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

The show is finally about to begin in the Sheraton ballroom in Myrtle Beach, and before being herded backstage, the contestants are making last-minute adjustments in the hotel conference room that’s become their shared dressing room. The women will spend most of the next two hours either here or behind the stage curtains, waiting for the few solo minutes each will get in the spotlight, serenaded by an Elvis impersonator in a tight white jumpsuit. First the judges are introduced, among them a former South Carolina Yam Queen. Then the women parade onstage in cocktail dresses. Joy Wadsworth is glad she had her husband check her outfit with a Maglite beforehand to make sure the bright lights wouldn’t give the audience any un-intended glimpses of what she refers to as her “promised land and cash prizes.”

After the introductory promenade, the delegates change into swimsuits (Teens and 20s) or fitness wear (everyone else). Donna Johnson is spray-tanned and lean in her short skirt and crop-top. One of the 40s delegates shows off her marathon-sculpted body in hot-pink aerobic wear, while curvier contestants opt for slenderizing capris.

Next, there’s a 10-minute intermission for the women to change into their evening gowns and refresh hair and makeup that’s been rebelling under the hot lights. The heat and the tight jumpsuit are clearly getting to the Elvis impersonator, too; sweat pours down his face as he struts through the audience singing “Hound Dog” while attempting to climb atop the chairs of some clearly mortified spectators.

“Time to go, time to go! Two minutes, hurry, hurry!” a pageant staffer shouts as 35 women without mirrors attempt to wriggle into their gowns for the grand finale. “Do I need to pad?” Wads-worth wonders aloud. Sheila Strass-burg is touching up the makeup of Sheila McKinney. Teenage Lauren Gentile is freaking out over a tear in the $800 pink confection she bought with her savings from an after-school job at Chick-fil-A, but the older age divisions appear onstage first, so contestant Mary Gentile dismisses her daughter’s plaintive plea for help and heads out into the spotlight. “I’m not playing personal assistant this time,” she declares. “I’m in the competition!”

“Unforgettable” wafts from the sound system as the women take their final walk across the stage in their evening gowns. The outgoing queens are paid tribute, and they recount their experiences in prerecorded voice-overs. The would-be queens wait quietly, except for Missouri’s 30s delegate, who collapses in the back row and falls behind the satin curtains, a casualty of the heat. “If you feel faint, it’s OK to leave the stage,” pageant director and host Jennifer Reed says over the microphone. “Don’t lock your knees; that’ll do it every time.” The stricken contender is quickly revived, and the crowning ceremony gets under way. In the 50s division, unassuming Kathy Lauer from Arizona looks stunned when she’s named the winner. McKinney looks stunned, too, visibly disappointed to be first runner-up. She comes off the stage into the waiting hug of her coach.

As the five newly crowned division queens prepare for their official portraits, Lauer, in a beautiful emerald satin gown, stands in a quiet corner to dial the number of an assisted-living facility in Arizona. Her husband has multiple myeloma and suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009; this pageant was her brief escape from the daily routine of hospital rooms, insurance battles and a loneliness she can’t imagine ever growing used to. She leaves a message on his voice mail: “Hey, honey, it’s Kathy. Good news: I won!”


First Published May 10, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!



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!!

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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