When Hyatte called Walter Reed Army Medical Center in nearby Washington, D.C., a few years ago and said she would like to come visit wounded soldiers “and thank them for their service,” she recalls, “10 different people gave me the runaround, and finally someone told me it wasn’t possible.” When she tried again the next day and introduced herself as the Northern Virginia delegate for Miss Galaxy, she relates, “They said, ‘Why didn’t you say you were a beauty queen yesterday? What day works for you?’ and rolled out the red carpet.”
Having the right platform and being an articulate advocate is considered so crucial to winning that many women hire interview coaches to prep them, paying upwards of $50 an hour. Sheila Strassburg, a former beauty queen and pageant director turned professional “queen maker,” won’t take on a new client without finding out first what drives her. Strassburg has come to Myrtle Beach to do hair and makeup for Vienna De La Garza and Sheila McKinney, a New York–based accountant who brings the same focus to pageantry that she does to competing in triathlons or supporting the charitable foundation she founded in memory of her first husband.
Strassburg says she can tell how serious a competitor a client will be by asking about her hobbies outside of pageantry. The low-maintenance ones are usually “scrapbookers, bakers and gardeners,” she’s found, while runners, kickboxers, cyclists and fitness buffs tend to be more intense and driven. Strassburg’s background as a professional grief counselor also comes in handy when a wannabe queen is left standing crownless in a beaded gown she’s unlikely to wear again.
“I tell them to own their disappointment,” Strassburg says. “You get around it, past it, beyond it. Examine it. Did you make any mistakes? The 35s and older get over it a lot faster. They may have their moment and shed a tear or two. But they know when you line it all up, this is play, something you do for fun.”
Debra Gilmour wants to believe that, too, but experience has taught the 53-year-old Oregonian that “competition does interesting things to people.” Gilmour enjoyed pageantry as a younger woman, then took a 20-year hiatus while raising her family before returning in 2009. She’d forgotten how cutthroat some competitors can be. Gilmour was preparing to walk the runway in her evening gown at a state pageant when, she says, a fellow competitor sidled up to her backstage: “She goes, ‘Oh, your hook isn’t done right; let me fix it for you.’ Then next thing I know, it’s broken, and I’m going out onstage in this Jessica Rabbit gown with a big gap in the back.” Gilmour still won.
Tales of sabotage are for the most part the great urban myth of pageantry—endlessly colorful and intriguing but mostly impossible to prove. Shoes mysteriously disappear, earrings turn up broken and, perhaps most notoriously, on the Mrs. circuit, Magic Markers are taken to the fabulous white gown of a favored contender. “I have seen people trying to dig up dirt on the Internet or telling pageant directors someone has risqué old modeling photos and shouldn’t be allowed to compete,” says Wendi Russo, a 44-year-old shopping-network hostess from Minnesota who was first runner-up for the title of Mrs. United States 2010. “It’s ridiculous. Nobody’s running for public office here. It’s a pageant.”
Angela Smith is similarly disgusted by women who, as she sees it, get into pageantry for the wrong reasons. And she has no tolerance for the ones who stoop to head games in an attempt to win (“Oh, you’re wearing that?”). The crown, notes the 35-year-old mother of four, “is just rocks and metal, and you can get it cheaper on eBay if you’re not going to do something with it.”