Saturday, March 06, 2004


I was just on the phone with my mother. She was telling me that she recently bought the DVD of "Miss Congeniality"--a movie she enjoys because it reminds her of her beauty pageant days.

My mother was our small town's first beauty queen when she was 15. It was a title she took to heart and as an adult, she incorporated as much beauty and glamour into her life as our tiny town could offer (which wasn't much, let me tell you). She and her best friend (a former Miss Memphis) modeled in all of the fashion shows and were "Goldwater Girls" and "Reagan Girls" when Barry and Ronnie came to town to run for President and Governor respectively. That basically entailed outfitting themselves in slim black pencil skirts, crisp white long-sleeved blouses, scarves nattily knotted at their necks, black stiletto pumps and white cowboy hats festooned with ribbons and campaign buttons. (The Reagan hat had a green ribbon and the Goldwater hat had a gold ribbon...or maybe it was just one hat and they just changed the ribbons...hmmmm...) They would stand next to the candidates as they disembarked from their planes and "look beautiful" for the local photo op.

My mother ran the local beauty pageant for years. It was one of the big events at the County Fair each August. She was grooming me to follow in her footsteps, even though I looked nothing like her (she was blonde, I'm dark) and I was a dorky, painfully skinny, extremely shy kid. Even so, she made me model in all of the fashion shows. I was a natural when it came to the modeling moves but must have looked incredibly uptight, because that's how I felt. I was also her little pageant helper. As such, I would help the less graceful girls learn their modeling routines. Some years pageant practice was held at a dress shop (that's what they called them in the early 60's) where my mother worked; later it was held in the studio at the AM station where she worked. She would hand off the hopeless cases to me and have me take them out to the sidewalk (at the dress shop) or into the hallway (at the station) to give them one-on-one modeling instruction. What must those teenage girls have thought about having to take modeling tips from a skinny 7-year-old?

The best part for me was pageant day itself. Mom always made sure I had a new outfit...and I'm not talking about just a baby-doll dress, but also matching fishnets and shoes (all purchased at discount at the department store where she worked.) There was a TINY travel trailer parked behind the stage. How she managed to squeeze 10 to 15 girls and their evening gowns into such a tiny space still amazes me. And yet they all managed to dress and change and primp in that space (including the standard contestant trick of rubbing Vaseline on one's teeth...helps you keep smiling). The Queen's court consisted of a 1st and 2nd runner-up, so there were three bouquets of gladiolas (each one a different color). I was just asking her on the phone why they always used gladiolas. She said it was gladiola season and they were long and filled out a bouquet. One of my jobs was to take those three bouquets and place them on top of the organ in the corner of the stage. That grandstand full of people looked HUGE to me as a little girl. I was so nervous walking onto that stage in front of all those people. I always prayed I wouldn't trip.

Annette was the organist. (Come on, does it get any cheesier? An organist!) Annette had converted her garage into a Baldwin showroom and sold organs out of her home. She also gave lessons. My mother's oldest friend, John, was always the Master of Ceremonies. He owned one of the insurance agencies. There were always three judges. The judges weren't necessarily qualified; I remember one year one of the judges was a guy who worked at the Feed Store. And it really was (and still is!) called the "Feed Store."

After the Queen had been crowned, she and her Court would walk to their booth in the new pavilion at the fairgrounds where they would greet their well-wishers. The winner always got a lot of prizes--gift certificates from local businesses mostly. And she got the chance to compete in the Miss California pageant in Sacramento, which my mother accompanied her to in her official role as pageant coordinator. They would always attend the horse races at the State Fair because there was a race named for our county. I can still recall the black-and-white 8x10's of my mother and various Queens standing next to the winning horse in the winner's circle after our county's race.

Later there was a local girl who won the Dairy Queen pageant. I was in 7th grade by that time. That was a two-county competition. My mother accompanied the Dairy Queen to whatever regional pageant she competed in (I can't recall now where it was). The Dairy Queen gave me a pair of her used brown cowboy boots. I had those boots for years, all through high school. Sort of wish I had them now.

In my opinion "Miss Congeniality" is just okay as a pageant movie. If you really want to get a good feel for what I'm talking about on a corny local level, get your hands on a 1975 Michael Ritchie-directed film called "Smile." That's the good one.


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