When I was 16, I was in a beauty pageant.
The thing is, I thought I could take it down from the inside. I thought I could play the part, be the ideal, rub Vaseline on my teeth
and I’d get the trophy and the tiara and the satin sash. I was wrong. But I still trolled a beauty pageant.
The year was 1995. The place was my hometown in northwestern Wisconsin, population 1,124. The setting was the annual Family Days celebration – four days of sidewalk sales, softball games, parades and petting zoos culminating in a street dance where a cover band plays hits from the last 40 years and you see your friends’ parents get drunk and dance on the stage during “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s the stuff of small-town legend. It’s the stuff of truth.
One of the festival’s highlights was the Miss Frederic pageant, held on Saturday night before the street dance. Every year, as long as I could remember, I watched the smartest and most talented girl from the junior class become our crowned queen. She was always the one you thought she’d be: involved in school, near the top of her class, destined to work with children or at least be a good mother one day. She was also someone who played the part: a young woman who had watched pageants on TV and knew how to wave and how to walk in cheap heels. She knew how to pretend.
As a wannabe thespian, I also knew how to pretend. I saw this as the opportunity for the role of a lifetime – the performance art of my not-yet-a-career. I wanted to be that girl, so I would become that girl. My parents were skeptical. I’d never expressed interest in princess-y things. But they were supportive because I think they knew I was trying to prove a point. The first step was getting the perfect dress.
I picked up a cotton-candy pink number replete with bows and flounces of lace at a consignment shop in Anamosa, Iowa, while we were there visiting family. It was $35, which to a teenager working part-time as a dietary aide at a nursing home, was approximately $6,000. It was the pinkest pink that ever did pink and the fluffiest fluff that ever did fluff. It was exactly not me. It was exactly right.
Next, I concentrated on my talent. Previous winners had usually given a vocal performance. So I decided to do the same. I sang “I’ve Gotta Crow” from Peter Pan. Dressed as Peter Pan. I tried very hard to emulate the late, great Mary Martin from her 1950s television performance as Mr. Pan. The song is about bragging about how good you are, which was the entire point. Since talent was worth the greatest number of points, I knew if I could clinch talent, I could take it all. I had a strategy, see. It was a joke, but it also wasn’t.
The part we all dreaded – utterly impossible to articulate with my then less-developed feminist sensibilities – loomed heavily in my mind: The swimsuit competition. While neighboring small towns had done away with the practice, favoring an on-the-spot question segment, my hometown held firmly to the swimsuit component. We were all petrified. It was supposed to show our “poise” and our “confidence,” but we knew it was really meant to show our “tits” and our “asses.” At least pageant organizers threw us a bone in the form of a small sash of fabric as a “skirt.” But still. I approached this terrifying component with a vintage-looking polka dotted suit from Land’s End that was cut very low on the hips. I thought if I was going to participate in such an old-school practice, I’d better look damn old school. There was no other way to get through it.
We practiced for months. I remember going to practice at least twice a week as we got closer to the event. This had to be right. We had to be perfect. The more we practiced, the more I started to believe I could actually do it; that I could actually win. We were five girls with big dreams.
This may be a fault of my memory; maybe we were told sooner. But I remember a few weeks before the pageant, the director told us, “The judges use the scoring system to narrow the field down to five. Since there are only five of you, they don’t need to do this step. Instead, they’ll just pick who will be the queen and who will be her court.” Suddenly I realized what I was up against. I needed to pick up my game and not just rely on talent to take it all. I realized I didn’t have a hair stylist or a pageant-style mom. I didn’t have a spiral perm. I wasn’t blonde. I wasn’t rich. My parents didn’t own a prominent business or sit on town boards. I realized I was probably screwed.
Things went down as expected that night, though I still held out hope I could convince them all. I won the talent award for my on-stage crowing. But I wasn’t queen. I wasn’t even a princess. As the crowd gathered around us to congratulate us, a former queen whispered in my ear, “You were robbed!” and for that split second I felt a great injustice. And then I remembered I did it because I thought I should. A girl like me should. Because I thought a girl who wanted to be a writer, an actor, a musician, a girl who didn’t want to stay there, a girl who didn’t really want it, should show them what she could do. A girl like me should take it down and reveal it for what it was: an outdated circus.
We went to the street dance afterward in our regalia. I ripped up the bottom of my shitty pink dress on purpose; smeared dirt on it and put a pair of jeans underneath. I wore it for a few minutes while people came up and told me what a great job I did. How I should have won. How I was so talented and would go so far in life even if I wasn’t Miss Frederic. Then I changed out of the dress, washed my face and danced along to a cover of Blind Melon’s “No Rain.”