When I was a little girl, Santa brought me a Miss America Doll one year. She had a crown, a red velvet cape, and a beautiful silver dress. I loved her because growing up in the South, my Southern momma and I watched the Miss America Pageant every September. I loved hearing Bert Parks sing, “There she is, Miss America…” Momma convinced me that the girls from the Southern states were the prettiest. And I began to notice that many of the Southern girls had double names- Mary Ann, Mary Beth, Mary Margaret, etc. So for a while, I wanted to be referred to as Anna Louise, but that usually happened only when I was in trouble.
In high school, I was in the school pageant twice, representing the Music Club. I won nothing but Momma did buy me two beautiful dresses to wear. So that was the extent of my pageant experience. But when I became a teacher, I taught a bright, lovely young woman who would grow up to experience pageants in all their glory and sometimes chaos.
Pageants have been an important tradition in the South. My friend and former student grew up always hearing that her cousin, another Southerner, had been Miss America. She says she really entered pageants so she could star on Days of Our Lives. She heard that beauty queens received priority to read for a part in the show. However, she was not convinced until a former Miss America, Claudia Turner, spoke at her church. Then she was hooked. Her parents did not push her to do pageants. But in high school, despite discouragement from her parents, she entered high school pageants, not telling her parents until the last minute when they would have to show up to see her. Her parents got on board when they had to start carting her around to parades and they came to enjoy travelling with her. She recalls watching beauty pageants with her friends and thinking, “Nobody wears high heels with swimsuits.” One of her friends explained how much better legs look with high heels and then it made sense. Flip flops in a pageant would not be appropriate.
Her weight, she described, was a serious focus. In college, she broadened her pageant experience and slimmed down for each pageant. At one point she was the Lexington County Peach Queen. (I always thought it would be neat to be a fruit queen.) She wanted to be Miss Mid Carolina Electric Cooperative (or Miss Electricity as she calls it) so she could ride in the bucket truck in the local parade and win a trip to Washington. Unfortunately, she talked two of her friends into entering the pageant with her. One was the winner and the other was first runner-up and they won the trip to DC. She was also a contestant for Miss Southern 500 but did not win do she did not get to ride in the pace car.
Her parents become more involved when things got serious and she hired a pageant coach. She started winning city pageants that led to the Miss South Carolina contest where she made it to the top ten. Having mastered all the tricks- fake boobs, masking tape to enhance cleavage, and using the sticky stuff quarterbacks put on their hands to hold the ball to instead put on one’s butt to hold a swimsuit bottom in place, she retired from pageant life and became an educator. Today, she is retired and judges pageants.
Does she feel that pageants objectify women? Of course, but she said she doesn’t care. “It’s no worse than The Bachelor or Bachelorette and you don’t have to get married.” A writer, she said the pageant moment that gave her the most joy was winning the essay contest in a high school pageant.
As a professional, she encountered prejudice from other women who had disdain for her pageant past and her working with the production of high school pageants. But she persevered in her 30-year career in education. After all, “Sometimes you just have to put on a crown and remind them who they are dealing with.” I am encouraging her to write the Southern expose on her pageant experience. Stay tuned.