Eye of the Beholder

Photo Courtesy of Ernest Hendersen

“Contestant number 19.” The announcer’s amplified voice reverberates through the auditorium. I look down at the number pinned to my dress. My legs snap into position, and I begin my walk into the bright light: one and a half large circles around the stage, just as I practiced this morning. I try to smile at the three female judges seated at a table below me and at the audience in rows of school cafeteria chairs beyond, but it’s the mechanical smile of a news anchor. When I pose for the first time, stiffly shifting my weight leftward, everybody claps. I’m not sure what they’re clapping for.

My legs jitter as I walk, even though my sparkly heels are only two inches high. An iridescent mother-of-pearl necklace hangs around my neck. My satin dress swishes quietly. I’m wearing more eye makeup than I ever have in my life. And yet, I have a strange feeling—novel to me—that from where the judges and audience are sitting, I look beautiful, enigmatic, older, even seductive.

After completing my circuit, I stop in front of the pageant’s creator and emcee, Logan West.

“If you could change one thing about society’s attitude toward women, what would it be?” West asks, passing me the microphone.

Three empty seconds pass.

“I think I would want everyone to be able to define feminism for him or herself,” I begin, my voice trembling. “I think that that’s sort of a loaded word, umm, and unfortunately, it usually has negative connotations. And I would love for everybody to be able to think about what fen-fenim-feminism means for him or her and to be able to express that.” I pass the microphone back to West and exit the stage.

A few weeks earlier, I would have answered West’s question very differently: “Make society stop objectifying women through institutions like beauty pageants.” But I was also curious about their widespread allure, to the point of entering a pageant myself: the 2013 Connecticut USA Extravaganza Pageant in New Haven. Maybe pageants offered  more ways to be beautiful than I’d realized.

*

The Miss America pageant began in 1921 as an Atlantic City summer resort festival. That first year, fifteen-year-old Margaret Gorman was crowned the winner because the judges deemed her capable of handling the responsibilities of motherhood. Girls like Gorman represented an idea of American morality expected to hold the nation together after World War I in the age of Jay Gatsby, jazz, and the flapper’s loosening sexuality. Women had won the right to vote just the year before. In the twenties and thirties, Miss America winners exemplified conservative definitions of femininity: docile, unassuming, and chaste.

The expectations for contestants have changed. The women who compete must perform a talent and have a social platform that they would use their title to promote. An oft-cited fact about the Miss America Organization is that it is the top scholarship provider for young women, doling out more than forty million dollars each year. A recent ad for the organization featured a young woman in a strapless dress holding a tiara, looking up at the words: “Some people call her a beauty queen. We call her a scholar.” Many of the women who have won the pageant in the last decade have been college graduates hoping to finance an education in law, medicine, or another professional field. All of them have professed passion for community service. All of them have been confident and well-spoken.

But does the proclaimed shift in values really reflect a deeper change in pageant philosophy?

*

Logan West, a junior commercial dance major at Pace University, claims that her pageant, the Connecticut USA Extravaganza Pageant, is different.

“I don’t really think it’s about the glitz and the glamour that most people expect. It’s really a fundraiser for my program, Unite Against Bullies Today.”

That’s how West billed her project to a Fox Connecticut news anchor in a September interview. She insisted on the ways that her pageant didn’t fit the stereotype. Like many pageants, it included an interview, a swimsuit competition, an evening gown competition, and an optional talent portion. But “swimwear” could be interpreted so loosely as to mean “anything you would wear to the beach.” It was open to boys and girls, men and women of (literally) all ages. And the forty-five-dollar entry fee supported a good cause, the anti-bullying organization West started when she was fourteen. The pageant system isn’t based on judging the bodies of young women; with its alternative rules and overwhelmingly positive branding, West saw her pageant as a potential force for good.

At nineteen years old, West knows a thing or two about pageants, and the mainstream pageant circuit. In 2012, she won a crown at Miss Teen USA—a giant, pink-jeweled tiara, and a glimmering sash, to be specific. The title came with a $25,000 check. Originally from Southington, Connecticut, she became the first girl from the state ever to win the title.

West spent the following year serving as a figurehead of the Miss Universe Organization.

During her reign, she promoted Unite Against Bullies Today, which teaches students in grades three through seven how to recognize and stop bullying using a five-step plan. School principals were much more willing to let her into classrooms to conduct anti-bullying workshops when Miss Teen USA was calling.

West and I Skyped a few weeks before the Extravaganza Pageant. Sitting in her Pace University dorm room, she looked nothing like she did in her TV appearances: no makeup, hair tucked away in a bun, body swallowed by a gigantic gray sweatshirt, eyes framed by rectangular glasses. Her voice was still a bit nasal from the cold she’d had earlier in the week.

“I’m just a normal girl. I went to a normal school. I go to a normal college,” she said. “I just get to wear a crown sometimes.”

West had won a local pageant when she was four years old, but didn’t return again until she was thirteen, the year she started being bullied for not “acting her race.” West is the daughter of a white father and African-American mother. For six months, another biracial girl in her class criticized her tastes in music, her friends, and her clothing—then slammed her into lockers and spat on her. West entered the Miss America pageant system as a way to reclaim herself post-bullying. She was judged there too, but this time she was told that her clothes, her manner, and her opinions were right. Although she has only ever done six pageants total, she’s won five out of the six. The exception was Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, a national title.

The rules stipulated that she couldn’t enter herself in the contest again, but West was eager to win a national title. Doing so meant she had to switch to the Miss Universe system, and her mother and coach, Patricia West, was concerned about that change. The Miss USA system is more explicitly focused on beauty than Miss America: it doesn’t include a talent portion or award scholarship money, and doesn’t ask contestants to have a social platform.

“I’ve always told the girls, don’t rely on your beauty,” Patricia, who also coaches her other daughter, told me. “You’re going to have to have something more to back it up.”

Patricia supported Logan anyway, driving her to a martial arts center in West Haven five days a week so that she could get in shape with a world-class fitness coach for the dance portion of her training. Every day, she drilled West on questions about current events to keep her up-to-date and able to express her opinions eloquently. “If you talk to me too quickly, I’ll say, ‘Start that sentence over again.’ I know I can drive my kids absolutely insane,” Patricia said—but she’s proud of the results, and she believes in pageants. “They force you to stay up on current events, to know who you are, to know what you stand for.”

Then she made me an unexpected proposition:

“Have you considered entering the pageant yourself?”

I clammed up, then. I balked, making some excuses, stammering.

Finally, I took a deep breath. “I’ll think about it.”

A week later, I say yes.

*

I am not the first person Patricia has convinced to give pageants a try. Her converts include Patrick Moore, the 2013 Extravaganza’s co-director, who met the Wests after a Tae Kwon Do class at the West Haven martial arts center (where Logan trained for Miss Teen USA). At the time, Moore didn’t know much about beauty pageants, but he knew he didn’t want his then four-year-old daughter Carlina to enter any. But Patricia convinced him to consider the 2012 Extravaganza.

In the months that followed, Moore worked on interview questions with his daughter a few nights a week. Questions necessitated explanations. “Why is purple your favorite color?” he would ask her. He explained to me, “You bring it down to the fact that grapes are my favorite food and I like sunsets, so I like purple,” he said. “You have to bring it down to that level.” Sometimes, exhausted and impatient, Carlina cried, so they would pause in her practice.

But Moore felt it was a vital supplement to her education. “What course in school do you take to get on stage and demonstrate interviewing techniques under pressure?” he asked me.  “If she was uncomfortable with it, we would take a break for couple of days. We had no expectations of winning anything.” Carlina won the four- to six-year-old age division, as well as an award for Best Interview, beating out contestants nine years older than her.

I wait for my interview in the 2013 Extravaganza Pageant, sitting in the airy auditorium-cum-cafeteria at the John C. Daniels International School. The seven other contestants in the “Miss” (unmarried female adult) category gather around one of the lunch tables. Among us are a twenty-five-year old model, a bulldog breeder, a junior from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), and two of my friends from Yale (Patricia and Moore strongly encouraged me to get my friends to sign up). The judges call us in one by one.

At the table with me is 24-year-old Tayler Ross, who I had met before the pageant itself. She’s been doing pageants since she was five, but she tells me the interview portion always freaks her out. Ross is the real reason my two friends and I are in this pageant; Moore had given me her contact information when I had only just learned about the pageant. During our interview a month ago, she’d promised to help me if I entered: “I’ve always wanted to coach someone and see if my coaching helped them do better.”  She then worked with me on two skills that her six-month-old baby, Jayana—also a pageant contestant—would be acquiring soon: walking and talking.

“So let’s see your heels,” Ross said first while I pulled out my wedges. She donned four-inch gray suede stilettos. Cuing up a Justin Timberlake song on her tablet, she demonstrated her walk: a series of deliberate bounces, each step replacing the one before it in a seemingly straight line. She looked natural and unaffected. At the end of her walk, she twirled elegantly without once breaking eye contact. When it was my turn, I was supposed to follow her lead while also crafting a walk that somehow “expressed my personality.” Instead, I tried to replicate Ross’s movements.

With that, Ross quickly moved on to interview practice.

“Arielle, tell me what it’s like being a tour guide at the Yale Art Gallery. What is your favorite piece of art?”

I started babbling about a Futurist painting of an amusement park, but Ross interrupted me.

“Yoo-hoo, where are you looking?” My gaze had strayed to the side to avoid eye contact. “Eyes right here.” She pointed to her own eyes. She added that I had already said too many “umms” and “likes” and that I was connecting all my sentences with “and” instead of pausing between ideas. She had me try again.

It turned out Ross was a good coach. In front of the judge panel at the 2013 Connecticut USA Extravaganza Pageant interview, head judge Liz Wong asks me the same exact art gallery question. I feel confident when answering, making sure to pause between sentences.

But the judges’ next brings me to a stumbling halt.

“At this point in the pageant, what is the title of your article going to be?”

“Oh, good, good question.” I stall. The judges chuckle. “Maybe something like ‘judging beauty.’”

Knowing that I’d come in to test the beauty pageant world, their response had been to test me.

*

In the afternoon comes the onstage component of the pageant. Wong told me that girls win pageants from the neck up. “You only have the stage for fifteen seconds,” she said. “If you can get a judge to only focus on your face because you are exuding that much confidence and positivity, by the time you come offstage, as a judge I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot to look at her body.’ It really isn’t about what you’re wearing. It’s about what your face is doing.”

Still, I choose not to walk onstage in a bikini. I wear a modest one-piece and on top of that, I wear a cover-up that probably sheaths more of my body than my evening gown will. I don’t want to feel like a piece of meat, and luckily I’ve entered a pageant that will forgive—even support—that impulse. At Patrick’s encouragement, all of the contestants in the Miss category are wearing cover-ups except for one.

The swimsuit portion is my first walk of the competition. When I get onstage, I’m distracted by the lyrics of the Keri Hilson song playing over the loudspeakers, “Don’t Hate Me ‘Cause I’m Beautiful.” (“All eyes on me when I walk in,/ No question that this girl’s a ten,/ Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful.”) I’m walking too fast. I pose awkwardly. I don’t know when to smile, when to look at the judges or the audience. My body feels like a machine whose manual I haven’t bothered to read. Distracted, I forget to do the graceful final turn that I practiced this morning and walk offstage abruptly.

Before the evening gown competition, I ask Angelica Belardo, the SCSU junior, if she will do my makeup. Five minutes later, she is threading my eyebrows.

I’m terrified. I can wash makeup away, but my eyebrows are not going to grow for a long time, according to another contestant. She says I won’t have to pluck them again for a month after they’re threaded. I’m touched when Belardo, seeing the concern on my face, apologizes for throwing all of this at me at once.

This is her first beauty pageant, too. Belardo signed up wanting to support the anti-bullying cause. She had told me about being bullied from the age of twelve through her senior year of high school. Her friends spread rumors using instant messaging, and talked about her at school. She would come home crying, and dreaded having to return the next day.

“I didn’t really think of it as bullying,” Belardo had told when we talked before the pageant. “I thought of it as drama, and one of the normal things that people go through. It’s something that adolescents do.”

Her experience shaped her interest in how the mind works, leading to her major in psychology. Belardo hopes to get a master’s in social work, and eventually work with teenagers who struggle with depression or substance abuse.

When we came to a discussion of my interest in the pageant, I had told her I wanted to test my preconceived notions—that I came into the experience with a belief that beauty pageants were outdated, objectifying, and judgmental.

She interrupted me. “And that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do with the pageant,” she said. “It’s against bullying.”

I asked Belardo what she thought the difference was between the kind of judging that is implicit in bullying and the kind that makes up pageants.

“You’re bringing the best out of you,” she answered. “Your fashion sense, the way you express yourself.” Middle and high schoolers are disapproving rather than supportive in their judgment, she said, and without the confidence boosters of beauty pageants.

Belardo stumbled as she thought aloud about the drawbacks. “We should all equally win. I think that would be a better way…I’m not really sure.”

She ultimately answered that the way pageants combat bullying is through the confidence they give people to stand up on stage and know that “you don’t have to be accepted everywhere you go.”

When Belardo finishes my makeup, I am wearing so much I can see it in my peripheral vision. She shows me how I look in a compact mirror. My T-zone is now hairless and my eyebrows don’t look dramatically different, just more even. Seeing the makeup, I understand for the first time why they call it “eyeshadow”—the sparkly dark blue powder looks indeed like a long shadow cast by my eyes and extending almost up to the arches of my newly-slimmed brows. Belardo has extended the black eyeliner ever so slightly into the crow’s feet that ring the corners of my eyes.

Photo Courtesy of Ernest Hendersen

“True beauty is what shines out when you compete,” I remember Patricia West saying to me. “You can have the most beautiful body and face. But if inside there’s not just a genuine love for others and community, you’re not going to look so pretty on stage. Pageants teach you about being a total package. You’re well-spoken, give back to community, and you’re smart, and happen to be pretty.”

Everyone in the room tells me I look beautiful and that my face will look dramatic from the audience’s perspective. They praise Belardo for her masterful work.

*

My friend Salma Dali, who is also competing, borrows my fanciest dress for pageant day. It is a fuchsia floor-length gown with a halter-top, a criss-crossed back, and tiny jewels on the bust. When Salma answers her onstage question in it (“As a neuroscience lab assistant, what are your goals to make a change in our society?”), she looks beautiful, poised, and well-meaning—everything this pageant loves. She wins the “Miss” division.

Photo Courtesy of Ernest Hendersen

Yet Wong, the head judge, reveals that she had actually pegged me as her winner after the interview. I’m shocked by this. “You answered every question as if we were having a conversation,” she said. “You didn’t come in expecting to win. You came in like, this is who I am, this is what I’m doing.”

Everything I’d been told about this pageant suggested that it was meant to give people the opportunity to work specifically on building self-confidence. But hearing the judge’s rationale still left me with questions about what it means to win pageants, why pageant culture rewards what it does, and what participants—winners and losers—want from the experience. It seems that everybody gets something a little different. Through pageants, West has gained a substantial platform from which to promote her organization. Ross has learned how to exude grace and speak with poise on a stage. Carlina Moore has gotten to feel like a princess.

All of them have chosen to do something that I learned is both nerve-wracking and difficult. They subscribe to a values system about responding to judgment with poise, and accepting it. They believe that the skills necessary to excel in pageants are valuable outside the pageant world—and that within it, those factors can be evaluated, without making deeper, possibly damaging judgments about beauty or personality. They believe this with missionary zeal, and though I don’t trust all the tenets of this religion, there is something about their faith that tugs at me.

I re-watch the video of my performance at the pageant. It’s both me, and distinctly not me. I remember shaking on stage, but that doesn’t come across. My voice hadn’t trembled as much as I’d thought it had. I walked faster than I was supposed to. I did smile awkwardly, like I was trying to show I’d understood a joke that I didn’t really get, until Carlina yelled, “Go, Arielle!” and I smiled. The audience clapped when I left.

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