My blog is way overdue since the post I've been working on for ages keeps getting sidelined because of last minute jobs (still working on it). So in the meantime, I thought I'd 'confess' my most embarrassing moment that happened in a beauty pageant. It's a short excerpt from the novel I wrote, 'Beauty Pageants to Brothels'. It's true though I've changed names to (mostly) protect the innocent . . . or not so innocent. Barbies on Parade, 17-years-old
In full late ‘80s form, my hair stood high and hair-sprayed. It contained enough glue to hold a pencil in my fringe, which I fondly nicknamed ‘the claw’. I wore a strapless, emerald green, sequin gown with a mammoth bow pinned to the back. As the Master of Ceremonies announced my name, I felt elevated and confident, in my 2 ½ inch, thin heels, and began the deliberate and steady glide across the T-shaped stage.
Turn-smile-slide, turn-smile-slide, turn-smile-slide. The seconds passed until I stood facing the long runway that jutted out into the audience. I stopped in the practiced place, unaware of the impending disaster.
Half a year earlier, another spectacle closed with photo shoots, dozens of roses, and instruction in the art of being a queen. My teacher’s name was Marybeth Jolene, Miss North Texas 1988.
‘Katie-Beth, this is how you wave.’ The queen positioned her shiny red fingernails in the air.
‘First it’s arm, arm; wrist, wrist; fingers wave; then, blow a kiss.’ I followed her lead with my arm, wrist, fingers and then proudly finished with a pucker of my lips.
‘Walk slowly through a crowd because, remember, you are royalty now. Smile, always smile, no matter how you feel.’ She exhorted me with a fascinating charm. Like a thirsty sponge, I soaked up her advice.
‘Did someone coach you?’ she asked.
‘No, I kind of went through this whole thing blind. I really didn’t know what it would be like except what I’d read in the brochures.’ I picked up my bouquet of roses, smelled them again, and put them back down on the table. ‘It’s been stressful. I honestly don’t know how I won.’
‘Well, you did great for the first time. But you have the Miss Texas competition in a few months and there’s a lot more pressure there.’
‘I’m just trying to get used to wearing this crown,’ I said, adjusting the rhinestone tiara. ‘It’s so heavy that it’s starting to bruise my head.’
‘I put a little piece of foam underneath mine. It cushions it.’ Marybeth Jolene bent forward to show me it in the midst of her frosted blonde curls.
‘You’re the new “1989 Miss North Texas”. It’s the biggest region. You beat 200 other girls.’ Marybeth Jolene paused for a moment, lifted her chin and lowered her voice. ‘Miss North Texas has won the state competition the last three years.’
‘Including you, Marybeth Jolene,’ I said, and cleared my throat. It felt odd saying her real name as all the contestants had addressed her as ‘Miss North Texas 1988’ before I won. Now my name would be a title.
‘Yes. You have a very good chance, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t win.’ One of the photographers knocked on the half-open door. ‘It’s late. There are more shots to take with the both of us, but we can chat at the queen’s breakfast tomorrow morning.’
That night, I could hardly sleep as I stroked the blue satin banner embroidered with ‘Miss North Texas 1989’, thought about the last 48 hours, and how they had brought a newfound confidence.
I enjoyed the benefits of being crowned the winner, which included appearances in the local community, and I even became the honorary guest at flea markets, the equivalent of British car boot sales.
‘Come meet the newly-crowned Miss North Texas,’ was the headline I read over and over, inflating my ego like a blow-up mattress. I signed autographs on scrap pieces of paper and at least one oily t-shirt of a large bellied man, and the majority of my celebrity photos were snapped with adolescent boys and excited, non-English-speaking tourists.
A few months later, I entered the grand Westin Galleria ballroom in Houston with my swollen ego. I am certain I carried an arrogant air because that is how I felt on the inside. Of course I can win, I am Miss North Texas, Miss North Texas always wins. And the message remained on repeat during the first two-thirds of the competition.
The affair lasted for three days. The first day included an arrival luncheon, orientation, and rehearsals for patriotic dances that involved high heels and red, white and blue Lone Star State flags.
‘Miss North Texas, Kathryn Elizabeth Knight? They call you Katie-Beth? You stand right here,’ said the choreographer who wore neon pink and yellow spandex.
I stood in the middle of the stage and held my silver cowboy hat in my hands.
‘OK, now in Neil Diamond’s song when we get the last, “And I’m proud to be an American . . .” I want you to raise your hats and then wave your flags. Show your pride girls. You should be full of pride to be up here representing the state of Texas!”
I turned in a circle and lifted my hat up, letting it sparkle in the spotlight while I forced a smile. My cheeks were already aching and my teeth felt dry. I decided when I got back to my room I would coat them again with Vaseline so my lips wouldn’t stick to them.
‘And one more time, kick those legs ladies and then jump. Ya’ll be careful in those heels, Miss Lubbock over here twisted her ankle, and we ain’t having anymore of that today,’ he said. ‘And end it with a good ole “YEE HAW!”’
Sweat began to form on my brow, which made my foundation run. I hoped we’d finish soon as I needed to do a powder touch-up and add more mascara. Five minutes later we all gave each other high fives, grabbed our personal folders containing 8” x 10” portraits, and took our places in line at a long table covered with dozens of glossy images. Each contestant scanned the other girls, searching for their flaws in a not-so-subtle attempt to make themselves feel better. I submitted a professional picture for my Miss Photogenic entry, and casually surveyed the other entries. I was certain I would grab that coveted rhinestone crown.
On the second day the real competition began. Later, as a judge, I discovered that though the pageant would last a further day, officials had made their decision on the second day, and it was this next 18 hours that really mattered. Interviews, more rehearsals and then stage presentations filled every minute with activity and changes of clothes. We woke early and went to bed late.
We were Barbies on parade, with plastic façades and unnatural silhouettes. Our game faces on, our teeth smeared with Vaseline, and our hair glued as we sauntered and turned for an eternal minute as the judges examined our stances and strides in the ‘Poise and Appearance’ portion of the pageant.
That evening, 1,000 friends and families of the 200 contestants crammed into the ballroom. Pageant sponsors sold tickets at a discounted rate the first night, but it churned into a money-making event for the actual public production the following evening.
The announcer called my name, and I felt the electric buzz of the crowd. Turn-smile-slide, turn-smile-slide, turn-smile-slide. I performed the rehearsed moves of the game until the final rotation of the routine when I stood facing the long runway that jutted out into the audience. I stopped in the practiced place.
In moments like these, it feels as if someone turns on the cinema slow-motion effect. I turned to set off again to finish the performance. But something was amiss. All at once, 1,000 gasps filled the ballroom, and I realised that one of my emaciated heels had wedged itself into a crack in the stage. I fell, caught in mid-air only by my hands that lunged forward as gravity grappled me to the ground.
My pride followed, falling . . . falling . . . falling. Knees on the laminate floor, dress sideways and hair in one piece over my face, I realised that I had lost my poise, my appearance, and my chance of winning. All eyes were on me, a fraught animal caught in the headlights. I needed to recover but wanted to run away, so I yanked the heel out of the crack, shifted that stupid Mermaid-like dress back to its proper place, flipped my cement hair back into a suitable coif, and scurried off to find the dignity I had left out on the floor.
I don’t know how I managed to hold it together as I took the longest walk of my life to the auditorium exit. I had tasted the pride that comes just before the fall, but didn’t know a fall could be so awful.
I cried myself to sleep that night, inconsolable. The much-needed purging commenced, as I shed my pretension and my tears. At puffy-eyed dawn, I decided to not to think more highly of myself than I ought. Though I have often, over the years, come to that crossroads again, no journey has felt as significant, or public, as that first one.
Certain I would not win, and slightly grieved that my arrogance had thwarted what few friendships I could have gained, I tried to enjoy the last day. During the show’s finale, officials handed out multiple awards, and I acquired the consolation prize of Miss Photogenic. Staring out onto the lonely Texas highways on the car ride home, I felt I had gained something more than a cheap metal trophy. I had begun to learn that the world did not revolve around me.
Subscribe and get future blog posts emailed to you directly.