Hairy Armpits and Miss America
I grew up in an environment where pageantry wasn’t synonymous with positive.
When I was in the fourth grade, a brochure arrived in the mail from American Coed Pageants (addressed to me!!) and I was over the moon seeing the girls in dresses and crowns, daring to imagine myself in those pictures. I wanted to be on that stage BAD, but my parents swiftly tossed aside the notion. “No way, you’re not that kind of girl.” What did that even mean?
Fast forward 10 years. I watch my friend compete for Miss Washington County, then at Miss Oregon. I am mesmerized, and hooked. This time, I am old enough to decide for myself, and take my parents along for the ride in the Miss America system. I go on to win four consecutive titles during my college years, and graduate debt-free with the assistance of pageant scholarships. Hat tip to pageantry… and to a mom and dad who got on board.
When my competition days were over (at least for that period of my life!), I went on to become a director and started the Miss Portland Scholarship Program. This is where my story really gets interesting.
You see, I fervently believed that my pageant would be for everyone. Size, ability, background, politics, talent choice, wardrobe, whatever. I recruited and mentored any woman ages 18-23 who had the inkling to get on my stage and compete for the top prize I had secured for my two winners – a whole year’s worth of tuition at my alma matter, Portland State University. Those scholarships were certainly more coveted than the actual crown itself.
The first year of my program, I was blessed to have Katie Harman choose my local as a stepping stone for her second attempt at the Miss Oregon title. This young woman had a plan, worked hard, and was more dedicated and graceful than anyone I had ever met. And she indeed won my local title, then Miss Oregon, and went on to be the very first Miss America from our state. It was surreal.
Her big win also meant that my program had a bit of a spotlight on it, and I found myself with a plethora of contestants the following year. Some of that would be good, but some would present me with a challenge. One that I was ready to meet head on.
Among the new registrants were three, let’s say, atypical pageant girls. The state supervisor was leery of their intentions, and suggested they not be accepted into the program. However, I pledged to make my program the most open, welcoming pageant that at least I had ever known, and use that space as a place to mentor and enrich the lives of my contestants.
Despite some challenges I encountered in working with these particular women, I literally embraced them with open arms and did my best to help them come to understand that pageantry can be a very positive and rewarding journey.
There were hairy armpits in evening wear, halfhearted attempts to follow the choreography, non-traditional talents of forceful poetry reading, platforms about menses (no kidding), and smirks at the girls who were too conventional for their liking. At this point my entire pageant was feeling quite unconventional, and I embraced it, doing my best to help everyone have a positive experience.
The night of the competition arrived, and so did my contestants, some in makeup and others with beer smuggled in under a coat. Our precious Katie Harman, Miss America 2002, was there to crown the next Miss Portland, something I was immensely looking forward to. But as the evening progressed and the contestants in question started acting a little squirrely, Katie’s traveling companion insisted that she leave before crowning. I was heartbroken, but understood.
The show ended with two new title holders, and three women ready to make a political statement. After the crowns were pinned on, a “full moon” appeared from beneath one of the contestant’s gowns, as she bent over and lifted it up in front of the audience. The curtain promptly dropped.
A few weeks later, an article was published in a Portland alternative newspaper, chronicling one contestant’s experience in my program, peppered with snarky (albeit witty) musings on her “joke” of a pageant experience.
I had been duped by two political protesters and a journalist. And I’d still do it all over again.
You see, I believe so strongly in the positive benefits of pageantry that, faced with the same decision, I would not turn those girls away. I started my program on the grounds of a positive experience for everyone, and I am proud that I stuck to my conviction, even if it meant I missed out of seeing my Miss America crown my next Miss Portland. Sigh.
The afternoon before the pageant, I had taken those girls aside for a heart to heart, asking them to support me in my work as I had supported them. But they had a plan and they still went through with it. I do believe, however, that the effort I put in specifically to welcome them and nurture them was worth it. My dreams of pageantry were dashed as a child, and I had to make it all happen for myself as a young woman. I wanted nothing more than to give that to ALL my contestants.
I believe these girls may have had a glimmer of desire deep inside them be Miss Portland. Despite the hairy armpits and mockery, there might be a woman who could admire Miss America for her intellect, self-awareness, accomplishments and courage. She just wasn’t mature enough to look beyond the crown to recognize these strengths in other women. I hope she walked away a little closer to being able to do that.
I consider that a win for positive pageantry.