Beautiful women, ugly decisions
September 26, 2006
My palms are sweating.It’s 10:15 on Saturday morning and I’m sitting inside a cramped math classroom at Thompson Valley High School in tiny Loveland, the forgettable northern Colorado town that often gets confused with the ski area of the same name. Aside from three dry-erase boards filled with formulas from Friday’s classes, nearly every inch of wall space is covered with pictures of golden retrievers (this particular teacher must love them). And there’s that smell. Every high school I’ve ever been in has it – that indistinguishable combination of floor wax, eraser dust, generic, industrial-strength cleaner and stale, trapped air.This could be any high school classroom in any midsized town in America. Eight years ago, I might have been sitting here for throwing a water balloon off the senior balcony or skipping first-period French.But detention this is not.Outside in the hall, 65 of the most attractive young women in Colorado (ages 18-26) are lined up waiting to talk to me. Later, I’ll have a front-row seat in the school’s packed auditorium while each woman parades around onstage in a swimsuit, then an expensive evening gown. From all those women, I’m expected to pick one – just one – who I think should represent my home state.The thought of all of this is making me noticeably nervous. My neck is warm, and I feel the urge to roll up the sleeves on my pressed Oxford shirt. Breathe. Just breathe. The two people sitting next to me – an excitable, successful hairdresser from Denver and an elegant-looking mother of two, also from Denver – don’t seem to find any of this at all strange. They’re chatting like they’re in the salon together, just two old friends catching up since the last time they saw each other – which, I overhear, was at another pageant.
The mother, I learn, was the runner-up at the last Mrs. Colorado pageant and has won more than 150 beauty titles in 27 years of competing. The hairdresser has done hair for six of the last seven winners of the Mrs. Colorado pageant, including the current Mrs. Colorado, who is sitting across the room at another table.Me, I’m just the sports editor from Aspen. I live for competition, and I make a living writing about it; although now that I’m here in Loveland, only minutes away from meeting beautiful contestant No. 1, I’m questioning my credentials.I know nothing about pageants. Check that. The only connection I have to pageants, other than having recently taken in “Little Miss Sunshine,” is a short fling with a former state beauty queen while I was in college. But she never spoke of her days wearing a tiara and I don’t think I ever saw her in a swimsuit (just her birthday suit). Inhale. Exhale.”Don’t be nervous,” Christina, my fellow judge tells me, noticing that I’m squirming like a little kid in his car seat. “Just ask questions like you’re interviewing this girl for a job. I’ll start with the same question I always ask all the girls, and then he’ll ask a question and then you can ask one.””Sure,” I say, half-smiling, trying to come up with something – anything – as the first two contestants file through the door. I wipe my hands on my slacks, then raise my right one to greet the gorgeous woman standing in front of me.
There’s a certain rule that all journalists should abide by when they step into a realm they no absolutely nothing about. And that is to shut up, listen and observe.Of course, most don’t. It’s instinctive to know as much about everything as possible, to have a definitive opinion on a particular subject even when you have no firsthand experience with it. Most journalists can’t stand not to be know-it-alls. Sometimes it’s a detriment to fair reporting.When I was assigned to cover my first rodeo, I didn’t listen to the people who tried to persuade me that rodeos were a freak show for rednecks who liked to torture animals. Instead, I just showed up and went straight back to the chutes to watch the cowboys up close and talk with them. From that experience, I had a much clearer understanding of all the things that I read afterward, both from rodeo critics and rodeo enthusiasts.When I was asked to be a judge for the Miss Colorado USA pageant, I took a similar approach. Some people believe that beauty pageants in this day and age are anachronisms. Others are indifferent, while others think they have merit.Me, I’d never really thought about it until I was asked to be a pageant judge. Before I left for Loveland, however, I didn’t scour through blogs that vilify pageants, nor did I browse the myriad websites out there that praise them.I simply read the judge’s handbook that was sent to me via e-mail, then left town with an open mind.
I learn more about pageantry – or, at least the Miss Colorado USA pageant – on that first day of competition than I could have ever learned from a pageant-movie binge or an afternoon sifting through websites.First, to pick Miss Colorado USA, I have to interview her. And that means getting to know every single woman who paid the $895 entry fee.What kind of young woman desires to be Miss Colorado USA? Actually, it’s not an easy answer. As a whole, the group is arguably more diverse than any other I’ve ever encountered in a competition.There are women from teensy dots on the map like Divide, La Junta and Paonia, while others come from the suburbs of Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder and Fort Collins. Among the 65, there are standout high school and college athletes, successful business women, honor-roll students, accomplished artists and musicians, and aspiring models and actresses. A number of the women are well-traveled, and a few have lived outside the United States for a considerable amount of time. One young woman tells me her favorite place in the world is a small town in Colombia; another goes on about a recent trip to Japan.If you’re waiting for the punch line, just keep waiting. In that tiny classroom I keep looking for a walking, talking cliché to step through the door, only to keep being introduced to smart, well-spoken and uniquely driven young women.For a large number of them, this is their first pageant. Their motives for entering vary, but for the most part, each sees the competition as a huge opportunity to get to where they want to go in life. No one, it seems, signed up looking for me to justify to them that they are attractive.”It’s a golden ticket,” DJ, the hairdresser tells me during a lunch break. “If you win, it opens so many doors for you.”I’d heard the same thing earlier in the morning during a judges’ briefing from our competition director, Craig. He told me that before she won a landmark Oscar for best actress, Halle Barry was a former Miss Ohio. And before she became one of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” Eva Mendes was a former Miss Texas contestant.The woman whom five other judges and I select to be Miss Colorado USA will win a prize package worth more than $9,000, which includes, among other things, a cash allowance for clothes, a new evening gown for the national competition, complimentary dental work, photography sessions, jewelry and fitness training.More important, the winner gets the chance to compete for the title of Miss USA on live TV.If you win that crown, you get to share a fully furnished, 800-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment in one of the Trump Towers in Manhattan with Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe.You also get to travel the country raising funds for your pageant’s official cause.Since Donald Trump bought the Miss Universe Organization in 1997, he has applied his own personal coat of Trumpalisciousness to all three pageants (as if that’s a big shocker). “The Donald” knows what the American people want to see when they are watching a beauty pageant on TV.They don’t want corny talent competitions, or a pageant masquerading as a quiz bowl. They just want beautiful, charismatic women onstage being judged on how well they communicate and how attractive they look in a swimsuit and an evening gown.Earn the right to vie for a title in one of Trump’s pageants, and you’ll find yourself on NBC in prime time turning for a panel of celebrity judges.Meanwhile, if you earn the right to compete in the sinking ship that is the Miss America pageant, you’ll find yourself buried in the TV listings, singing or dancing in front of the cameras on Country Music Television.
But enough about the genius of the “The Donald.” What about the women?I’ll say this: Judging a beauty pageant isn’t easy.Of course there is judging criteria, but this isn’t exactly like judging women’s snowboard halfpipe. How does one pick one gorgeous woman from a room full of them? Is there a bona fide recipe for beauty?”You’re looking for the one who when she walks into a room, every guy stares at her, and every girl wants to be her,” Craig says in one of our briefings. OK, sounds easy enough, but what if there are five of those women onstage? And what if each one of them has a particular trait that is better than the woman standing next to her? One woman might have a gorgeous face, but may not look as good in a swimsuit. Or one woman’s self-confidence might shine all the way to the back of the auditorium, but she doesn’t have the grace of the next woman. Even worse, some women look better in person onstage than they do on the screens next to the stage while under the eye of a camera lens, and vice versa.I know what you’re thinking: What a rough life, pal. Must have been agony looking at beautiful women for two days straight. Complete and utter torture.But seriously, I didn’t joke around with the assignment. When you’re about to change a young woman’s life with your decision-making, you don’t just go about picking that woman arbitrarily – even when you’re judging things like body tone, body language and, ahem, proportion.”There’s probably three or four girls at this pageant, in my opinion, who are ready for the national pageant,” Craig adds in another judges’ briefing. “Your job is to find me that one girl. She’s got to be the one who can do the best at the national pageant. If you guys pick the next Miss USA, she’ll be the first ever from the state of Colorado.”Great, Craig, way to up the pressure. Way to make me think that I could be responsible for making history, or blowing it.By the time we reach Sunday afternoon, my secret ballots from the previous evening have helped eliminate 50 women from the competition. After the semifinal rounds of the swimsuit and evening gown competitions, followed by more voting, there are only five women left.And out of this quintet of stunningly attractive young women, I am supposed to pick one woman – the one – who most deserves the crown of Miss Colorado USA 2007.Again, I start to feel anxious. Behind me are nearly 1,000 people – family members, friends and significant others – who have all traveled considerable distances and spent their good money to watch one of their loved ones compete. They are deeply invested in the competition, and all of them undoubtedly have a personal opinion about whom they think should wear the crown.What if my own opinion doesn’t match theirs? What if the woman I pick doesn’t meet their approval?What if my Miss Colorado USA is someone else’s third or fourth runner-up? I quickly remember where I parked my car outside, just in case I need to make a break for it after the crown has been handed out.
The whole experience of being a beauty pageant judge was, to say the least, unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I found it interesting, challenging and exciting. There, I said it, I got excited about judging women in evening gowns.I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but for two days I was a complete pageant junkie. I learned from my fellow judges – all pageant veterans – and listened as they recounted stories from previous pageants. At first, I thought the other judges were a little obsessed, and lacked perspective, but after a few hours I was completely uninterested in anything other than finding Miss Colorado USA. I even started talking pageant-speak.Example: So with evening gown, it’s not so much the dress as much as how good she personally looks in the dress, right? If it’s a really great dress, but she doesn’t look good in it, then we have to consider that, too, right? My dad even had to call to remind me that the Buffs almost knocked off Georgia on Saturday while I was watching women twirl around onstage in swimsuits.Oh, yeah, college football.
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Personally, I found nothing degrading in that high school auditorium in Loveland. The only thing I struggled with were the hard, metal chairs they made the judges sit in during the first day of competition. No one was making these women show up to walk onstage in high heels and a bikini in front of me. The pageant exists because there’s a demand for it. These women wanted to compete. And, from my interviews, all of them seemed to be aware that body image wasn’t the be-all and end-all to how far they could go in life. They understood the subjectivity of beauty, and were prepared to accept the decisions handed down by the judges, even if they didn’t like them. When I returned to Aspen, I read some anti-pageants blogs just to see if I was missing something. The pervading rhetoric out there from pageant critics is that these contests objectify and are demeaning to women, and subsequently lower their status in society. One woman argued that beauty pageants were nothing more than dog shows with women in bikinis.Of course, she’s entitled to her opinion.But, wait, isn’t it empowering if a woman chooses to show off her natural beauty because she’s proud of it? Is being beautiful a sin?I don’t know. I’m not a woman. But I will say this: After having met all 65 contestants, I individually respected each woman’s decision to compete. I didn’t at all consider their decisions to be superficial or uninformed.As for picking the new Miss Colorado USA, my role as a judge prohibits me from disclosing anything. The integrity of the competition dictates that the balloting be confidential – as it should be.Throughout the weekend, I wasn’t even allowed to interact with anyone other than my fellow judges while at the high school. I was even escorted to the bathroom and back, which, if anything, felt much more bizarre than judging young women on the muscle tone of their legs.If I can say one thing, it’s that the woman I picked to win was the same woman who was crowned, which lets me know that I wasn’t among the minority with my fellow judges. I have no clue if my vote pushed 21-year-old Keena Bonella of Grand Junction over the top, or if it was a landslide. All I know for certain is this: After the final competition, when all five finalists had to answer a random question in front of the audience, I found my stare continually going back to her. When I looked across that stage full of gorgeous women, she was the one I found to be more beautiful than all of the rest – the prettiest woman, in my opinion, in all of Colorado. Maybe she’s the prettiest one in the country, at least when it comes to beauty pageants. There’s only one way to find out.
For now, it’s back to the real world, back to football and volleyball, then basketball and hockey and skiing and snowboarding. But come April, when the snow is nearly gone, I guarantee you I’ll be tuning in to see how the new Miss Colorado USA does against all the other beautiful women across these 50 states who won their respective state pageants.When she gave me a hug after the pageant, Keena promised me that she would make Colorado proud, and that I wouldn’t regret my decision.Just looking at that unforgettable smile, I’m inclined to believe her.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org