I was not a likely candidate for the beauty pageant world. I was a literary nerd who haunted the local library and was fascinated with learning about art. I was decidedly not interested in the temporary nature of fashion, artifice and beauty trends -- which is how I summarized what I saw in the pageant culture of my hometown of Atlantic City, NJ.
But my high-school drama teacher, who knew I wanted to be an actress, said I should enter my local pageant. To get used to rejection, he said. It would fortify me for a future of not getting the gig for long stretches at a time, was the idea. It seemed simple enough: sing, talk and walk. How hard could it be? So I did it.
I had no strategy, no craft, no idea what came next. And I won.
There were a few things that came with winning. First, I received some scholarship money -- which I very much needed. Second, I had to complete a year of service, appear in local parades and at charitable events. And ultimately, I was to compete in Miss New Jersey, one of the state pageants leading to Miss America.
I don't remember exactly when the discomfort set in. But in the weeks leading up to Miss New Jersey I became intimidated, scared even, of the other women and of the experience of being sequestered with them for four days of rehearsal and competition.
My feelings were not without cause. That year I met lots of other local pageant winners. I learned that the previous year's contestants were notoriously competitive. There were stories of sabotage -- girls rubbing cold cream on each other's dresses. There were rumors of drastic plastic surgery -- one woman had allegedly had a rib removed so her waist would appear smaller. Because those women had all aged out (outgrew the pageant's requisite 17-24 age range), I never met any of them. But I still brought back-ups of my clothes just in case.
I packed my bags one day in May and went to an orientation event. I wore my make-up like a suit of armor. The women I met were chatty, girl-ish and complimentary after each contestant performed on a small stage. I was sure they were being phony and kept to myself. I wanted nothing to do with these people -- they were shallow, catty, crown-grabbers.
This is what I remember most from that day. A slender dark-haired woman sitting next to me spoke to another girl when she returned to our table after her Polynesian dance.
"I loved that! Where did you learn to dance like that?"
The woman said "Baby, I came out shaking!"
We all laughed. But the image of a hula dancing baby emerging from a vagina was emblazoned in my mind permanently.
The first day we were assigned roommates. Mine was a soft-spoken aerospace engineering major at Princeton University. I judged from the cigarette holes in her spring jacket that, like me, she could use the scholarship winnings to get through college.
During the first of many photo-ops, a lovely couple paused by our group of 30 and said, "And what are all these beautiful young ladies here for?" A girl in the front told them "We're here for a pageant."
The women asked "What pageant would that be?" I rolled my eyes and whispered "Miss Texas" under my breath. The girl next to me laughed and suppressed a snort.
At the end of the first day, I realized something strange was happening. I felt comfortable around the people I had met so far. I also realized that in less than 12 hours, I had been snarky, judgmental and had brought an irrational number of evening gowns with me because I was motivated by fear. Was it possible that I was the bitch I was afraid of encountering?
I couldn't keep up a facade over the next four days. Things happened to which I couldn't hide my responses. For one thing, vagina jokes (there were so many!). Also, the girls I met defied the stereotype of pageant bimbo. They were irreverent. Fun. Scary smart. One woman worked in the state legislature house. Another described her career goal as being a walking medical encyclopedia.
I began to actually have fun. It was like a giant sleepover with 30 girls -- smiling on stage one moment and telling bawdy jokes backstage the next. In short order I felt like I had made friends.
At 17, I was one of the youngest in the group. I had been expecting a super-charged version of high school snobbery, but that's not what I experienced. No one laughed at me when my fake eyelashes fell off my face and into my coffee saucer. I was not made to feel like a pathetic loser when I struggled to keep up with the group dance routines.
Backstage, even in the blind rush between phases of competition, girls were doing each other favors and looking out for each other.
On the night of the actual pageant, between talent and swimsuit competition, women were stripping off evening gowns and shimmying into bathing suits. When I had my suit on, someone guided me into a line of girls.
When I got to the front another girl said urgently "Give yourself a wedgie!"
"What?!" I could not fathom what she was talking about.
"Give yourself a wedgie! You have to spray your bathing suit to your butt or it will slide all over when you're walking on stage."
Literally everyone was getting their butts sprayed, so I guessed this was kosher. I gave myself a wedgie, she sprayed my butt with hardware store glue and then another woman showed me how to carefully place the edges of the suit where I wanted them to semi-permanently stay. We ran to our entrances and our bathing suits didn't budge.
The swimsuit competition is the fastest part of the evening, so when it's done all hell breaks loose. Women step into the wings and start running to their changing stations and ripping their clothes off on the way.
Someone made sure that I covered my bottom with baby powder. If I hadn't taken that step, I was told that my pantyhose would never come off again.
By the end of the night, everyone is on stage in evening gowns. That's the moment when the top 10 are announced. Those 10 women stay on stage. Everyone else leaves. The 20 of us who didn't make the cut, feeling like losers, returned to the back stage area to find a massive table full of food -- bowls of chips, chocolate, all kind of junk --arranged by a committee of women who were part hosts, part chaperones and part surrogate mothers to us that week.
I never won Miss New Jersey. I didn't even place in the pageant. But in five years, I won three locals and placed in two others. With my winnings I paid for one full year at one of the country's most expensive private colleges -- the equivalent of over $20,000.
Maybe this is the true beauty of the experience for me. I fell into the pageant world carrying stereotypes about women and about female relationships -- stereotypes I didn't even know I had. But my experience showed me that we beauty queens are not all mean, catty and competitive. We are warm, generous and fun. We are not shallow, superficial and dumb. We are creative, literary, ironic. We are as complex and multi-dimensional as every woman in the world.
And if f you're not personally convinced, I've got a vagina joke that will change your mind forever.