.com

Marlene Martin05.24.2011

Nicely written with lots of detail. So glad that MORE highlighted such a growing trend in pageantry--women over 35 competing and loving it! It reminded me of why I started Woman of Achievement. I loved the part about how calm the 35 and over delegates are under pressure (compared to the younger delegates) and the variety of reasons they listed for still competing!

Michelle Field05.24.2011

It is so refreshing to see a positive article about women competing in pageants. There is so much stigma thanks to shows like Toddlers and Tiaras! I hope that women who compete in pageants, especially those over 35, will hold heads a little higher.

Debra Gilmour05.23.2011

Thank you for the WONDERFUL article! It is so nice to see such a great group of women having fun! Kudos to MORE for covering a positive pageant story!

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