My roommate was already curling her four pounds of hair when I cracked open my mascara-crusted eyes. The clock disturbingly read 5 a.m., and I stumbled over to our bathroom sink where half-used foundation, cracked compacts, whittled eyeliner pencils, and fake eyelashes lay scattered. Four months earlier these weapons were strangers to me. I got ready: washed, adorned my face; teased, pinned my hair; slipped into my crinoline, pageant dress, and white satin sash; cringed as I fastened my clip-on earrings and rhinestone-encrusted crown.
Barbara strides in, too prim and perky for 6 a.m. I get the once-over before she attacks my curls with a ferocious blast of hairspray, pulls my eyelids taught, and traces two thick streaks of black across them, snaps open her purse to retrieve her dark lipstick, and makes a quick job of my pale, pouty expression. She nods with a grim satisfaction and escorts us – me, Miss Small Town Ambassador and my Runner Up Princess – to the parade grounds.
Although I was a pageant queen at 17, boy scouts, organized sports, and math homework had defined my teenage years. The contest was pitched as a resume-building experience, and I had been promised it was about public speaking. I didn’t blink at the contract, in which we swore that we were single, had never been married, and were not mothers. Naively, I had locked myself into this conservative notion of pomp and circumstance. I also didn’t expect to win.
After I won, Wenatchee, Olympia, and Tacoma, Washington, carved out my weekends. There, festival brunches with low-fat muffins and small talk on the fairgrounds with neighbouring pageant winners occupied my waking hours. The big Saturday parade, the hallmark event of each weekend, consisted of myself and one other girl rolling down Main Street, caged in a big, shiny float. Spectators clapped along to “Celebrate Good Times,” on repeat. Little girls with looks of awe waved fairy princess wands at me, and I patronizingly waved back.
I felt like I had been conned. This was not the glorified public-speaking contest I thought I had entered. Even though three-quarters of the competition was based on speech presentation, my lips were sealed as soon as I was crowned. Instead, I was toted around Washington State, feeling awkward and embarrassed in my long white gloves, glittery tiara, and gold-trimmed sash. I never knew what to do with my hands.
At the pageant contest in April, we had hooked our arms under the grandfathers of the community, who were clad in red tweed jackets, and glided past our friends and family seated at folding tables and chairs to the hastily-erected stage. In front of the audience, we twirled, posed, entertained, honoured our brave police force, and thanked our sponsors. They showered us with flowers, certificates to tanning salons, stationary kits, and mass-produced jewelry. Most of the girls wouldn’t talk to me after I won; we all went home in tears.
Post-pageant, however, our duties continued. We had lunch with the mayor, we cut ribbons at city events, we sat front-row at lacrosse games, we rode in antique cars on cold Sunday mornings, we planted roses with “visiting royalty,” we sold raffle tickets in dead-beat malls, and we served tea to retired pageant queens.
But things were not all rose-tinted. When I won, the local newspaper ran a front-page colour photograph depicting my pained face – like I was watching my mother back over my dog.
Mid-reign in July, the Festival committee noticed my strained smile, and asked me to write a letter evaluating the program. When they received it, they called an emergency meeting over my scathing, straight-talking answer. I called them a conniving elitist faction in our community, promoting backward-minded conceptions. I said they were monopolizers who seized our individuality and used our suite of seven intelligent girls as the city’s accessory. I said if I wasn’t going to have a chance to do any public speaking post-victory, then they should have made it a bathing suit competition. I said that the drama and backstabbing they fostered among us girls was childish. I said they were misguided to believe that we found it rewarding to sit with our ankles crossed, under parasols, smiling back at our subjects.
It’s hard to convince people that I’m not a beauty queen. It’s harder still to convince them that, despite the glitter, sweet smiling, and twirling, I never was.