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.”
It’s lunchtime at the Beauties of America pageant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the windowless hotel conference room is a girly hive of contestants with perfect makeup trying to daintily eat messy sandwiches. A national pageant in its 27th year of, as its website proclaims, “celebrating beauty and achievement at every age,” Beauties requires competitors in its annual August event to pony up the entry fee and meet certain basic requirements, such as being a “naturally born, genetic female” who has “not appeared nude in print, film or live.” Although the bigger, more elite “Mrs.” pageants accept married competitors only, Beauties welcomes single, widowed and divorced women as well. Contestants (aka delegates) are split into divisions—“Teen,” “20s,” “30s,” etc.—so they are judged only against women their own age.
After serving themselves at the lunch buffet on pageant day, the delegates gravitate to tables by age. That may be predictable enough, but the territory claimed by each group is not: The Teens and 20s settle on the fringes while the 40s and 50s hold boisterous court in the center, the handful of 30s scattered among them. The tight economy has made the smallish pageant even tinier this year, with only 35 competitors. Still, the mix runs the gamut from excited first-timers to driven veterans who pop up on so many runways that the circuit has a name for them: crown chasers. There are a pair of evangelical Christian retiree sisters (one representing New York, the other Florida), a mother-daughter duo from North Carolina, a willowy blond Manhattan CPA who brought her professional hair and makeup artist, an insomniac Southern belle who twirls batons in the parking lot at midnight and a reserved Arizona woman who’s competing without family or friends in the audience.
“Don’t get your sash in the mustard!” someone warns as Johnson, now 52, leans forward to tell a story about her 10-month-old granddaughter. The contestants are still in their tailored suits and dresses from the morning’s interview segment of the pageant, which constitutes 40 percent of the final score. Debra Gilmour, the reigning 50s-division queen, laments that the South Carolina humidity is making her feet swell too much to be crammed into her high heels. Across the table, a curvy brunette in purple with a matching barrette in her hair is openly admitting that she wanted a tiara so badly, she finally just went and bought herself one, while Annette Watkins, the 50s delegate from Florida, hands out little gift envelopes to the other women. “It’s nothing big, so I apologize,” she says. Exchanging presents is traditional at these pageants, and entire online boutiques exist to fulfill the demand for leopard-print makeup bags or compacts, brooches and other trinkets embellished with tiny rhinestone crowns. Savvy contestants also stock up on less glamorous accessories for themselves, like roll-on “butt glue” to hold swimsuit bottoms in place and gel falsies to fill out the tops.
This is Joy Wadsworth’s fourth time trying for this particular title. A vivacious 43-year-old Alabamian who works in the beverage industry, Wadsworth felt the economic pinch this year but paid the entry fee anyway. “The washing machine died, and guess where the money came from for a new one? My pageant fund,” she says. “So I’m wearing last year’s dress, but it’s fine. I enjoy the experience and the camaraderie. My husband thinks it’s a total waste of time, but he watches professional wrestling, so it all evens out.” Wadsworth is spending most of her time catching up with Vienna De La Garza, a cool blond Texan competing in the 50s category, whom she met at last year’s pageant. A special--education teacher, De La Garza considers pageantry not only a fun pastime but also a way to advocate for kids with learning disabilities. “I’ve stepped in for the Corpus Christi mayor four or five times for a chance to speak about autism at fund raisers,” she says. That’s not the only attention she enjoys. She describes a recent outing when, her long hair in a high ponytail and her eyes framed by oversize sunglasses, she drew an appreciative greeting from a hot guy idling beside her at a stoplight. “What do you call yourself?” he hollered over from his car. “So then my teenage son leans across the seat and says, ‘I call her Mom.” De La Garza laughs.
The room is starting to get stuffy, and Wadsworth fans her face. De La Garza grins knowingly.
“Are you having a personal summer?” she jokes. Instantly, talk at the entire 40s and 50s table turns to menopause—hot flashes, hysterectomies, someone saying she’s got ovarian cysts the size of pomegranates. It’s the loudest, liveliest table in the room, and the younger contestants keep shooting the older women curious glances, clearly wondering what’s so funny.
Lisa Thomas, Minnesota’s 50s, drinks it all in with an eager smile. This is her first pageant. Her two daughters competed in pageants in their teens and won titles in the same year. Now they’re both grown, and a grandbaby is on the way.
“It’s not laundry, it’s not grocery shopping. It’s Cinderella time,” says Thomas, who works in the insurance business and has been married 30 years. “Doing this is kind of like rediscovering me.”
Mary Gentile knows the pageant scene well—this is the sixth one this year alone for her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren—but it’s the first time Gentile has morphed from pageant mom to competitor. “I was empowered by losing 45 pounds,” the North Carolina 50s delegate announces. With her vivid blue eyes and fashionably choppy blond crop, Gentile is striking, but clearly not cut from the Farrah Fawcett mold favored by the veterans. Gentile has heard that one woman spent $4,000 on her evening gown. “I’m not nervous,” she insists. (Evening gowns count for 25 percent of the final score, as does fitness; 40 percent depends on the interview, and the remaining 10 percent is awarded for being photogenic.)
Virginia delegate Radiah Hyatte, 36, has been on the circuit since she was a young teenager and had to beg her feminist single mother to let her try pageantry. “I’ve been competing for 22 years now, and I’ve never won,” she allows without a hint of bitterness. She competes in the Miss Galaxy system as well as in Beauties of America. “It’s really a numbers game. Sure, you plan to win, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t,” she says. “I love to do volunteer work and community service, and pageantry has opened so many doors for me.”
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.”
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.
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!”
Wadsworth figures she’ll start budgeting on Monday for a new dress for the following year, when she’ll make her fifth try. Radiah Hyatte returns home to Virginia and gets word that she’s being laid off by her tech firm. She decides to go full time as a Mary Kay consultant and move to North -Carolina for the lower cost of living—but reinventing her life won’t stop her from pouring everything into winning Miss Galaxy. “I’m going back this summer with a vengeance,” she vows. Debra Gilmour, her Beauties of America reign now over, feels fulfilled and wants to switch to consulting in the pageant world.
“I’m not competing anymore,” she swears. “Stick a rhinestone fork in me. I’m done.”
TAMARA JONES is a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of MORE.
For more pageantry, see Confessions of the Multi-Age Beauty Pageant Queens.
Check out Debra Gilmour's essay, Reinventing Mrs Oregon.
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