Teenage Dream: Life on the Pageant Circuit

August 9, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 12 min read


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So one time you enter this beauty pageant. It seems like a good idea at the time, and hey, why not? Then you get third place and have to spend the year being a princess, travelling around doing parades and shows in this royal-blue off-the-shoulder gown and a purple cloak with fake fur trim, and this crown.

“You” is me. It’s from a short story I wrote about it a few years afterwards. I was 15 when I took my short, cold dip into pageant life, and I can’t shake that naive voice. I slide into it when I talk about that time, which isn’t often (I never published the story). A fog descends, not just at the thought that it was me swanning around western North America in a rhinestone tiara. Like a lot of smalltown girls, I gave a good impression of agreeable calm — like a lake. When I think of myself and my friends then, I see us holding still in spite of all the usual teen infernos, as if just about to be photographed.

The Lady of the Lake is a young woman who has a personal presence that leaves a favourable and lasting impression. She has the integrity to meet anyone in an honest and genuine manner, the self assurance and judgement to converse intelligently, the finesse to meet dignitaries in any social setting, the natural warmth and grace of a young lady, as well as the intelligence, and excellent public speaking skills. Combined with the fact that she has an awareness of herself as an individual, and you have the young woman who is the Ambassador of Kelowna.

This is from the curiously antique-sounding pageant website. Or maybe not so curious, given that the competition began in the 1930s, when my British Columbia city was hauling itself up from its one-horse-town roots. It hit its stride in the 1950s, when the winner’s every move was reported breathlessly in the news. “Lady of the Lake” is Miss Kelowna’s alternate title, straight out of King Arthur, wherein the Lake spits out Excalibur and the Lady is Lancelot’s foster mom. Kelowna has a lake of its own, and its parade float is covered in blue tinsel to approximate it. The real lake is narrow and very deep, and home to more than one lost corpse. I used to swim down as far as I could off my grandmother’s wharf with one of those disposable underwater cameras, trying to photograph bones or ghosts.

Photographs eat your soul, right? (We all talked like that, in questions.) But that’s what I think about when I think about that time: being looked at. This was the early 1990s, pre-cellphones, pre-Instagram, but in training the pageant candidates developed an alertness for cameras, like animals for danger, or for food. We learned how to wave (one from the elbow, two from the wrist). How to eat soup (dip the spoon away from you, it looks less greedy). How to sit down (edge of the chair, legs angled to one side, ankles uncrossed). How to close a door (behind you, without turning around to look). How to exit a car without displaying your unmentionables (press your legs together and swing them out first). What unmentionables to buy for beneath evening gowns and suits (“Cinnamon” was an approved shade for nylons. So was “Nude”). How to pose: three-quarter turns, feet in third ballet position, arms at sides, chins slightly down. Look up at the lens from under your eyelashes.

I loved it. This was stuff I would never have learned anywhere else; my parents were bookish and kept to themselves. The ladies who ran it, the 30-ish Trainer and the 60-ish Director of Royalty, insisted this was not a beauty pageant, but they took femininity seriously. They looked the part, never without jewelry and full hair and makeup. Here was arcane knowledge: This is how it’s done. I remember going to the drugstore for their recommended French-manicure polish and touching a bottle of Witchcraft brand on the shelf. That’s how it all felt, occult. Initiation. Ritual. Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts, watered down for middle-class Canadian girls.

Men start things for me. Two of them, friendly and middle-aged, from a local service club, get my name from school, and one evening they come to my house to meet me and my parents and ask if I will be their sponsored candidate for 1991-92. They sit in the living room and politely accept cheese and crackers and ice water. The glasses sweat as the men chat with my dad about ski lifts and construction. My mother keeps out of it. My younger siblings lurk in my view at the top of the basement stairs, narrowing their eyes identically when the conversation turns to me. Why you?

I sit next to the fireplace, keeping my back straight and ignoring them. I’m flattered to be asked, persuaded easily, as I am into most things. The men are full of good cheer. The club buys me a dress. I pick blue velvet. The club’s name goes on the white satin banner I have to wear over it.

A couple of my more academic or proto-feminist friends are dumbfounded by my decision. But Why not is a minor refrain with me, and I’m used to pleasing adults. I usually choose Truth in Truth or Dare, so I can lie pleasantly if necessary and escape. This candidacy feels like a dare, and I take it. It plays into my inner perversity, doing something that already feels bizarre and out of time.

coverI have long hair, I like makeup. I play piano and flute, I get good grades. I look at myself in the mirror frequently. A bloodier part of me, the part that pours out gothic tales in a flowery journal and occasionally startles the English teacher, knows to stay in its kennel. But it’s easy enough to move between selves. I want to see me as you see me. Joyce Carol Oates makes this a refrain in Blonde, her psychological portrait of Marilyn Monroe. But I think it goes beyond that.How thick a shell can I build, so you can’t see me at all?

The competition takes months. There are nine candidates, all sponsored by local shops and clubs and societies. I’m the youngest, the oldest is 20, the upper age cutoff. Two girls are Asian, the rest white. Most of us have biggish 1991 hair. There is much friendliness, sisterliness, at training nights and the local events we are sent to. We wear matching boxy suits and white heels. We hear over and over in speech practice about respective career plans (teaching, beauty therapy, “a singer in Japan,” the law) and causes (children, mostly). Some of the girls are deeply earnest about all of it, with stage-mothers bustling in their wake. If you win this, you go on to more pageants, ideally to Miss Universe. Win that and then what? Then you win.

No one is mean. There’s a Miss Congeniality trophy at stake.

But first blood outs itself at the talent competition. Our hackles shift as we side-eye each other’s outfits and abilities. What can you do? For me, this question goes two ways: what is your talent, and what are you supposed to do about it? One of the more outspoken girls talks petulantly about a candidate from another year who played a video of herself synchronized-swimming while she did ballet live, in a costume she’d made herself, also singing at the end. The sense of injustice is visceral. Showing off is not what you do with your talents. But what do you do, then, if you have to perform them in public?

This part is held one evening at the Centennial Hall in the middle of the sports fields, with its chalk-dust smell and its raised curtainless stage. A girl puts on a felt beret and shows off her art. Another performs a liturgical dance in a white robe. There are a couple of jazz routines, a dramatic monologue in a fetus’s voice. I play the flute to a fuzzy tape-recording of myself playing the piano. The Trainer stops me backstage and powders more blush on my cheeks and forehead. More smell of dust. I get out there and do reasonably. In spite of nerves and hissing worries about being showoffs, we’re all enjoying being looked at onstage. Doing something that merits being looked at. We know this is what we’re here for.

The audience is gravely favorable. A full house, half-visible in the dark, but no cheers, just long gentle applause for everyone. One of the girls is tearful afterwards. She sniffles, “I want to do it again.” I’m not sure whether she means she wants to do her song better, or just to be on stage again. She’s inconsolable. We circle her, pat her.

As it turns out, my flute and piano and I win this part. Standing alone on the stage again, I feel I had nothing to do with it. I’m always surprised by things that happen to me. And I’m tired. The training nights are getting longer and more frequent, as are the weekend charity events.

School ends, and we do a summer fashion show for a full house. The pageant is approaching like an express. We inhabit our bodies more and more uneasily, though we go over and over walks and turns for the evening gown component, and the Phantom of the Opera jazz-dance routine we’re all in. There’s a judges’ question we each have to answer at the end of the big night, and the practice answers get sharper, and at the same time less sincere. No one says she doesn’t want a career or a cause, but a flabbiness has struck the responses. Yeah whatever, I want to be a teacher, I guess. Will we ever need careers? Aren’t we enough, doing this? Isn’t this what we’re here for?

Then it’s late August and the valley is soaked in heat. I’ve been avoiding tan lines all summer because of my strapless blue velvet. And it’s time. On pageant day, I get my hair done in long spirals, though it’s already curly. I take a bubble bath and it sags. My mum has caught a whiff of the stage mothers by now and starts to fuss around my head, but I tell her to leave it, and I get myself into my blue velvet dress and white banner. My heart is thudding like an old machine. When I arrive at the hotel hours early to get ready for the night, the candidate trainer clacks her tongue and attacks me with bobby pins. “They need to see your face,” she tells me, looking hard into my eyes and puffing my hair above my forehead. I close them against the hairspray bomb until she’s pleased with her work. She touches my cheek softly, an uncharacteristic gesture, checking me like a grocery store fruit.

The hotel is older, built to look modern in 1961, and still the most formal in town. The water in the central courtyard’s outdoor pool shifts and glitters. People in swimsuits watch from their lounge chairs as we dart back and forth between dressing and rehearsal areas. A woman is lying facedown, her white bikini top undone, the man beside her massaging her tanned back in slow circles. In a sudden sweat I thank God there is no swimsuit competition; I don’t think I’ve considered that possibility until this moment, and it’s nauseating. It’s not the abrupt hint of sex that scares me. Teenage pageants are resoundingly asexual, or at least the outer rind of them is, in spite of being all about bubbling femininity and strapless dresses, in spite of male-gaze theory. Those father-daughter Purity Balls are cousins. Girls doing what they ought to do, while everyone waltzes around the fact that they’re getting old enough to do what they want to do.

I stare at the half-naked woman on the lounge chair. It hasn’t occurred to me that people might look at us that way, though one of my indignant friends told me that prostitution and pornography are exact equals to what I’m doing. But those analogies are too easy. They don’t take into account the hiding in plain sight. And this woman isn’t hiding. She couldn’t care less who looks at her. The nauseating part is that I never think things through. I see that now. I don’t want to be stared at, but here I am, asking for just that.

The ballroom begins in darkness. The emcee is a slow-voiced AM radio host. The judges are local celebrities, two women and the token man. We know them by now, we’ve seen them watching us. And we know each other, we watch one another more closely. These are all smart girls, and tonight, waiting to go on, I see the way they use or screen their smartness. One is grieving her mother’s recent death, hoping to make her proud, but she rarely brings up this fact, though others might have. Her eyes swim with tears now. One, who has little chance, stands with military straightness in the knowledge that her candidacy has given her family undreamed-of pride. A couple inhabit their bodies with ease and proficiency, in tighter gowns than the rest of us, shifting their breasts in their bodices, posing better. They look as if they were another species, bred to this.

We do everything we’ve trained for. The judges’ surprise questions come towards the end. They ask me whether young people today should have goals and I’m momentarily flummoxed. Is the question stupid? Is it deeper than I’m seeing? Do they want us to have goals? Should I say No, they should not?

I don’t argue. I come up with something about physics, and my struggles with it, that somehow relates. The two in the tight gowns are asked about whether men and women are different (yes, but equal! Like hands!), and about heroes (people with cancer!). One of them tells me later that “Hitler” was the first word that popped into her head, but her big hazel eyes never showed a fleck of obscenity. She is very good. The purple cloak she ends up with suits her.

She wins, after last year’s Princess revenges herself on the Queen with a farewell speech about how she ate too much Mexican food on a trip to Washington. The other tight-gown girl is second. I am third, and dazed, and thinking Now what. The tiara is now what. Its combs gnaw at my scalp as I’m crowned, and the three of us stand on the low stage doing our wave to the long, packed room. Some of my friends and family are there, grinning in amusement or bemusement. As we walk off, escorted by scarlet-coated RCMP officers, Lionel Ritchie’s “Ballerina Girl” plays loudly.

The Director of Royalty takes us aside. She tells us we’re now living in a goldfish bowl, and all our movements will be scrutinized by the public. Her lined face is plentifully made up. Her heavy earrings tremble as she talks. She’s been running this show for years, she lives for this. She radiates joy. It hits me in the chest, like heartburn.

The watching goes on. The Director and her husband chaperone us during all our royal duties. He drives quietly, doing his male part. We three new royals are crammed together in the backseat of their compact Chevrolet, listening to Abba tapes or to the Director talk about World War II and why she will never buy a Japanese car or wait in line for a restaurant. It’s not something we do. We travel to parades and other pageants around BC and Alberta and Washington State. It’s another planet, all of it. We model wedding dresses and sportswear. We meet other royalty and exchange city pins. We meet Superman, Christopher Reeve, at the Calgary Stampede, a few years before he falls and is paralyzed. In our matching gowns and cloaks, or matching suits, or matching snowsuits, and always in crowns, we ride the City of Kelowna float with its blue tinsel. Floats lumber, parades are long. The driver, a realtor, is hidden underneath with the controls. I can just see the back of his head from my place left of Ogopogo, our resident lake monster, staring bland and bug-eyed from the top. I wave until my shoulder shakes, I smile until my jaw trembles and migraine stabs my left temple.

The Queen is sometimes handed solo gas-station roses in plastic tubes, or asked for autographs. I’m impressed by her easy handling of these peripheral guys, these dumb spider mates. She and the First Princess get along splendidly. They don’t wear unmentionables under their nylons, avoiding panty lines altogether. They’re not shy about showing me how this works. They idly discuss whether posing for Playboy one day would be a good idea.They’ve already staked their claims on womanhood, and they don’t know what to make of me. The Queen tells me, “You’re so innocent.” I’m not sure if she’s exasperated or curious. I use my innocence as a shield, pretending not to understand what they talk about half the time, though I’m always listening. They snap my bra, do my hair, hide my textbooks, tease me about sex, paint my nails, lend me earrings, rub my neck, make me share a bed with one of them everywhere we go. The rooms are always doubles. The motels are always functional. In small bathrooms, I take long showers to be alone for a while.

At many events, we’re paired up with local high-school boys as escorts. I find this humiliating and hilarious, as most of the boys seem to. One of them tells me he’s doing it for a PE credit. We usually dance one or two dances and then I try to bow out and sit on the sidelines, tiara-ed and smiling gamely. One night I end up with a boy I’d known in primary school. We haven’t seen each other in years. We leave the gym for air and stand around looking at the stars and laughing. Our reunion makes me bizarrely joyful, as though my actual life is still tethered to me. As though I have a life. I feel it then, shifting around in my chest under my strapless bra.

I remember a lot of disconnected details like this. The stars, the helpless laughing, the welts from control-top underwear, the pads in the balls of high-heeled shoes to ease pain. At one parade, a little girl with brown braids and a purple shirt asked me if I was a real princess. She was suspicious. I liked kids, I babysat all the time, but I curtly told her no. I’m not real.

coverI found the blue velvet dress in the garage a while ago. It smells, but I tried it on anyway. It just fits (it has a full skirt). But teenage me still doesn’t seem to have quite existed in this world. Stacy Schiff’s recent book about Salem in 1692 makes clear that the original accusers at the infamous witch trials were very much adolescent: The neighbor made me do this. I don’t like her. She pinched me. I’m tired all the time. The men and the hints of sex only entered the story later: She bewitched me. She made me think of her constantly. Her form came to my room at night. The way things slide away from you. You start them, then they escalate, they’re not in your control. You can only watch.

We looked a little witchy in the early ‘nineties, given free rein. Black dresses and tights, dried-blood lipstick. I got my driver’s license during the pageant year. I passed without having to parallel park; the examiner and I had the same name, so he let me off the hook, saying it was a wonderful coincidence. After being introduced to the mayor with the other candidates that night, I got to take the family Honda out by myself for the first time. I was still in my boxy suit and nylons, my white heels thrown into the passenger seat so they wouldn’t scuff. I drove everywhere, aimlessly, for hours. It occurs to me now that what I felt like was one of those teen witches flying off on a broomstick through the night over Puritan New England. Surveilled, questioned, harnessed by someone else’s power, but turning it around. Watch me now.

Image: Wikipedia

is the author of All True Not a Lie in It (Knopf Canada 2015, Ecco 2016), winner of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and listed for the Giller Prize. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Oxford, East Anglia, and the University of British Columbia. She lives in Kelowna, BC, with her family.