Human Guinea Pig

Tiaras of a Clown

I’m the only contestant in the Mrs. Washington, D.C., pageant. Can I find a way to lose it?

The once and future queen

This is the second of two parts. Click here  to read Part 1.

It was the morning of the pageant, June 26, and the seven contestants for the title of Mrs. Maryland and I, the sole entry for Mrs. Washington, D.C., were opening our gifts to each other. At least I was opening their gifts to me, since my spam filter ate the e-mail from the pageant director, Laurett, about the gift-giving.

The Mrs. Maryland contestants ranged in age from 20s (Amber, with her destined-to-be-a-beauty-queen name, was there with her infant son, whom she took breaks to nurse), to, like me, 40s (Diane, a former Army supply specialist who was about to become a grandmother). Everyone looked great in their bright, summery outfits, their hair and nails professionally done, exuding confidence in their good looks. I exuded neglect. I had blown dry my hair, put on a pair of baggy jeans, and was without a manicure. I felt like one of those cuckoo’s eggs that gets dumped by its mother to be hatched in a bluebird’s nest.

Laurett then handed out her goodie bag. It included a pair of rhinestone earrings, with different designs for each contestant. Nikki, who had dark hair and eyes, alabaster skin, and perfect features and figure, locked on my prettier earrings.

“Would you like to trade?” she asked, smiling. I wouldn’t, but I realized this was my one pathetic shot at the Mrs. Congeniality title. I made the exchange.

Everyone was on her best behavior, trying to be subtle as we assessed each other’s assets. Laurett got up to speak. She began by dropping her bomb. “Emily is going to be crowned Mrs. D.C.” I felt all the bluebirds turn to me as they realized there was someone in the nest who definitely didn’t belong. “She’s the only one who stepped up, so she deserves it.”

After brunch we all headed off, garment bags slung over our shoulders, to the community recreation center where the pageant was to take place. It was being held in a simple, fluorescent-lit meeting room, with no stage, two tables for judges, and about 60 folding chairs for guests. Heather, the current Mrs. Maryland, led us through the opening dance number to some Latin-sounding song coming out of a boombox.

It was very much like the moves in any aerobics class, but having to remember which leg is my right and which is my left is why I stopped taking aerobics. The other contestants seemed oblivious to the surroundings, projecting dazzle as if they were on a stage in front of a million viewers.

Then Heather had us practice our evening-gown walk. I didn’t know if the others were taking pity on me or just didn’t want me to mess up the show, but they had plenty of good advice. “Turn to face the judges and keep looking at them even when you’re walking by,” said Diane. “You’ve got to sell yourself.” Sybil, a real estate agent and 37-year-old mother of four, said that I held my body completely wrong when I posed. “You’ve got your rear forward and your shoulders back. Reverse that.” All the women except Amber were pageant veterans, several having started on the Miss America circuit. One told me she had gotten into the Miss America pageant because of the scholarship money. There are no continuing-education prizes in the Mrs. pageant. But as they chatted about the future pageants they were considering entering, it was clear this was no passing girlhood fantasy of being chosen the most beautiful. It was a perpetual chance to be celebrated for the hard work they put into perfecting themselves.     

For the bathing suit walk, we were to come out with a wrap tied over our hips, then drop it and turn to give everyone a good view of our backsides. (Sybil loaned me a scarf to use as my wrap, which earned her my vote for Mrs. Congeniality.)

I said that maybe when the judges saw me in my suit, they would decide not to crown a Mrs. D.C. this year, the way the Nobel Peace Prize usually doesn’t get awarded during world wars.

That sent Nikki over the edge. “You’ve got to stop that,” she said, putting her flawless face right in mine. “You are going to the nationals. You have won. But you are not out there alone. You are competing against us. You want those judges to look at you and say, ‘She blows all those other girls away.’ ” It was part pep talk, part dressing down.

Chastened, I went to the dressing room, where we hung our clothes on racks and laid out our cosmetics. Amber wondered why we weren’t allowed to wear two-piece bathing suits. One contestant explained, “This is a Mrs. contest. Most of us have tread marks.”

We began to dress, and almost everyone pulled out a bag of falsies. No one looked surgically enhanced, and as we padded ourselves it seemed almost sweet, like stuffing your bra with tissues before the junior high dance. Amber looked at her falsies and said to the room, “Do I sew these in?”

Everyone told her no. One contestant took out a spray can and explained that she kept hers in place with sports glue. She also used the glue to keep the back of her swimsuit from riding up. Tight ends in football use the same stuff to help them hold on to the ball. Although I lacked a tight end, I was reluctant to glue my bathing suit to it, particularly after one Mrs. told of the time in a previous pageant that a contestant came backstage, ripped off her glued-on bathing suit, and took part of her rear end along with it.

It was time to meet the judges who were waiting in another of the recreation center’s Spartan meeting rooms. There were four of them, two men and two women—the women both former beauty queens. Like a speed-dating session, each of us got five minutes with each judge. Their questions were eclectic: Who is a hero of yours? What is success? What message would you like to deliver as Mrs. D.C.? How did you like being pregnant? I was usually pretty good on first dates (it was the follow-up that killed things), so it was almost fun to come up with snappy, sincere, not-too-sappy answers.

Then it was time to run and get into our cocktail dresses and do our opening number. I achieved my goal of not bumping into another contestant while we twirled. Next we were each asked questions in front of the crowd by one of our two emcees. I was interviewed by Michelle, who herself is a current Mrs. District of Columbia United States, but not the Mrs. District of Columbia America, the title I was competing for. (What’s the difference? Don’t ask.) As I listened to the questions, I tried to connect with the crowd, but they appeared to me as a shimmering, undifferentiated mass. I didn’t know if this was the result of nerves or the circulatory effects of my Round the Clock Girdle-at-the-Top pantyhose.

In response to Michelle’s questions, I babbled incoherently about working for Slate (I had said on my application that I was a writer), the afghan I took two years to knit, and how I met my husband. At one point I started gesticulating and almost knocked over the microphone. I went backstage, put on my bathing suit, then awaited my turn. It was too late for liposuction. I had to go on.

As I did my circuit for the judges, forcing myself not to run, my smile as joyful as rigor mortis, I had a dissociative experience. “You’re home in your sweat pants, you’re home in your sweat pants,” I keep saying to myself, while hoping none of my falsies popped out the monumental dome of my bathing suit top. After the pageant, I asked my husband just how bad the whole bathing suit thing had been.

“I can’t tell you,” he replied.

“That bad?” I said.

“I can’t tell you because I couldn’t look.”

It was a relief to put on my evening gown. As we got dressed, Heather, the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Maryland, applied her false eyelashes and advised me to start each day at the nationals by putting on a pair. “You never knew when you’re going to be photographed.” Then she told me what a wonderful time she had rooming with Mrs. D.C. during the two-week pageant.

“Why didn’t you stay with your husband?” I asked.

“Husbands aren’t allowed,” she said. She explained that everyone was rehearsing all day, so you wouldn’t have much time to spend with them anyway. She said most husbands arrived for the last few days and stayed at a cheaper hotel than the pageant resort.

When it looked as if I was going to win Mrs. Washington, D.C., my husband and I had had some serious talks about canceling our existing vacation and going to the nationals in Palm Springs, Calif. We assumed we could carve some kind of vacation out of it. This didn’t sound like one. I imagined myself being yelled at for two weeks by the choreographer (“Mrs. D.C., it’s merengue, then cha-cha!”) and sitting in a tub of Nair each evening. I was no beauty queen, but I was married. And I was at least a good enough Mrs. to want my husband to have conjugal visits during our vacation. I decided then that the nationals would have to go on without me.

In my evening gown, I did my figure eight in front of the judges, then took my place in line with the other contestants. From the back of the room, Heather waved madly at us; I didn’t understand what she was trying to communicate. I’d forgotten that since I was closest to the door, I was supposed to lead everyone out of the room. Finally someone else took charge and started walking. In the hallway several contestants berated me for standing there like a cluck.

Finally it was time to announce the winners. Nikki looked truly ecstatic when she was selected. I tried to look pleasantly surprised. Laurett handed me a 2-foot-tall trophy and fastened my sash, while Heather put the tiara on my head. A tiny voice inside me whispered, “Maybe you do deserve to win, after all.” Immediately, people started streaming up to congratulate me. I was hugged by two women also wearing sashes declaring them to be Mrs. Washington, D.C. They explained they were Mrs. D.C.s for different pageant circuits. By my count, there were four current Mrs. D.C.’s in the room. This was more confusing than sorting out heavyweight boxing titles. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find out we were all owned by Don King.

While I gathered up my stuff in the dressing room, Heather advised the other contestants to make an appearance at the post-pageant reception lest they look like sore losers. I didn’t want to look like a sore winner, but I had a friend’s birthday party to go to, so I slipped out.

In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare writes, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” This couldn’t be more wrong. I quickly discovered that a crown lies very easily on the head. A head with a crown feels young and happy and knows that the crown is exactly where it belongs. The next day I thought of times it would be appropriate to wear my crown—grocery shopping and walking the dog both seemed right.

I knew I had to give Laurett the bad news that I was withdrawing. My husband warned ominously of the consequences of my decision. “They will sue you,” he said.

“I can just see the headline now,” I replied. ” ‘Beauty Officials Force Dumpy Woman To Wear Bathing Suit on National TV.’ “

I called Laurett and thanked her for an amazing experience and the fantastic job she did, then I told her I was resigning as Mrs. Washington, D.C. I’d had a shorter, but happier, reign than that of Anne Boleyn. “Really?” she said, then got off the phone, explaining she was in the middle of something. Maybe she was going to prepare a lawsuit. The next day she called me back. I have made many people happy by walking out of their lives but none so much as Laurett. She sounded thrilled about the whole turn of events. She told me I had been a good sport, that she was working on a likely replacement, and that I had to return the crown.

During my interviews with the judges, one had asked what my daughter thought of my being in a pageant.

“She says I should do what I want to do,” I’d said. “But she thinks what you look like is not very important.”

“You have a smart daughter,” said the judge.

“I do,” I said.

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