crowning glory

by Kathleen Parrish

"Unfortunately, my budget doesn't allow for a gown that costs more than my car, so I buy one from a website that sells contestants' castoffs and take it to dress designer Deborah Lopresti for an upgrade. Lopresti knows exactly what to do with this strapless confection and adds a cluster of rhinestones and an over-the-shoulder sash."

It's a rainy night in March, and I'm standing on a hot stage in a turquoise gown and rhinestone sandals with a bunch of perfectly coiffed women all waiting to see who will be the next Mrs. Pennsylvania International.

After months of exhaustive preparations that involved learning how to walk in five-inch heels, getting hair extensions and applying a spray tan, the moment of reckoning has come. My now-flat stomach should be fluttering with anticipation, but I'm too occupied by other things: my face, which aches from hours of smiling; my Spanx, which are pinching my internal organs; and the nagging concern that my two unsupervised teenage boys are playing beer pong on the dining-room table back home.

They can keep the crown. I want a gin and tonic.

At the ripe age of 46, I entered my first beauty pageant. Some people may think these competitions silly and self-indulgent. I thought that at first too. But then a former Mrs. Delaware moved next door to my brother-in-law, and I decided to enter a pageant — both out of curiosity and to satisfy my DNA. (Doesn't every girl want to be a princess?) My foray into sashes and rhinestones opened a hidden world populated by women of a certain age from every walk of life who are giving their younger competitors a run for their tiaras.

As iconic beauty pageants like Miss America lose ground toAmerican Idol and other reality-TV competitions, the pageant world is welcoming older women like long-lost sorority sisters. These days, there are pageants for married women, career women, full-figured women, disabled women — just about any demographic you can think of. Even contestants 60 and older can compete for a national crown in the Senior America pageant.

"Today's 50-year-old woman is not the 50-year-old of 20 years ago," says Mary Richardson, executive director of the Mrs. International pageant and a former titleholder who, at 53, works out with a personal trainer three times a week.

So what's the appeal? It's certainly not money motivating these hot mamas; there is none. For many, the payoff is the camaraderie, the motivation to stay in shape, the thrill of competing, the visibility for a cause and, of course, the clothes.

"A lot of women I work with just want to get dressed up and feel good about themselves," says Suzy Bootz, a pageant coach who was crowned Mrs. International in 2006 at the age of 42. "When you hit your 30s, 40s and 50s, you become comfortable in your skin and want to celebrate who you are. That's a great place to be."

Just because I'm comfortable in my skin, however, doesn't mean I necessarily wanted to show off all of it. So of the three major pageant systems for married women — Mrs. America, Mrs. United States and Mrs. International — I chose the latter for one simple reason: There's no swimsuit competition. Posing in fitness wear is still part of the deal, as are one-on-one interviews with five judges, sashaying in a gown and answering an onstage question.

It sounds simple enough, but as I learned, preparing for a pageant is more like getting ready for battle. It requires strategic planning, a commander who knows which cut of dress looks best on a 5-foot-4-inch frame, and a team of loyal advisers willing to open their closets and jewelry boxes to a new recruit. Lucky for me, I had just that.

Marci McNair, Mrs. Delaware U.S. 2009, agrees to whip my untoned bottom into shape. An attorney by day, Marci, 34, is a pageant aficionado, having entered her first competition as a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. We meet for the first time at her home outside of Philadelphia, and she introduces me to the raven-haired Susan Huntley, 36, who was crowned Mrs. Pennsylvania America 2012 in February. An attorney, Susan has won every pageant she's competed in as a married woman.

"I honestly don't think I'd be as good at what I do on a daily basis if not for pageantry," says Susan, who credits the circuit for her confidence and speaking skills in the courtroom.

Right off, the pair insist on assessing my walk, which, according to Marci, is everything. I oblige, strutting across Marci's spacious bedroom, then pivoting when I hit the full-length mirror.

"Not bad," Marci says. "But don't touch your leg and walk slower."

I try again but wobble a bit on the turn. "That's good for fitness competition," Susan says, "but you went a bit too fast for evening gown."

Marci tells me to buy some five-inch heels and walk in them for practice. The first thing I do when I get home that night is order a pair online. They arrive several days later, and that afternoon, I wear them to clean out the refrigerator. I have to admit: Scrubbing cucumber slime from the crisper never felt so hot.

I must have shown potential with my walk, because Marci soon introduces me to others within her circle, a tight cohort of accomplished women who are only too happy to pass along their pageant garb and knowledge to whoever needs it. Besides Susan, there's Danielle Micale, 37, a licensed nursing-home administrator and self-proclaimed tomboy who competes, she says, because it gives her a megaphone to advocate for those with Alzheimer's disease; Dr. Ellie Baker, 32, a dentist and mom; and Mary Moulds, 39, a culinary adviser who, after losing a significant amount of weight she had gained from taking steroids to manage multiple sclerosis, says she started entering pageants because, "I needed to get over the fact that I wasn't 250 pounds [anymore]. I still saw myself as that girl in the mirror. If anything was going to get me over that, it was getting onstage in a swimsuit."

I dub these women the Sisterhood of the Traveling Gown, and together they hold more titles than Manny Pacquiao.

Entry into this community is a boon, as outfitting oneself for a pageant is pricey — new gowns can cost $6,000 or more. Add to that interview suits, athletic wear, cocktail dresses, jewelry, makeup, shoes, professional photos, optional sessions with pageant coaches and personal trainers, a spray tan, acrylic nails and, in my case, hair extensions (done by the fabulous Alison Cutry of Evolve Salon & Spa in Center Valley, Pa.), and it's easy to see why this is a multimillion-dollar industry.

Unfortunately, my budget doesn't allow for a gown that costs more than my car, so I buy one from a website that sells contestants' castoffs and take it to dress designer Deborah Lopresti for an upgrade. Lopresti knows exactly what to do with this strapless confection and adds a cluster of rhinestones and an over-the-shoulder sash.

For weeks I am consumed with preparation: lifting weights and doing stomach crunches in my basement each night, boning up on current events for my interview and learning to apply false eyelashes. I end up losing 15 pounds and transforming my legs into strong, sinewy stems.

Before I know it, it's the pageant penultimate. Marci puts out a call for a dry run. It's a tradition among the Sisterhood, and they don't come empty-handed. "You're going to get a spray tan, right, toots?" David Fink, an extended member of the Sisterhood, says, eyeing my pale skin as I enter the living room in a green sleeveless dress. The outfit passes muster, but the earrings don't.

Marci brings out a box of jewelry containing huge fake gemstones. They glimmer beneath the tract lighting and could probably launch a satellite if triangulated properly. The crew clips and unclips baubles on my earlobes before settling on a pair with stones the size of golf balls. Two hours later, I'm sweaty and disheveled and ready to go home, when Mary remembers the black knit interview suit in her car.

"I just saved your life," she says, rushing out to get it. It fits perfectly.

As we say our goodbye, Marci surprises me with a purple garment bag bearing a rhinestone crown and matching vanity cases. "Now you're official," she says.

On Friday, my husband and I arrive at the Hampton Inn in Altoona, Pa., about 45 miles southwest of Penn State University, where all the Teen, Miss and Mrs. Pennsylvania International contestants will stay this weekend and where the preliminary events are held. Six of us are vying for the Mrs. title: Mrs. Philadelphia, Teena Handline, 22, a paralegal who attends law school at night; Mrs. Shickshinny, Kimberly McLendon, 35, a chef and food writer; Mrs. Conneautville, Danella Schroeder, 34, an emergency-management manager and planner; Mrs. Hazelton, Dr. Jill Snyder, 43, an OB-GYN; and Mrs. Coatesville, Sara Snyder, 44, who owns a petroleum business with her husband. My title is Mrs. Lehigh Valley.

Competition starts first thing the next day with one-on-one interviews, which are worth 50 percent of the overall score and focus largely on a contestant's platform or community-service efforts. I have chosen to represent Girls on the Run, a nonprofit I volunteer with that uses running as a tool to empower young girls. My pageant posse believes this portion of the competition will be my best hope for racking up points because I like to talk.

I've eaten meagerly for four months in preparation for today, and my stomach is singing like an orca. So, with minutes before interviews begin, I head to the hotel buffet, serve myself a bowl of oatmeal and head to the lobby with the other contestants to wait for my turn. Several spoonfuls into my meal, disaster strikes, and I spill the entire contents on my green dress.

The other women look at me in horror. But then Dawn Hicks, the reigning Mrs. Pennsylvania International 2011, springs into action, ordering a hair dryer from the front desk and whisking me to the bathroom, where we try to remove gobs of Quaker Oats from my chest with damp paper towels. Dawn, I learn, used to be in the Air Force and now works as a civilian at the Department of Defense. Not only can this mother of two remove food stains without breaking an acrylic nail, she's been deployed to Afghanistan twice.

Once my dress is dry, Dawn yells, "Go, go, go!" and I sprint across the hall, clean as a whistle, to the interview room.

Afterward, the contestants head to the Jaffa Shrine in downtown Altoona for rehearsal before the 7 p.m. show. We practice an opening number, walking across the stage and posing. Most, if not all, of the other women have done this before, and they move with grace and confidence. After my turn, Dawn pulls me aside.

"You've got dead arms," she tells me. "Try and move them a bit as you walk. But don't touch your gown."

An hour before show time, we scurry to a makeshift dressing room backstage to get ready. We jockey for prime real estate near the electrical outlets and plug in hot rollers, curling irons and cellphones so our friends and family in the audience can text us feedback during wardrobe changes. Some of the more seasoned contestants have brought their own full-length mirrors, garment racks and steam irons. It's complete chaos, but there's none of the cattiness or fighting made infamous by movies like Miss Congeniality and the reality show Toddlers & Tiaras. That's not to say tales of sabotage don't exist: Everyone seems to know someone who's had something "accidentally" spilled on her gown, a zipper ripped or painful mishaps with Crazy Glue. On this night, at least, civility reigns, and we share everything from earrings to bras.

Marci and a few other members of the Sisterhood are in the audience, along with my parents and my husband, Chris, who will escort me onstage during the evening-gown competition. He hasn't been a fan of my pageant journey, so I'm touched when a bouquet of flowers is delivered backstage from our sons and him.

The magical hour arrives. The curtains open and we prance onstage in black cocktail dresses to the throb of Roxette's "The Look." Fitness wear is next, and Mrs. Shickshinny and I drop and do 10 pushups in the dressing room to boost our biceps before showing them off to the judges. We change again for our onstage question and then once more into our evening gowns.

When I meet my husband onstage, he delivers a message from Marci: "You're slouching. Push your shoulders back."

We kiss briefly, and then I walk alone in an oval, all the while smiling, making eye contact with the judges, maintaining good posture, and trying not to touch my gown or do a face-plant.

After a video homage to the outgoing queens, we return once again to the stage for the crowning ceremony. Mrs. Philadelphia grabs my hand and gives it a squeeze. "Good luck," she whispers.

When they call my name, my husband, who is standing behind me, pokes me in the back and I stumble off the riser to accept a plaque and flowers. Lo and behold, I am third runner-up.

Mrs. Shickshinny wins, and I am genuinely happy for her. I know her journey to this moment hasn't been easy and was motivated by the gain, and subsequent loss, of 100 pounds after a difficult pregnancy. She also seems sincerely committed to her platform, Blessings in a Backpack, which provides food to low-income schoolchildren.

She looks radiant in a white gown as the shimmering tiara is placed on her head. There is something iconic about that crown, something all-American about this tradition, and when my husband and I return home the next day (after a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy at Cracker Barrel), I feel a bit sad that it's over. I don't know if I'll ever compete again, but I do know pageantry injected a healthy dose of glamour into my humdrum life. Dawn perhaps puts it best: "You get so consumed by the day-to-day — living your life in sweatpants and a T-shirt, running around to soccer practice, making dinner. Pageants are an opportunity to put on a pretty dress and feel like a lady."

After all, every woman should have a crown. And five-inch rhinestone heels.

KATHLEEN PARRISH is a freelance writer in Bethlehem.