Smith, who lives in Akron, Ohio, first competed back in high school. She married and divorced young, then finally broke a pattern of what she describes as relationships with abusive men. She eventually remarried and six years ago began competing in pageants again, with domestic violence awareness as her platform. Being a beauty queen reinforces the message she wants to share. “As a white, middle-class woman, people will come up to me after I speak and say, ‘Well, you don’t look like an abused woman,’ because we have this stereotype,” she says. “I tell them, ‘It’s one in three women in America.’ ”
Passion, egos and causes aren’t all that’s invested in this pastime. “If you’re going to do a Mrs. pageant, make sure your husband is supportive,” advises Jayne Black, who’s finishing her reign as Mrs. Wisconsin in the Mrs. United States system. “It’s like running a small business. You’re investing money, you’re investing time. And if you’re a titleholder, you’ll be giving a lot of yourself to community service.”
Black breaks down a rough estimate of start-up costs for the business of becoming a late-blooming beauty queen: Entry fees and an evening gown will typically total more than $1,000 easily; a tailored and embellished interview suit will run an additional $500. Most pageants for mature women forgo the swimsuit competition in favor of an appearance in aerobic or fitness wear, but if required, pageant swimsuits will add at least $300. Chandelier earrings are a must, and then there are shoes, transportation and hotel costs, professional head shots (required for the “photogenic” competition), gifts for fellow contestants, the optional but strategic ad in the pageant program and incidentals such as makeup, professional highlights or hair coloring, Botox or line-filler injections if needed and wanted. And, of course, a backup gown. Some women also bring backups for the backup. At Beauties of America, Donna Johnson confesses that she has packed so many backup outfits and shoes that there was no room for her husband’s things in their luggage; she made him buy a change of clothes at a local store once they got to the pageant.
The cost of competing is daunting to Shannon Morgan, a 34-year-old army flight medic who was chosen to participate as the Colorado delegate in the Mrs. United States pageant in Las Vegas this summer. But as soon as she shared her happy news on Facebook, Morgan says, offers began pouring in from pals in the pageant world: You can borrow any of my gowns; do you need an interview suit? Morgan also bought a box of envelopes and sent appeals for sponsorship to her community. Her determination to raise the funds is fueled by the knowledge that this is her last chance to compete before being deployed again by the military. She’s already done three tours, including a stint in Mosul, Iraq, where her plane was shot down by AK-47s last year as it was preparing to land.
“We could hear the bullets pinging through,” she recalls. The crew and their five patients escaped serious injury, but Morgan later discovered tiny bumps along her jawline where shrapnel was buried. “I just had laser done on my chin to smooth it out,” she says. Now stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, Morgan runs a medical clinic for military families. Pageants, she says, keep her grounded. “I wear a bun and uniform seven days a week,” she explains. “When a pageant comes up, I just want to be a girl. In the army, I’m yelling at people all the time. Onstage, I feel beautiful.” Morgan hasn’t won a major title yet but proudly reports that she scores the congeniality award whenever she competes. She’d rather crack up other contestants with her Running Man dance than play dirty.
“Being in the military, I know how to pick my battles,” she says wryly.