I’m posting this from Park City, Utah, where I’ve been consumed with an annual celebrity-studded tradition. Rife with drama, it’s one in which an unknown aspirant with brave creative goals stands poised not only to fulfill a lifelong dream, but to be catapulted onto the national – and perhaps even the world -- stage.
The Sundance Film Festival? Yeah, that, too. But I’m thinking of the Miss America pageant, which airs this Saturday night.
Like most little girls in the 70s, I dutifully watched the pageant each year, sighing with wide-eyed admiration at the contestants, with their hot-rolled feathered hair and powder-blue eye shadow. Armed with sheets of looseleaf paper, I sat in my parents’ bedroom and took notes. I cheered for the prettiest Miss Nebraskas and Iowas, and was aghast when the judges selected a Miss Texas with an unforgivable dress or a Miss Kentucky of only dubious talent.
The contestants – coltish baton twirlers who’d grown up on farms in Wisconsin and earnest, freckle-faced minister’s daughters from North Dakota – were nothing like anyone I knew in my insular, homogenous Long Island home town, peopled, as it was, with Marci Goldbergs and Shari Kopelowitzes. I was positively mesmerized by the unironic slice of Americana the pageant showed me.
But like an awkward teenager who still clings to a love of hopscotch or jacks, my affection for the pageant lingered long past the point at which most of my peers had let go and moved on. Throughout my 20s, I continued to watch alone, albeit with an increasingly sardonic eye for the pageant’s absurdities and anachronisms. Chief among them, of course, was the Miss America Organization’s steadfast insistence that the pageant's primary purpose was to promote scholarship. I won my fair share of college scholarships. Oddly, not one of them required my wearing a bathing suit and heels or playing Feelings on the marimbas.
The turning point in my pageant viewing experience came on September 22, 1996. I was at home in my Dupont Circle apartment reading the Washington Post when a story in the Outlook section jumped out at me.
It was a column by Amy Argetsinger, a college acquaintance who I had heard was working for the paper as a Metro reporter. I had known Amy since our freshman year, when we lived a floor apart. We had many friends in common, but we had never been particularly close.
Until that day.
Because what Amy did in that fateful column was confess to a love of...The Miss America pageant.
"Amy Argetsinger...likes Miss America?" I remember thinking in amazement. It was liberating to find another kindred soul. Another educated woman who would never in a million years be in a beauty pageant, but just couldn't resist getting wrapped up in the delicious cheeseball spectacle that is Miss America.
As Amy wrote at the time:
"I know what some of you are going to say: The Miss America Pageant objectifies women. To which I respond: Who cares? These are not normal women. They're curious specimens of crisp professionalism and rehearsed charm and incandescent optimism, utterly unlike myself and most people of my acquaintance. They are exotic creatures, like thoroughbreds or chess prodigies or prize tomatoes, who have willingly subjected themselves to their years-long regimens of training and discipline. Thus, it is perfectly appropriate -- not to mention hugely entertaining -- to compare and judge them against others of their species."I immediately called Amy at the Post and told her how much I loved her piece. We met for lunch. And became fast friends. In the intervening 14 years, we've even managed to even make it to the pageant four times, three times in Atlantic City and once in its new home in Las Vegas. (I was 12 weeks pregnant that time. For the record, morning sickness and Vegas are an acutely bad match.) A highlight? Our 2003 morning-after breakfast with my friend Fletcher Foster, a country music industry executive who had actually been one of the judges the previous night. We tried not to be too hard on Fletcher for his part in having given the crown to that ho-hum Miss Florida in the unfortunate yellow dress over our girl, Harvard-educated spunkmeister Miss Virginia, but loved getting the inside dish. (Oh, and that Amy has done alright by herself, by the way. She's now one of the paper's Reliable Source columnists. She just broke a story about a little couple named Salahi? Perhaps you've heard of them?)
Amy and I, along with a solid crew of annual regulars, have turned pageant watching into our very own version of Fantasy Football. Each year, we peruse the field, with its legions of graduates of academic powerhouses like Christopher Newport University, and its countless 21 year old contenders who look exactly like middle-aged local news anchorwomen. Our record for sizing up the competition and spotting comers is eerily impressive.
But like fans of a perpetual losing team, each year my girls and I gear up for another disappointment. We always pin our hopes on the rare real young woman – one with talent that would actually impress outside the pageant stage, or one who seems genuinely bright, not just what passes for smart in the pageant universe -- and once again wonder if this is her year to rise above the pack of "pageant patties." It never is.
In 2006, by then the mother of a young son, I invited some newcomers – most of them friends made on the mom circuit -- to watch the pageant, introducing a whole new legion of born-again fans. I still can hear my friend Natalie, upon watching the totally underwhelming Miss Oklahama take the crown from our favorite. “How do you DO this every year?” she asked with faux disgust.
The fact is that I really am at the Sundance Film Festival right now, supporting my brother as he promotes his film, 3 Backyards. So I haven't even had time yet to do my standard due diligence and make my Top Ten predictions. I hope Amy will understand. Regardless, we'll be watching Saturday night, cosmos in hand, doing our duty as Americans to support the nation's largest scholarship organization for women. Won't you do the same?