It didn’t matter that the outcome was predictable, that Beth Hogan would invariably be crowned Miss America. We competed fiercely, as if we expected to win. A year earlier, when we were in fifth grade, we held séances, but now we staged beauty pageants as if our lives depended on it, as many as four or five a night.
We’d rearrange the furniture in our hostess’s living room to create a stage, leaving three chairs against the wall so that the judges would have a place to sit, frowning, taking points off if you ended your Talent with a clumsy round-off or had a stuck-up expression on your face during Evening Gown. Contestants skittered around the dining-room holding area, chewing off their Dr. Pepper–flavored Bonne Bell Lip Smackers and confiding, “You guys, I feel like I’m gonna barf.” It was fun in the way that being cranked up a roller coaster’s first hill is fun, especially if you don’t entirely love roller coasters.
I loved judging, loved awarding seven points out of a possible 10. When Darlene Burkee paraded in front of me in a bikini improvised from a dish towel and a couple of chiffon scarves, I gave her a five. It would have been unfair to the others had I scored her higher than she deserved, just because she hadn’t lost her baby fat, wore a patch over her weak left eye, and was ostensibly one of my closest friends. Not that she could be counted on to show me any mercy when the roles were reversed, as they were by necessity every three rounds or so.
Perhaps because of this judicial harshness, the competitors in any given pageant were bonded in the same spirit of camaraderie that allegedly exists in the higher-stakes real thing. Our limited personnel meant we had to make do without commentators and Bert Parks, but we contestants had each other’s backs, as the recently, perennially crowned Beth Hogan provided beauty tips, encouragement, and gentle critiques to the fourth-runner-up-to-be, and vice versa. We swabbed pale-blue shadow, purloined from teenage sisters, up to each other’s eyebrows and rearranged one another’s hair into all manner of glamorous, off-kilter ponytails. Naturally, everyone had brought a dozen or so “costume” pieces from home, but these were treated as a common wardrobe, so that each contestant was given at least one chance to make an impression in Stacy Bernstein’s mother’s four-inch, metallic-gold heels. Casey Coleman swaddled her competitors into the dramatic, bunchy-rumped bathing-suit design she alone knew how to twist from a single twin bedsheet.
My best Talent ever owed much to Susan Teagarten’s marvelous suggestion, in the five-minute interval between rehearsal and performance, that every time Barry Manilow sang the word “daybreak” I should swish my hands up and out in a manner reminiscent of the sunrise. Later, she manned the record player for me and I for her. If the hostess had a piano or if Mandy Grohl had remembered to bring her flute, the record player might be given a brief reprieve, but for the most part Talent was shorthand for a floor routine choreographed to one of Barry’s greatest hits.
And, just like in a real pageant, the contestants squeezed each other’s hands while awaiting the judges’ final tally, even though we all knew that the outcome was as predictable as Casey Coleman eventually storming off in tears and the hostess’s mother shouting down the stairs that she’d call our parents to come get us if we didn’t pipe down and get some sleep.