For more pageantry, see Confessions of the Multi-Age Beauty Pageant Queens.
Self-esteem had pretty much eluded Donna Johnson when she was younger, so she felt entitled to a short victory lap after returning home from her first big win. At 49, the newly crowned Mrs. New Hampshire America—once a pudgy girl whose mother chided her for clomping around “like a farmer whose shoes are too big”—finally had irrefutable proof that she was beautiful, charming, worthy. Who could blame her for sashaying out to the mailbox with a huge rhinestone crown teetering atop her auburn head? “I was still in my pajamas,” she adds happily. It wasn’t long before the neighbors started calling.
“What on earth are you doing?” they all asked.
It’s a question you hear a lot when you decide to become a beauty queen long after it’s clear that neither you nor your Wonderbra will ever see a perky 34 again. Undeterred, Johnson just put her tiara back on when it was time to walk the dogs.
From the grande dame Mrs. America competition to cheesetastic local events, opportunities abound these days for women who covet a satin sash and a bit of the spotlight regardless of their age or contest experience. In the multimillion-dollar pageant industry, older contenders have become an increasingly hot commodity, in all senses of the word. In the top-tier pageant systems (Mrs. America, Mrs. United States and Mrs. International), fierce grandmothers go peep toe to peep toe with dewy twentysomethings—women of all ages competing against one another in the same pool. Smaller national and regional pageants often opt to break down the competition by age group or, when a plus-size title is also offered, by dress size. “More than half my clients are age 35 and up,” says Suzy Bootz, a Dallas pageant coach who was 42 herself when she took the Mrs. International title five years ago. But good looks alone didn’t make Bootz a force to be reckoned with. “I was in radio sales and advertising,” she explains. “I sold an intangible, I sold an idea—30 to 60 seconds of air. Pageants are the same kind of concept. I’m a brunette Puerto Rican in her forties who competed against blond, blue-eyed 23-year-olds.” And won.
Like Bootz and Johnson—who, when she’s not competing, runs an excavation company with her husband—women who hit the pageant circuit in their thirties, forties, fifties and beyond do so with a passion that appears to be either impressively sincere or stunningly misguided. After all, there are no fat checks, dream vacations or new cars to be won here. At Beauties of America, for example, the $1,000 cash award merely reimburses the winner for her $795 entry fee, with a bit left over to apply to other expenses, such as hotel costs. The winner also takes home items donated by sponsors, including a faux-fur jacket, costume jewelry, a pink keepsake crystal rose and a gift certificate from a plastic surgeon based in Des Moines. The modest prizes offered by these competitions don’t come close to matching the thousands of dollars the women readily admit to spending as they chase titles few people outside the tightly knit pageant world have ever heard of. It’s not the swag they’re after. It’s the attention, the camaraderie, the thrill of competition and the chance to just plain enjoy being a girl.
Mary Richardson, national executive director of the Mrs. International pageant (and 1992’s Mrs. Virginia), thinks “the maturity factor” gives older contestants a certain edge. “Once they hit their forties, they’re there to win—they’re not fooling around,” Richardson says. “The over-40 woman may not have the same body or the same elasticity in her skin, but she’s going to give that 25-year-old a run for her money.”