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!”