Last weekend, I had to choose between attending the gallery opening of Women in Film and Television’s “A Woman’s Work” and judging a beauty pageant in Mississippi. Since I’d committed to the pageant first, the choice was easy – but I did go through a post-feminist battle in my mind. I was excited to see my clips included in WIFT’s documentary of interviews with over 50 Louisiana women in the industry (and I will make it to the exhibit at the CAC before it closes July 27th). But, I honestly wouldn’t be in this industry if not for a pageant I entered at 17.
I had been in Uruguay for a couple of weeks when the owners of a dance club asked if I would represent them in La Reina de Punta del Este beauty contest. I was always tall and kids can be pretty awful to people who stick out in a crowd so I got to hear a lot about how ugly I was. In Uruguay, people thought I looked like a Barbie, all lank and leggy. After a month of interviews (in my broken Spanish) and photo shoots, I was crowned Vice Reina (Vice Queen). After all of that public speaking and performing on a live-televised show, I returned to high school feeling more confident and accomplished. I did 4 more pageants in Maryland, D.C. and Alabama before hanging up my heels at 23.
The truth is I’m the daughter of a beauty queen and the cousin of another and to me, pageants are a southern as shrimp and grits. P.T. Barnum held the first American pageant in 1854. Since then, pageants have provided scholarships and a public platform for contestants’ favored charities to thousands of poised, well-spoken young ladies. Back when women’s options for upward mobility were limited to marriage, pageants also provided an actual trophy for aspiring “trophy wives.” Today, over 250,000 contestants compete in beauty pageants.
We started with the interview portion of the Miss Mississippi South States Pageant. The interview counts for 40% of their overall score. I shared the judging with 2 other women including my Django Unchained stand-in, Valerie Strecker, a graphic designer who also created the cover for my book, Know Small Parts: An Actor’s Guide to Turning Minutes into Moments and Moments into a Career. We met lots of interesting young women who were different in many ways but they had a few funny things in common.
The most popular school subject was math. The job most of the older girls had was dental hygienist. Most girls, when asked which book they would want if stranded on an island, said the Bible (because you’d need to preserve hope). When asked what a second book might be, most wanted The Notebook or Twilight. I loved the few girls who said they’d want a “surviving for dummies” guide book. Favorite TV show – Friends, which kinda surprised me since it’s been over since 2004. Many had single moms and despite being from Mississippi, they loved spaghetti and the Saints. Most loved pageants because they build self-confidence.
I put on a sparkly gown, teased my hair high and glued on some eyelashes then headed down to the Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg for the big show. The judging went so fast and we felt the pressure to pick winners the coordinator, Joshua Adam Dearman, could compete with at State. But we also felt the pressure of knowing some girls would go home empty-handed and broken-hearted. I reminded the other judges that I had failed to be crowned in all 5 of my pageants and they still built my confidence, forced me to interact with local business owners to find sponsors and set me on a path toward my careers as a model and an actor.
The show was a lot of fun. The girls had worked so hard and their friends and family were very supportive. I loved seeing all the gowns and I enjoyed that the pageant was focused more on natural beauty and outgoing personalities than glitz and canned answers.
It was mostly a very tight race with many winners scoring only a half point more than their runner-ups. We even had quite a few ties to break. Some of the winners were surprising to us. It never occurred to me that the judges might be surprised who won or shocked by who went home with no placement. Some of those young ladies stayed after to ask how they could improve and I was glad for the opportunity to acknowledge their hard work and offer a bit of guidance and encouragement.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to mingle with the accomplished women in the Louisiana film industry, but both events were uplifting for women and provided a platform for their voices. I’m proud of my own accomplishments in the entertainment industry, but I would have never even thought of stepping in front of a camera if not for that first beauty contest. Whether in a “power suit” or a pageant gown, I am a person first – and this person is glad to live in a society where women can find diverse ways to be celebrated.