One of the benefits of being a journalist is that you’re constantly going someplace new. Whether it’s a highlight of your career or a complete dud, you’re still doing something different that you probably otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.
Sunday night, my job offered me such an opportunity: cover a beauty pageant.
I was never in pageants, never had any desire to be in pageants, and my only frame of reference was “Toddlers & Tiaras” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” I volunteered to take the story because I thought I might like to see how these things work in real life.
When I arrived at Van Meter Hall on Western Kentucky University’s campus, I was directed backstage to search for the pageant director and have access to all the young ladies for interviews.
A girl in a blue and pink ballgown of a dress practically glided down the hall in front of me beside her mother. I followed them to where they stopped by an auditorium door where other dolled-up girls stood looking onto the stage.
The final pageant of the day–Miss Southern Kentucky Fair Pageant for 16- to 21-year-olds–that I was there to cover was supposed to start in 15 minutes, but the girls on stage looked to be about 11 or 12, judging from their stature and body type. Everything else about them indicated an older age.
The pouty-lipped girls surrounding me were all young teenagers, some of them a decade younger than I am, all of them waiting for their Miss Teen SOKY Fair Pageant to begin. I remember thinking that I didn’t even look as nice as these girls at either of my high school proms.
I left the doorway that led to the auditorium and followed signs on the floor that pointed toward registration in a back room. Other teenage girls sat in the room or just outside it on metal fold-out chairs. One girl in a coral, empire waist dress sat with her chin in her hand beside her mother.
“Did you all just get done with your pageant?” I asked, not sure how old this girl might be.
“We’re waiting for Miss Teen,” the mother said, smiling. The contestant stared at the wall.
“Oh. Well, good luck,” I said. The girl looked at me, her expression more of a sarcastic sneer than an appreciative grin.
“This is her first pageant,” the mother explained. “She said she’s never going to do this again.”
The girl shook her head. “Nope.”
“It’s not for everybody,” I said as two girls wearing sparkly, poofy dresses walked between us and gave me a side glance.
I leaned against the wall, knowing I wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile. I thought I’d at least get a feel for pageant life before sitting out in the audience and waiting for the last event to start.
For a room full of teenage girls, there wasn’t much chatter or giggling. Occasionally I’d catch snippets of stories of failures or success from other pageants. Beyond that, everyone seemed to be all business, clacking to the bathroom in shiny heels or standing with their arms crossed.
“I just…want…to go…home,” I heard the girl in the coral dress say to her mother.
As the Miss Pre-Teen SOKY Fair Pageant ended, I jostled my way to the auditorium through a horde of moms heading backstage with gargantuan bags bursting with makeup and hair products.
As the judges were setting up for the Miss Teen competition, Miss Pre-Teen competitors and their moms trickled into the auditorium, having abandoned their child-sized gowns for casual–yet cute–attire.
One young contestant sat behind me and chatted with her mom as the next pageant got underway. The conversation quickly turned toward why she had not won.
“Mom, what did she do better than me?” the girl asked, referring to the victor.
There was a long silence, followed by her mother hem-hawwing a bit.
“You two just had different looks,” she finally said.
The girl mumbled something I couldn’t hear, then asked her mom for the Chex Mix she was eating.
“You want some of this Chex Mix?” her mother asked.
“Yes. Now,” the girl said.
I heard the rustling of a bag as the girl’s mother passed it to her.
Another little girl and her mother sat in front of me as the Miss Teen contestants started coming out one by one, the emcee announcing their hobbies; favorite color, T.V. show and food; their plans for the future and their various activities. (Most answers included medical school, “Pretty Little Liars” and working with disabled children.) The little girl with blonde pigtails sat on her mother’s lap. Dark residue around her eyes betrayed the remnants of heavy eye makeup recently scrubbed away.
A few minutes later, I saw the girl in the coral dress parade around the stage. She never stopped smiling at the judges, but she clomped swiftly up and down the stage. The emcee barely got all her information read before she exited stage right.
Later in the evening I spoke with a Miss contestant and the winner of the Miss SOKY Fair Pageant, both of whom seemed easygoing and to be enjoying themselves. Sunday night’s event was only the winner’s second pageant. The other girl I spoke to had been competing in pageants for three years and devoured a cupcake after the show. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the little girls I had seen would still want the pageant life by the time they turn 16.
It’s true that my job as a journalist let me experience something I had only seen on T.V. and in movies, but it was one of those times that I was reminded why I’d never chosen to encounter it before. Like I told the girl in the coral dress: It’s not for everyone.