Excellent Mother writes: “I have a daughter who is a brilliant pianist but has no stage presence. Could doing a pageant help her gain the self-confidence and poise she needs to become a great performer? What are your thoughts on beauty pageants–will your daughter participate? What was your experience? Are some are more worthwhile than others? What do you think of the standard criticism that they are demeaning, and so on and so forth?”
First of all, thank you for sending in this question. Please ask me anything, and if I possibly can, I will post about it.
Why Did I Do Pageants?
Years ago I entered three pageants, Miss Beaver County, Miss Utah State Fair (you have to be a County Queen to enter) and Miss Utah, all of which are feeder pageants to the mother of all pageants, Miss America.
Looking back, I entered that first pageant because:
- It looked fun. When my older sister was crowned Miss Beaver County wearing my prom dress, my mom was already talking about when it would be “my turn”. Because I have always loved dresses, bling and performing, I was on board.
- I needed the money. At Harvard, I was the ultimate scholarship student. Every semester one of my goals was to win more scholarships to reduce my parents’ contribution to my financial aid package.
- I wanted to win. I still want to win. I always want to win. I didn’t enter any of those pageants for the experience. I came for the crown and the check. Keep in mind that I did not win Miss Utah, so check for sour grapes as you evaluate the story of my experience.
Beauty Pageant vs. Scholarship Competition: Appearance vs. Substance
Pageants began as swimsuit competitions. At its inception, Miss America was a beach-side swimsuit competition and nothing more. Over the years, the pageant directors have added elements like the talent competition to make the pageants seem less exploitative and more of a meritocracy, and have rebranded themselves as a scholarship competition.
I was a little bit embarassed to be doing a beauty contest. I considered myself a feminist and a woman of substance, so I had to either participate ironically, or raise the “scholarship competition” banner and sell that angle to others and myself. I ended up doing a bit of both.
I don’t keep up with pageants, but in those days, the Miss America pageants were weighted heavily toward interview and talent which were I think 35% each of the total score with only 15% each going toward swimsuit and evening wear (which included at least one on-stage question). Totally a scholarship competition, right? And each girl had to have a “platform issue” which she cared about and promoted. Substance left and right.
Unfortunately, in my experience, the veneer of scholarship competition was only as thick as a coat of nail polish. In every particular, it proved to be a beauty contest.
Winning Miss Beaver County was almost a given. I didn’t get a look under the hood of pageants until I went to the state-wide ones.
I showed up to the interview competition in a pinstriped business dress suit that I would wear to an job interview (after my County pageant managers talked me out of wearing pants) and quickly realized that this was not your regular interview. There is a very specific type of rhinestone-studded, leopard-trimmed, brightly colored hybrid of a suit and an evening gown that pageant girls wear not only to the interview, but to every banquet and event the whole 3-4 days through. You need 4 or 5 of these concoctions with nude heels and blinged out accessories. My church dresses for the luncheons were way out of place.
In my experience, the interviewers were former pageant winners and random men from the community who were looking for the cliched world peace answers. Pageants are first and foremost profit enterprises with hefty entry fees and ticket prices that support a whole industry of wig makers, makeup artists, dress shops, pageant coaches, and photographers, so the last thing they want to hear is anything that challenges their validity. They want you to reinforce their belief that these pageants are empowering women, spreading awareness for worthy causes and making the world a more beautiful place. They don’t care about policy, they want ideals. You need to support world peace in general, but they don’t want to hear a word about practical foreign policy. They want to know that your mom is your biggest hero, not what you think about the evolving rights and roles of women in America. They want to know that when you grow up you want to help people by saying please and thank you rather than any boring details of your lab research. There persists a strong preference for girls who want to report the news on television rather than be the ones making the news in Congress or corporate America.
I remember the girl who won both the interview and Miss Utah that year was asked, “Who is your favorite American composer?” She said “Tchaikovsky! Because his music is so powerful!” And she won.
One of the Top 5 was a girl who sat three mirrors down from me. She was asked a question on education–I believe that was part of her platform. After rambling around like Lauren Kaitlin she ended by saying “people should respect their elders.” Top 5 out of 60.
Even all those years ago, the Miss America pageant was realizing that it had strayed too far from its swimsuit competition roots and was losing relevance and viewership with all this substance dabbling. I was told at least 20 times by 10 different people (and yes, in hindsight some of them were clearly repressed homosexual men) at each pageant that our talents needed to have more mainstream appeal. More America’s Got Talent than Carnegie Hall. That is too bad because there were some terrific singers and some jaw-droppingly stellar pianists at Miss Utah. Dang! Some of them were overshadowed by gals who managed to jump around a lot on the piano bench despite wearing enormous ballgowns and some Broadway-belting mediocrities who would not have made it to Hollywood week on Amerian Idol.
I did quite well with my jazzy production number in a black velvet dress with a slit up to there. And I loved it. To born performers, the applause for an “on” performance is like sunshine and water.
Which is why I have to answer the question “will your daughter participate?” with “it’s up to her.” I would not encourage her to do pageants, but if she, like me, lives for a stage and a dress and is willing to shrug at all the rest, then yes. If she wants to do a pageant, I’ll shell out the entry fee.
The Miss Utah pageant was my first introduction to prosthetic bums. I had felt a little self-conscious for dyeing my hair before the pageant. HA HA HA HA HA!!! Among my table mates in the dressing room there were:
- false eyelashes
- hair pieces
- faux tanning cream
- press on nails
- press on toe nails
- boob inserts
- false teeth
- bum inserts
- at least one fake accent
The last one was a killer. The girl was born and raised in Provo, but she spoke with a thick affected southern accent because Miss Texas and other southern belles win a disproportionate number of Miss America titles. She also managed to wear the largest pair of prosthetic eye lashes I have ever seen in real life to every event. Everyone hated her because she was clearly a major contender, but I remember I quite liked her though I had difficulty talking to her without accidentally adopting the accent, too. She won runner up.
At Miss Utah State Fair, I decided to make a statement about pageants by wearing a cover up over the lower half of my swimsuit in the swimsuit competition. I like to believe it was because my feminist sensibilities were offended by the meatmarket swimsuit competition and not because unlike my roommate, I hadn’t spent 2 hours in the gym per day for a solid year in preparation for the swimsuit competition. That roommate won Miss Utah State Fair that year, by the way, and she had killer thigh definition, so time well spent.
After the award ceremony, a married couple who had been two of the four pageant judges stopped me in the parking lot to tell me that I would have won Miss Utah State Fair with perfect 10s in all the other categories if only I hadn’t worn the cover up in that swimsuit competition. Of course I was super duper flattered and grateful. But when they encouraged me to take off the cover up for Miss Utah, I replied by explaining my high ideals with cheeky self-righteousness. They were stunned because they had actually assumed I just didn’t like my hips–which I don’t–and it hadn’t occured to them that it might have been a statement.
At Miss Utah, I couldn’t decide. I wore the cover up to the competition, and at the last minute took it off backstage. I did my turns and all, then came off the stage and realized the craft glue I had used to hold the swimsuit in place (everyone does this) was covered in green and blue fuzz from the coverup. Please form a mental image of navy blue and green fuzz on a woman’s bikini area and remember that’s what you get for abandoning your principles.
Now the struggling Miss America pageant is trying to get its sexy back by experimenting with the reality television angle and pushing the swimsuit competition to the forefront once more.
Beauty Pageant vs. Scholarship Competition: Cost vs. Reward
I did manage to win a special award at Miss Utah which I think was worth maybe $500. Combined with my winnings from Miss Beaver County, in my home-sewn regalia, I think I eeked out a profit by the very skin of my teeth. But I may have even come out in the red. You see, pageants are INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE.
Even after the steep entry fees, you have to have pictures taken. Then you need 4 or 5 of those “interview” suits, one pageant gown for the evening gown competition which can run $1000 or more, another pageant gown for the talent competition, a special pageant swimsuit that will never swim, nude heels, clear jelly heels, jewelry, hair pieces, eyelashes, makeup, a pageant coach, a prosthetic booty, a personal trainer and gym membership, and on, and on, and on. I believe the Miss Utah prize is still $10,000 which several people told me will barely cover the winner’s cost of travel and competition in the Miss America Pageant. That’s still better than some of the other “scholarship competitions” like Miss USA where the circuit pageants offer scholarships to specific colleges. So if you’re not planning to go to Weber State, you’re screwed.
The people making money at pageants are not the winners, but the pageant directors. Pageants are a lucrative business which is why there are so many of them. They are making money out of you, the entrant, and your 20 cousins who bought tickets to see you do the production number and then get eliminated. For most participants, their pageant winnings won’t cover the cost of one dress.
Self-Confidence or Self-Consciousness?
Many girls come out pageants claiming their pageant experience gave them self-confidence and poise. In my experience those tend to be the girls who already had a lot of stage presence and confidence and who did well. Plenty of other girls come out of pageants with self-loathing and an eating disorder.
Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D writes in her piece in Psychology Today on child pageants that “it appears that the hypercritical environment of their youth produces a drive towards the unattainable goal of physical perfection.” and that “Intense participation in activities that spotlight physical appearance instills the idea that physical beauty and superficial charm are the keys to success, thus making self-worth and self-esteem inextricably tied to attractiveness.”
I have to say in response to Dr. Cartwright, that it is well documented that physical appearance does help people land jobs and get raises and promotions. Physical appearance does matter whether that ought to be the case or not. Obsession with physical perfection, however, doesn’t bring a whole lot of peace and satisfaction. Ask Michael Jackson.
Sexualization of Young Girls
The images of Jon Benet Ramsey done up as half American Girl Doll, half drag queen are burned into the memories of my generation. I have no beef with sex. I have no beef with “physical fitness” (the preferred euphemism for swimsuit competition). I have beef with the sexualization of young girls in pageants.
The main problem with pageants is that they are still at their core swimsuit competitions in which young girls are taking off their clothes to have their bodies judged by men and other women.
No matter what other benefits or positive outcomes are associated with pageants, they come at the price of willfully subjecting yourself or your daughter to what looks disturbingly like an underground auction in the sex trade industry.
Will it help her gain stage presence?
It may, for the simple reason that all practice is good practice. I would keep in mind, though, that pageants promote a specific style of stage performance unique to pageants. There is a specific “pageant look” and “pageant style performance” which does not translate directly to things like modelling or classical performance and competitions. If the goal is stage presence, there are better options than pageants.
At conservatory and in other opera programs, I have attended many hours worth of master classes on stage presence. I’ve watched others practice walking out, bowing, introducing their piece, bowing after the performance and leaving the stage. I’ve had my own audition walk endlessly critiqued by my teachers, coaches and peers. All of that has been invaluable to me. Stage presence matters immensely. There are programs available at camps and through preparatory schools which can help your child develop the presentation skills that will enhance her performances without ever gluing a swimsuit to her crotch area.
I still love a dress, an audience and a huge pair of earrings, so I guess there will always be a bit of pageant in me. Kent is 100% opposed to pageants, yet he married me with full disclosure. My parting advise is that the people who get the most out of pageants are those for whom pageants are one part of a full and balanced life rather than the be all and end all of their existence.
This was my costume when I sang “I Dreamed a Dream” in the Miss Beaver County Pageant. Those were the days.