For 28 years the judges in the Mrs. America Pageant have awarded a tiara to the contestant they deem the best-looking married woman in America. Although I am not even the best-looking woman on my block, I am married and I am an American. So I decided to experience what it’s like to enter a beauty pageant in middle age. This would fulfill the goal of the Human Guinea Pig column—doing something Slate’s readers are curious about but have too much dignity to do themselves.
I found it reassuring that the Mrs. America online application, which asked for my name, address, and color of my eyes and hair, offered gray as a hair choice. Just hours after I filled out the form, the director of the Mrs. Washington, D.C. pageant, Laurett, called and excitedly welcomed me to the competition. “Don’t you need to see if I’m pageant material?” I asked. “It’s not necessarily about winning,” she reassured me. “It’s about growth and progression.”
I could guarantee her that in my case it wouldn’t be about winning. Unless Lynne Cheney decided to give up campaigning in order to compete against me for the title of Mrs. Washington, D.C., I was certain to lose. The structure is the same as the Miss America pageant. Entrants vie to win their state pageant, then the 51 married women go on to the nationals in September, which are televised on the PAX network.
Many young women, growing up watching the Miss America pageant, imagine themselves on that Atlantic City stage, the eyes of the nation admiring their every curve. I never did. When I was still a teenager, my younger brother looked at me in shorts and remarked with awe, “Em, you have legs just like a Russian shot-putter!” Not surprisingly, things hadn’t improved in the intervening 30 years.
One of Laurett’s businesses is grooming contestants to win pageants, and she offered me an hour of free consulting. Because this was the end of April and the pageant was scheduled for the end of June, she suggested we meet immediately to start my preparations. When Laurett opened the door to her home and saw me on the stoop, I suddenly knew what it must be like to weigh 300 pounds and show up for a blind date for which the other person has not been prepared. Her eyes popped, and she gasped a little. Then she gamely tried to cover her reaction with the kind of smile you would give to your blind date while you figured out how to fake an appendix attack during dinner.
Not that I’m fat. I am 5 feet 4 inches (OK, maybe 5 feet 3-½ inches), and I weigh 125 pounds. This means I have a body mass index of 22, which even the U.S. government has declared a normal weight. But normal weight is not beauty-contestant weight, not even Mrs. Washington, D.C., beauty-contestant weight. As we walked into Laurett’s living room, she showed me the crowns, each in a Plexiglas case, she had won in her various pageants. Tall and striking, she had been not only Mrs. Virginia but Mrs. America in 2002. “Maybe you’ll get your own crown,” she said, sounding unconvinced.
We sat, and Laurett gave me a thorough looking over. She suggested I lose 10 pounds and start a muscle-toning program. (Shortly afterward I received a note from her—”Emily, We’re so glad to have you!”—wrapped around a bottle of herbal diet pills.)
“You need to build yourself up, definitely,” she said, surveying my chest. “Maybe taping to give you a cleavage.”
“Smile,” she said. I did. “You need to overwrite your lips.”
I looked quizzical, and she explained that I should powder out my lips so they were invisible, then draw a new, full set of lips outside my natural lip line. Also, I should get a pair of false eyelashes and wear them around the house for practice. I was starting to worry that all this cosmetic improvement would leave me looking like Tammy Faye Baker.
Fortunately, the Mrs. America contest required no talent—I was terrified I’d have to reprise my mime act from a previous Human Guinea Pig. But there were significant financial obligations: an entry fee of $500 and an ad in the pageant program—$300 half-page, $500 full-page. Laurett said she could refer me to a photographer for my head shot (estimate: $300) and a pageant dress shop where I could purchase my evening gown (estimate: $500), interview outfit (estimate: $400), and bathing suit (estimate: $80).
Now it was my turn to gasp. Not at the prices, but at the realization there was a bathing suit competition. I thought having a bathing suit competition in the Mrs. America contest was perverse. Go to the beach and take a look at the families. You will conclude the point of marriage is not companionship or reproduction but never having to worry anymore about looking good in a bathing suit. Leave the displays of nubile sexuality to the Miss contests. A Mrs. pageant should consist of maneuvering a minivan, saying “Go brush your teeth,” and modeling flannel nightgowns.
There’s always one contestant in any beauty pageant who gives great pleasure by allowing the audience to wonder how this bow-wow ever got in. That contestant was about to be me.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get a suit that totally sucks everything in,” Laurett said when she saw the look on my face. A suit that could suck everything in would have to compress my midriff to such density that matter might collapse in on itself and I might become a black hole. I didn’t think they sold these in department stores.
I do not normally parade around in front of strangers wearing a bathing suit and 5-inch heels; in fact, I do not normally wear a bathing suit even to go swimming. In recent years I have taken to putting on a spandex gym outfit and lying, “Oh, I left my suit at home.” Perhaps I was taking my mandate to humiliate myself too far.
Laurett explained there were two approaches to the pageant. If you want to win, you hire her and have her coach you to stardom. “Or you just do it on your own and see what happens.” I told her I’d take the see-what-happens approach. Slate agreed to pay for my entry fee and the ad (the photograph was taken for free by my editor), but I was on my own for the clothing. The whole prospect was so daunting I let weeks go by without doing anything, including losing weight.
I was intimidated by the heights set by previous Mrs. D.C.s. The most famous is 2001 titleholder Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who emerged as the beautiful villainess on the get-hired-by-Donald Trump reality show, The Apprentice. The current titleholder was Dr. Chiann Fan-Gibson, a stunning, golden-blond, Asian-American dentist who finished fifth at nationals.
Realizing the pageant was a week away and I had not heard from Laurett, I gave her a call. (It turned out that my spam filter had been deleting all her e-mails.) She sounded a little panicked when I admitted I had yet to get my gown or bathing suit. I asked her how many competitors had entered Mrs. Washington, D.C. She had told me previously that two or three other Mrses. were interested.
“Why do you ask?” she said.
“I’m just curious,” I replied.
“You’re the only one. You’re going to be crowned. Look, I need you to do your all and be your best,” she said sternly. Then perhaps realizing she was not exuding the kind of encouragement a pageant director should convey to her sole contestant, she put on her professionally sunny voice and added, “It was meant to be for you.”
She said two of the candidates never came through, and the one who was most committed decided instead to leave her husband, thus voiding her Mrs. status. I wouldn’t have to put on a one-woman show, however. Because my pageant was being held jointly with the Mrs. Maryland pageant, I would participate with the Maryland contestants and the audience wouldn’t realize I was the only D.C. entrant. But she warned me that if someone else came along, even at the last minute, she would have to let her compete.
Now it was my turn to panic. Whenever I told friends that I entered the Mrs. Washington, D.C. pageant, they burst out laughing, then thinking they might be hurting my feelings (they weren’t), said, “Not that you’re not attractive and everything. But, oh my God! You’re in the Mrs. Washington, D.C. pageant? Hey, what if you win and go to the nationals? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
I was going to the nationals.
I opened the Mrs. America Web site. The nationals lasted for two weeks at the end of the summer, culminating in the national broadcast. So certain had I been that I was not going to nationals that I had booked our family vacation in New England for exactly the same time. This was turning into the beauty-contest version of The Producers. As I scrolled through the photos of last year’s contestants in their sashes and bathing suits meeting various dignitaries, I realized I had to find someone to take the title from me.
I called a gorgeous friend with a centerfold-ready figure and told her about the pageant. She sounded mildly curious until I mentioned the bathing suit.
“I would never parade around on stage in my bathing suit,” she said. “Are you out of your mind?”
I asked my husband for advice on who else to recruit. “I think you have lost touch with how deeply bizarre it is to call your friends and ask them to compete against you in the Mrs. Washington, D.C. contest.” He was right. It was time to go shopping.
I went off to Loehmann’s with my 8-year-old daughter in tow. Within minutes she found a dark-red sequined gown that fit me and cost $70. Sold. I took about a dozen bathing suits to the dressing room. My daughter had the same reaction to all of them: “No, Mom. No!”
I spent the next few days by myself trying to purchase the rest of my pageant wear. After trying 32 bathing suits, I found a black one for $73 that not only sucked in my stomach but was topped with a pair of enormous rigid domes. My actual breasts floated inside like a pair of guppies in an aquarium. To fill things out I stuffed in the Whipped Silicone Push Up Pads ($13) and the Original Oxygen Lift Push Up Pads ($10). I did feel guilty about insulting my breasts this way. Both my mother and grandmother had breast cancer, and all I ask of my breasts at this point in life is that they don’t kill me. The pads were busting my budget, and I had a better idea. I went home and retrieved a bag of shoulder pads I’d cut out of dresses. I put on my bathing suit, stuffed four pairs of shoulder pads into the domes, stepped into my high heels ($50), and paraded around the bedroom for my husband.
“Your legs look completely different,” he said, stuttering a little. “They’re almost long.”
When I was pregnant I borrowed a pair of his sweat pants that I have since refused to return. I wear them constantly, usually topped with a stained T-shirt. Because of bunions, I haven’t worn high heels in years. As I watched my husband watch me, face agog, I realized, although I was heading for the Mrs. crown, what a lousy Mrs. I’ve been.
Click here to see what happens on pageant day. I’m the only contestant in the Mrs. Washington, D.C., competition. Can I still find a way to lose?
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