A long time ago for college money and perks I did what is known as a beauty pageant or what the coordinators called a scholarship program. This was a bona-fide face in the newspaper, riding on floats, appearing on local TV, getting personal fittings and doing things for the community locally based pageant. I’m not going to talk about the obvious shit (ie dieting) although if you ever wondered what toll a pageant takes on the heads of those girls with sashes and tiaras; read this, this was my journey.
I’m certain I cried in tiara and full make up at least once.
5. It becomes something that defines who you are.
If I ever rob a bank or die in a notable fashion in my hometown I know what the headline will be. I know this because I’ve seen what happens to other former Princesses from the program I participated in. What was a simple petty larceny charge of shoplifting makes it to the newspaper with your bad mugshot because you were in a pageant once upon a time. This actually happened to a former contestant from the year before my own entrance. This made me paranoid for a full year after the pageant because if something as small as shoplifting can get my face in the paper, where does it end?
I had nightmares about this because I knew my mugshot for jaywalking would never look this good. Look at those eyes!!
My handlers (think paid pageant moms) told me the moment after I was crowned a Princess and earned my place on court that I could no longer go out in public without being camera ready. At 17 I remember thinking that was insane, I wasn’t a rockstar nor did I think anyone cared if I went to my neighborhood bodega in spongebob pajamas. Only years after the pageant have I gone back to going out in pjs.
More than anything sometimes I get scared that something I did when I was 17, that I was never crazy about will end up in my eulogy simply for the fact that it was one of the most notable things I ever did.
4. You lose your right to freedom of speech.
Pageants are funded primarily from corporate donors who give in many different ways. Some give straight money; some donate products they make like clothes and others give large gifts like parade floats. And like Frank Underwood giving a favor to a fellow congressman they expect complete, unquestioning, loyalty.
Just slap a corporate logo over his face and you get what we were dealing with.
As a teen I wasn’t a major down with the “man” kind of person, but you start to feel like a sell out after shilling for five corporate overlords in one day.
One of our corporate sponsors was a nameless Swedish furniture company that donated our float and ruled us with an iron fist. We had to wear their corporate T-shirts for their events and were not allowed to have anything on that obscured their logo this included a jacket. Once during a night parade I was shivering and did not care about winning anymore, so I took off my shirt on a busy downtown street put my coat on and put the shirt over it. Yes, I stripped in the middle of a busy street because I knew if I didn’t I’d freeze my ass off for three hours or more. Most of the court (my fellow Princesses and competition) followed my lead, albeit while hiding behind a wall of coats held up by other princesses. And while the float was a cool gift, it sucked and even our handlers knew it (they bitched). Their corporate logo was the only thing anyone watching the parade could see on the float, so people who wanted to see the court didn’t know we were anything other than employees of this store. We got lots of shout outs for the store though, I learned people loved their meatballs.
I kind of resent how much I like their meatballs.
The worst in my opinion were the individual donors that pulled us to shill for their favorite charities, nursing homes that housed their family members or their rotary clubs. I didn’t mind doing most of it though one of the charities, a soup kitchen for the homeless was terrible. I’m not against feeding the homeless by any means, but I am against exposing them to diseases. This soup kitchen didn’t require new plates for second servings which is standard at all soup kitchens & buffet restaurants, not to mention required by FDA food safety regulations. The saddest part of this was I knew this because I’d volunteered at other shelters in the city and I’d been to a buffet. In most circumstances I would have spoken up, though the pageant taught me not to say anything critical about the places or people we were sent to do appearances with. So with great regret I kept serving people with dirty plates while trying not to touch them with my serving spoon and thus contaminating the entire pot of stew. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that this place made the homeless listen to church sermons before they could get food.)
Because Jesus totally made those hungry people in the bible listen to an hour sermon before he decided to get on the multiply bread and fish thing.
I’d spoken my mind before about how it was stupid to make us go to a blood drive and then make us take off our pressure bandages 20 minutes later. They made us do this so as not to bias judges who might think those who gave blood were more altruistic, in actuality some of us were anemic or were just too small to give blood (we were teenage beauty queens what the fuck do you expect?). I had also worked as a blood drive volunteer and was a first responder, so I knew this shit was dumb. You get a pressure bandage because you need it, not as a fashion accessory. They had to give us band-aids anyways since some people were still bleeding. Our handlers told me I was being silly and overly cautious. In the end it didn’t even stop those who wanted to score points with the judges, one girl straight up blurted out, “We just came from the blood bank and I’m type A, I just gave my fifth pint!!”.
My point is that I couldn’t do shit about making bad medical decisions or serving poor people food that could make them sick. After a while all of these things made me feel sick. Even at 17 I was the kind of person that was outspoken. What drove me crazy was that we were supposed to be doing charity work and good things for the community. Instead we went to the places that had paid for us to show up. In the end it was all lip service, the mirage of good works a blast of publicity photos to make the program look good.
3. People will hate or love you for no good reason.
Our handlers constantly reminded us of the train wreck that was Miss Teen South Carolina. If it wasn’t bad enough that she embarrassed herself in front of the nation, fellow pageant people use her as an example of what not to do.
What I didn’t understand when I got into the pageant is that you instantly become a symbol for something bigger than yourself and you had better be prepared to deal with the people you now represent. It’s like being a politician except worse, because you can’t make campaign promises to placate people. Instead you have to charm people with good looks and wit. If you fuck up publicly people are merciless because you just made them look bad. Sounds ridiculous right? Just look at any disgraced former beauty queen, the lucky ones like Vanessa Williams have to give up the title and get to be second rate actors. Poor Miss Teen South Carolina is now only known for rambling and is put up as the epitome of the airhead beauty queen. The lesson: people are okay with looking sexy, but not stupid.
I’ve messed up in judging sessions, I feel her pain.
Our pageant was based on being elected from your city high school with an evening gown and speech. Basically imagine all the homecoming queens from every high school in your metropolitan area were pitted against each other to see who ruled the city as the supreme teen dream. That was my senior year. What didn’t enter my head was what my student body wanted to represent them. I didn’t think much about what everyone wanted or expected of me, all I was motivated by was how cool this would look on college applications and how much money I could get. I didn’t care, I should have, but I didn’t. That was my first big mistake. As the pageant went on it became clear that some of my constituents were displeased with me. I’d go to school and hear about how some people thought I didn’t deserve another accolade (did I mention I was an honor student?) or that I was too white (I am pretty light in the winter) to represent a school that had a majority of minority students. That stuff was hard to swallow while doing a full court press of publicity and volunteering from 8 am to 11 pm on the weekends and most weekdays. Once I cried by myself over it, thinking again and again, “Don’t they get how hard I’m working for them”.
Yes, this was a total first world problem.
The hate might have been harsh though the unexpected love, that straight up knocked me on my ass. I always expected haters, I never expected little girls from the neighborhoods that fed into my high school to swarm me with questions and admiration. Nor did I ever expect alumni to root for me on the sidelines of parade routes. I had no idea why people who had never met me would want my autograph or care if I won. We all want to belong to something bigger, even if it’s rooting for a person who happens to go to the same school as you. What I didn’t know was that I was now for a certain subset of people their favorite sports team. I was the wild card draft pick, some people were pissed I was drafted and didn’t think I deserved the honor of their team’s jersey, others thought I had potential. I figured out this sports analogy too late. Only at the end did I know I needed to try and win, not for myself, but for the people who I represented, for the lovers and the haters.
2. Living with your competition is torture.
Pretend you are kidnapped and put into a room with 14 other smart, talented people. Now pretend that your kidnapper demands that you work together to complete community projects, dance routines and plays. You must do them all together even though in the end the kidnapper is going to kill all of you except for one he decides he likes. And you can’t get caught trying to off the other hostages to improve your odds otherwise you’ll get killed first. If you can imagine this Saw like fantasy then you can begin to understand what being in a pageant is like.
I did learn to appreciate my life.
Since my pageant wasn’t a major competitive Miss USA or America affiliate filled with hardened “I breath aqua net and had the Vaseline on my teeth for lunch since I was six” kind of girls it was bearable. Most of us just accepted our fate of not being picked as winner or Queen and decided to just have fun. I only encountered a few people who actively tried to kill me quietly off stage. One girl tried to pick a fight with me and I’m pretty sure wanted to get me angry enough to hit her. I guess she thought the pageant followed Real World rules where if you hit a fellow cast member you get booted.
A scientific approximation of what a fight might have looked like.
In all honesty I wanted to knock her out for calling my best friend a “trifflin ho”, but you know what I wanted more, money for college. And all of the best sucker punches to her make-up’ed face that would knock her straight outta her heels could not give me money for textbooks.
Sadly this doesn’t happen when you punch people.
Our handlers talked about us like we were sorority sisters and would become life long friends. We were friends and I’m still fb friends with all of them, although with tiaras off I can count on one hand how many times we’ve hung out. Personally I could never get close to them knowing that they were my competition and that if given the opportunity some of them might throw my ass under the bus. That basic knowledge had me in my shell the entire time looking over my shoulder. Trust no one was my motto.
A few of them figured out I was bi and I denied, denied, denied it. I never understood how people can just smell it on me! Luckily for me they were cool and didn’t mention it again. And even after that kindness I still couldn’t get the least bit close to them until everything was over. Which I’m pretty sure made everyone think I was a bitch since everyone I know already says I have a cold demeanor. I can’t imagine how I acted with paranoia thrown into the mix.
1. Becoming an object to be judged.
Lots of modern pageants repeat ad fin um that they are not about simple beauty contests. I am here to say that they are all dirty, filthy, liars. There’s a reason that men are not contestants in mainstream pageants and it’s not because they don’t want to degrade themselves for prizes. See any reality show ever.
It’s because only women and girls are objects. Men and boys are expected to be three-dimensional people who are more than a pretty face, a talent and a well spoken crowd pleasing answer to political non sequiturs. In the end what I learned most from my pageant experience was that pageants are the most ridiculous pure distilled form of sexism. I don’t see how doing press tours with pre-prepared comments, spending hours in the mirror putting yourself together, or shilling for corporate sponsors is empowering to women. I never felt like I had less of a voice than when I did that pageant. Everything was planned for me, from my clothes to what and when I could eat. For three years afterward I refused to eat salad because I ate it so often. Sure maybe my program just kind of sucked, but I’d bet money that it was pretty much the same as most. And don’t try to say I’m bitter cause I didn’t win, I was full on relieved as were my friends and family. My grandmother was praying I wouldn’t win, she knew it was killing me inside. If I won it would have meant three more months of press tours and salad. So much fucking salad.
Do you know how strange it is to be interviewed about your dreams and aspirations and have them evaluated? I do, that was a judging session for me. What kind of message does it send when you don’t win? “Your dreams are only so-so, we like this girl who wants to be a veterinarian more.”
I really have no idea how you take 14 over-achieving pretty teenagers and deem one of them better than the rest. It’s absurd and slightly cruel. One of my pageant mates never got over losing and entered a ton more pageants. It was the strangest thing to watch since I don’t think you could pay the rest of us to do another pageant.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
So if your thinking about entering a pageant for money or shits and giggles know these facts. I wish someone would have told me what I was signing up for. If you can accept these facts and be okay with middle aged women making snide remarks about what you wear, your weight or what you eat, then you can cut it in this racket kid. If not I suggest you get on those scholarship applications, I hear you can get money for duct tape prom dresses?