I know it’s
hard to imagine a woman getting offed by a tube of lipstick,
but I’m here to tell you, it can be done.
have believed it until the night I saw it myself. It was
the same night I won the coveted crown of Ms. America, or
should I say, was given the crown, since the woman who was
poised to emerge triumphant got iced instead.
bad luck for her, I won’t quibble about that, but it just
goes to show that what’s unfortunate for one beauty queen
can really open up doors for another ...
Don’t let me
get ahead of myself. Allow me to set the scene.
September. A balmy evening. (Aren’t they all in
Honolulu?) The Royal Hibiscus Hotel, an oasis of splendor
on an island whose entire land mass is pretty oasis-like as
far as this Midwesterner is concerned.
finale, complete with live audience and television crews
beaming the proceedings to millions of homes across the
nation. Fifty-one contestants primped, pinned and poured
into evening gowns with more sequins per square inch than a
Dancing With the Stars contender. All of us wearing
massive quantities of glittering jewelry, most of it faux,
and sashes displaying the names of our home states. Our
hair is held in place by so much hairspray that the CFCs we
spewed into the atmosphere getting ready probably caused a
measurable retrenchment of the ozone layer over the middle
Pacific. On a stage as wide as my suburban block back home,
we’re arrayed on tiers like brides on the wedding cakes we
stuffed into our husbands’ mouths in years past, since this
particular pageant is geared toward married women, who, as
we all know, rule.
fifteen minutes, though, one of us will rule more than the
rest. We’re down to the short strokes now, past the parade
of states and the swimsuit, talent, and evening gown
competitions. We’re not far from that exhilarating moment
when the host announces the winner.
he does, it’ll get truly tough. Because a handful of us
will be named to the Top Five and they will have to open
their mouths to do more than just smile. They’ll actually
have to speak.
interviews have been known to trip up the best of us.
Suave, who is more beautiful than anyone else on stage and
knows it, parts his luscious Latin lips. “For the last two
weeks, as these stunning ladies have graced this gorgeous
island, we here at the Ms. America pageant have been
searching for that one special woman who embodies the best
qualities of the American wife. Beauty, charm, kindness,
poise, and determination!”
to let the crowd holler and clap. He basks in the glow,
then waves his buff, tuxedoed arm to indicate us lesser
luminaries, trapped on our tiers. “And these ladies behind
me have risen to the challenge. Do you know why?” He leans
forward and cups his hand to his ear, as if expecting a
brilliant answer to burst from the crowd.
you why!” he shouts a second later. He straightens and
points his finger at the audience. “Because the last four
letters in American spell I CAN!”
goes wild. Clearly there is no observation too corny for a
beauty pageant. This I’ve known all the years I’ve
competed, which is basically my entire life.
To my left I
hear a barely contained wince. I glance at Ms. Arizona, the
brunette and statuesque Misty Delgado, who that very
afternoon became the infamous Misty Delgado of
YouTube fame. Or should I say, notoriety.
crap, Mario,” she mutters. To her credit, her smile hasn’t
wavered. She is hissing through teeth a Disney heroine
would envy. “Name the top five. These effing stilettos are
to pick up the cue. “With no further ado, I will now name
the outstanding married ladies who will be our top five
finalists. One of them—” Pause for effect. “—will take
home the crown of Ms. America.”
portentous segue, a drum roll begins. Mario flourishes a
white index card. The crowd holds its breath. We queens
do, too. “Ms. Wyoming, Sherry Phillips!”
very pretty, a threat from head to toe. She sashays down to
stage level. I relax briefly, then tense again for the
Island, Liz Beth Wong!”
Extremely perky Asian girl. And again, not me.
Carolina, Trixie Barnett!”
Her I have
to be happy for. She’s a real gem. But shoot! Only
two more names.
California, Tiffany Amber!”
nearly stomp my foot. Awful creature. Her type rhymes with
witch. Tall, blonde, flawless, fake. Absolutely drop-dead
Forget I said that.
recognize it at first. Then Misty pinches my thigh, with
more vigor than is strictly necessary.
Me! I can’t believe it. One of the top five! The last one
to make it in! My hands fly to my face in that I can’t
believe it! gesture that’s as natural to successful
pageant contenders as taping our boobs for extra lift and
I get a hold
of myself and begin the treacherous descent from my tier,
clutching the arms of my fellow contestants for support so I
won’t topple to certain, ignominious defeat. I encounter
barely veiled glares as I progress but by that point am too
delirious with rhinestone ambition to much care.
By the way,
don’t ask about the origin of my first name. Not now,
anyway. My mother came up with it, and believe me, there’s
a story there.
I keep a
smile plastered to my face, never forgetting the cardinal
rule of pageantry: Sparkle! Sparkle! Sparkle! I wink
playfully at Mario, who flashes his dimples in return, then
cross the stage to assume the position, my eyes trained on
the judges in the first row. Of course, what with the glare
of the stage lights, I can’t actually see them, but still I
nod in their direction with what I hope passes as
confidence. No one measuring my heart rate would be fooled.
Carolina trips over to grab my hand in what after two weeks
of acquaintance I know to be a genuine display of happiness
for me. Earlier that evening she won Ms. Congeniality and I
guarantee you that vote wasn’t rigged. Some beauty queens
might be vipers in spandex and silicone but this one is
truly nice. I squeeze her hand back, she giggles in shared
glee, then returns to her mark a few feet away.
I take a
deep breath and try not to think what winning this thing
would mean to me. Of course I’ve claimed a few crowns—after
all, I had to win Ohio to get here—but I’ve limped away
defeated far more often than I’ve taken that thrilling
victory walk down the runway. And I’ve never come close to
winning a national competition before.
know where I want the prize money to go. Straight from the
Ms. America coffers to my daughter’s college fund. With a
little something left over for my husband. Then we could
all advance our lives from this.
Oh boy, how
excited Jason must be for me right now. And my mom …
For a moment
I’m forced to squeeze my eyes shut. I can’t imagine what
this would mean to her. All those rinky-dink pageants she
put me through … Of course, to her they were swank events
that could catapult her daughter to a socioeconomic level
she herself could never achieve. Not so different from what
I want for Rachel, is it? Ironic, let me assure you. And
let’s not forget, if I did manage to grab a national crown,
it might make up a little, just a little, for Pop leaving.
they’re out there in the audience right now, Mom and Jason,
sitting next to each other in forced comradeship. No doubt
Pop is home watching on the tube and cheering me on.
Rachel? Not so much. I’m sure she’s on-line bemoaning how
her mom is embarrassing her.
voice cuts through my thoughts. And none too soon, for I
realize that we top five are about to make our way to the
isolation booth. It’s been wheeled onstage by two of the
buffer male dancers, who are holding onto the thing so it
doesn’t slip around as we step inside. Great: another way
to fall over.
Mario waylays Ms. Wyoming, who’ll be first to do the final
interview. The rest of us slither inside the booth. Buff
Dancer #1 closes the door. Profound silence descends.
in a tone of awe from Liz Beth. She’s one of a half-dozen
Asian girls in the competition. “This thing is, like,
like, just fall off the turnip truck? Or in your case
should I say the bok choy truck?”
snaps right in Ms. California’s direction.
it’s sound-proof,” Ms. California Tiffany Amber goes on,
wiping invisible lint from her glittery silver gown.
“Otherwise why would they stick us in here? You’d better
smarten up for your interview question, Rhode Island, or
wilts. The walls of the isolation booth seem to close in a
few more inches. I swear it’s a hundred fifty degrees in
there. I lick my lips, my mouth like sandpaper. I smell
nervousness all around me and believe me, it’s not pretty.
All of a
sudden Trixie from North Carolina laughs. “Well, y’all, I’m
just glad they don’t do headphones anymore.” She’s a
girl-next-door type and invariably cheery. “Remember that?
Making the girls listen to that cheesy elevator music so
they didn’t hear the question instead of putting them in one
of these isolation contraptions?”
“It was hell
on hair,” Tiffany says as she smooths her perfect blond
coif. “But that would hardly matter for you.”
eyes widen as her hand flies to her chin-length copper-red
hair. “Is there … is there something …”
door opens. Buff Dancer #2 motions out Liz Beth, who by now
looks as freaked out as a nun at a peep show. Tiffany
chortles as she leaves.
later I clear my throat. “Don’t listen to Tiffany, Trixie.”
I reach out to rub her arm. “Your hair looks terrific.”
Tiffany opines. “Anyway, Congeniality never wins.”
a bitch, Tiffany.” My voice is getting stronger by the
second. “Trixie, there’s always a first time. And I think
the judges are really high on you.”
opens again and this time Trixie’s in the firing line. I
give her a thumb’s up right before she steps out.
Ohio.” Tiffany shakes her head, disgust twisting her
perfectly symmetrical features. “Make the competition feel
don’t all need to cut everybody else down to feel good about
Tell that to yourself when you lose.”
concocting a pithy riposte when Tiffany shuts me up by
lifting her gown to reveal a lipstick and compact taped to
her right thigh.
She rips off
the tape. “Never thought of this, did you?” She sneers.
“I do it every time. For a last-minute touchup to guarantee
I’m even more exquisite for my close-up.”
“Too bad it
won’t be close enough to reveal your rotten soul,” I
mutter. Then the door opens and this time I find Buff
Dancer #1 signaling me.
on those clodhoppers of yours,” she singsongs as I take his
I hoist a
pound or two of fuchsia satin gown in my free hand and throw
back my shoulders. Jousting with Tiffany has made me a
zillion times fiercer than when I stepped into the isolation
booth. Now I want to blow that blonde barracuda into
toward Mario. I’m blinded by the stage lights as I remember
the timeless advice of Miss America 1972 Lauren Schaefer—of
Bexley, Ohio, mind you—who said that when you walk in your
evening gown, you should glide as if you were on rollers
being pulled by a string. With applause ringing in my ears,
I float across the stage, my smile beatific. I’m no Tiffany
Amber in the looks department, I will confess, but I am
slender and brunette and the appearance gods have been
kind. Buff Dancer #1 deposits me at Mario’s side. The
audience settles. I take a sustaining breath.
glances at his index card. I guess he can’t remember the
question he’s just asked three times. “Ms. Ohio, if a genie
offered you one special power, what would you like it to
“Oh, that’s easy.” To my mind rises other pageant winners’
advice: Use a dash of humor! “I’d like to be able to
guess the winning lottery number before it’s announced!”
clapping burst from the crowd.
I giggle and
go on. “But seriously, folks. As a wife and mother, the
special power I’d most like to have is the ability to do ten
different things at the same time. Then maybe I’d finally
catch up with all the To Do’s on my list!”
Mario’s dimples flash. Now I know for sure I done good. He
motions me to go stand beside my fellow Top Fivers, then
grins at the camera and says, “Very cleverly answered by Ms.
Ohio, Happy Pennington. Now for our final contestant, Ms.
California, Tiffany Amber!”
applause rise to the rafters. Apparently Tiffany has scads
of people fooled. As for me, I feel like booing.
#2 opens the door to the isolation booth, then steps back.
I steel myself for Her Supreme Bitchiness to flounce across
Tiffany pitches forward and crash lands face first onto the
stage floor. Twitching ensues. In fact, what with the
silver gown, she looks like a marlin gasping for breath on
the deck of a fishing boat. Then, after one particularly
impressive series of flops, she shudders and goes still.
cheers give way to an audience-wide intake of breath. The
orchestra screeches to an awkward halt. Mario calls for a
cut to commercial. I can’t often describe myself as
flabbergasted but I sure can now. All we contestants are as
frozen as marionettes who’ve lost their puppeteer. Except
for North Carolina, who grabs my arm. “Good Lord!” Trixie
squeals in my ear. “What in the world’s happened to that
#2 attempts to find out. He hurries over to Tiffany, still
lying face down, then bends toward her and shakes her
shoulder. He starts to turn her over. A second later
horror crosses his face and he lets her go, tripping
backward as if he can’t get away fast enough.
point the air is electric. All the judges and half the
audience are out of their seats. Uniformed security guards
are making their way onto the stage. The crowd is beyond
murmuring; we’ve heard a scream or two. Mario races over to
Tiffany, kneels beside her, and takes her limp arm by the
later he raises his head toward one of the guards and with
his free hand covers the microphone on his tuxedo lapel. I
don’t so much hear him say it as I watch his lips form the
words. “She’s dead.”