You wouldn’t guess it to look at me now, with my grey roots and sagging bosom and well-marbled derriere, but there was a time I might have been described as reasonably attractive. At least I was tolerable enough to be crowned Miss Osakis in 1983 when I was 17.
Of course, the official party line of the Miss America Pageant Association, of which our dinky hometown pageant was an affiliate, is that these are not beauty contests, but rather a celebration of well-rounded, wholesome American womanhood.
To an extent, I validated that claim. I certainly wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the contest that year, but was absolutely the most wholesome – if by “wholesome” you mean, “never been on a date.” Contestants were encouraged to counter feminists’ complaints about the objectification of women by asserting we were competing for the academic scholarships, not the glory.
Pfft to that.
As I recall, the scholarship I won was $350, a piddling amount even in those days. Nope, I wasn’t in it to further my intellectual development. I entered the Miss Osakis Pageant for two reasons: to wear a pretty, long dress (I had no expectation of being asked to prom) and, most of all, to sing a show tune in the talent portion of the event.
This second point caused my parents some consternation. I’d never sung in public, never even belonged to a school choir, so they had no reason to believe I could carry a tune in a bucket. On the other hand, they’d spent good money on about 10 years of piano lessons, and though after all that time I still wasn’t very good at it, that marginal skill was at least a known quantity, less likely to humiliate the whole family. (My folks’ expectations for my success in this endeavor were carefully moderated; mom later confessed that all through the pageant, she prayed that at least I wouldn’t fall down. To be fair, I’ve never been very light on my feet.)
Despite my lack of vocal training or, as far as even I knew, talent, I had dreamed of belting out a Broadway Standard since I saw my first movie musical. My high school was too small to mount even a modest musical, so I knew if I were ever to fulfill this improbable fantasy, I’d have to create my own opportunity.
Long story short: One night in June, 1983, I pulled a shawl around my shoulders and tucked a basket of plastic flowers under my arm and sang my heart out, a rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from my all-time favorite musical, My Fair Lady. Shocking even myself, I won the talent portion and the interview portion, and apparently scored well enough in evening gown to put me over the top. I have no doubt that I came in dead last in the swimsuit competition. Indeed, when I received the judges’ notes after the pageant (ostensibly to help me prepare for the Miss Minnesota Pageant, several months hence), one of the judges had observed, “Big, fat, heavy bottom.”
Thank you, sir, for that constructive feedback.
As noted above, our local pageant rather absurdly fed into the state contest. Back then it was held in Austin, MN – home of Spam, the queen of canned spiced meat. (Any similarity between glammed-up females strutting the pageant runway and tins of highly processed pork scraps rolling down an assembly line is entirely coincidental.)
It’s safe to say I was not competitive at this level, unworldly little dumpling that I was. That year’s winner was Lauren Greene, a statuesque virtuoso pianist whom you might recognize from her subsequent career as an anchor and correspondent for Fox News. Yeah, I fit in well with that crowd.
My most vivid memory of that experience is – wait for it – the swimsuit competition. Back in the day, there were strict requirements for pageant swimsuits: they had to be one-piece, fully lined and formidably cupped (no nipples, please). Imagine your mama’s bathing suit, assuming your mama was a teenager in the 1940s. And extremely modest. And Amish. These were not items you could pull off the rack at J.C. Penney. I ended up borrowing my predecessor’s suit. It was bright lavender and at least two sizes too small to accommodate my intractably “big, fat, heavy bottom.”
There are certain tricks of the trade in the pageant world. One is smearing your teeth with Vaseline to keep your lips from sticking to them when you smile! Smile! SMILE! for hours at a time. Another is affixing band-aids over your nipples in case the auditorium is unusually cool, and yours are somehow perky enough to overcome even the foam rubber cups (in which case, see your doctor). And to keep your bathing suit from “riding up,” there was double-sided carpet tape.
Basically, you stuck little squares of the sticky stuff strategically on your butt, then pressed the edges of the swimsuit to them to hold it down. Sounds foolproof, right? Alas, even 20th century technology had its limits. There must be some principle of physics, akin to the 1st and 2nd Laws of Motion, that explains the irresistible force of an elastic fabric stretched beyond its designed parameters.
What happened was this: When it came my turn to walk the runway in the bathing suit competition, I took one step on the stage and every carefully placed piece of carpet tape let go. This caused the bottom of my so-much-too-small bathing suit to spring up my a**, exposing a generous portion of naked buttcheek, dotted with wrinkled wads of carpet tape, to the 5,000 or so people sitting in the auditorium.
You’ll never really know what loneliness is until you’ve walked that long, long runway with your sticky butt on display, all the while trying to smile! Smile! SMILE!
I did not win the swimsuit competition that year.
Anyway, despite this mortification, I honestly enjoyed my year as Miss Osakis, and was proud to represent my hometown. I got to wear several pretty, long dresses (as expected, I was not asked to prom), rode in parades and sang (mostly for dozing oldsters at the nursing home, but still). I even experienced my first kiss – albeit an unsolicited and deeply distasteful one – courtesy of a drunk Shriner who grabbed me and planted one on me at a parade. At least I got a little faux gemstone stuck to my forehead from that experience (it’s a Shriner thing, I guess).
I gave up my title the next year to the sort of girl pageants were created for: blonde, athletic, vivacious, the all-American dream girl. She played the timpani for her talent, which I can’t imagine went over very well at the nursing home, but whatever. Determining that this Platonic Ideal Form of the perfect young woman deserved better than the battered old crown that had been passed down from queen to queen since the 60s, they got Miss Osakis 1984 a huge, sparkling new tiara to adorn her golden tresses. (I’m not bitter. Really.) At least this meant I got to keep the old crown, with its associations of tradition and history. I take it out every once in a while, look at it and remember my brief, modest glory days. And of course, it comes in handy around Halloween time.