I’m living proof that mail-in contests are legitimate—sort of. When I was 10, my mother mailed a Po-laroid photo of me to the Little Miss United States Pageant. For a minimal registration fee and willing-ness to pay all contest expenses to Lynchburg, Va., the apparent epicenter of Little Miss pageants, I could be a contender. Four weeks later, Mom pulled a letter out of the mailbox and squealed all the way back to the house. Her baby girl was Little Miss Florida.
Just like that.
But Mom’s vicarious dreams for a future Phyllis George were dashed at the Virginia state line. I was no match for the other contestants. These girls were professionals. Miss Mississippi wore makeup and a big hoop skirt custom designed in New York City. Mom sewed my evening wear of white cotton fabric left over from an Easter tablecloth, adding sequined strawberry appliqués to the gown. I thought citrus was the official Florida fruit, but didn’t want to upset Mom who was busy hot-gluing a strawberry to my hair barrette.
It was no surprise that Miss Mississippi won the coveted crown. I placed fourth runner-up and got a $100 savings bond. But Mama was happy. Her baby girl was fourth in the nation!
I swore off pageants until Kelly, my best friend in high school, entered us both in the Miss God and Country Day pageant, the Fourth of July contest sponsored by the Ocala Jaycees. Her boss at a local jewelry store was the pageant coordinator and badly in need of contestants. Kelly felt pres-sured to help. I wasn’t so sure.
The day of the pageant arrived. Parading on stage in front of familiar faces in a bathing suit at the Ocala City Auditorium hadn’t been on my list of things to do that summer. Even worse, each of us had to answer a current events question because all serious beauty pageants require contestants to be articulate about God, country, and nuclear proliferation while wearing a smokin’ hot one-piece. Mom, still pining for her daughter’s elusive crown, had found a silky, brown swimsuit on sale that was two sizes too big for me, especially, er, up top. She said brown was a winning color.
I looked like a big, flat Hershey’s bar.
Kelly was more stylish, though shaking like a leaf. She asked to borrow my lip gloss. I was about to go on stage, so I told her to grab it from my purse.
That’s when it happened.
A shrill came from behind the curtains. The other contestants and I ran to Kelly who was crying. She had mistakenly grabbed my black liquid eye liner, not the gloss. She tried furiously to rub it off, instead smearing it all over her face, looking like Alice Cooper in a swimsuit. The emcee pulled us both on stage. I’m not sure anyone heard Kelly’s thoughtful answer about the economy. It’s not every day you see a young woman in a bathing suit with a five o’clock shadow. Kelly handled the situation like a pro, looking straight ahead at the audience—smeared chin up—with nary a word of how May-belline should more clearly label its beauty products.
Maybe it was pity for Kelly or sympathy for my ill-fitting swimsuit. Kelly and I came in first-runner-up and winner, respectively. The newspaper photo that ran the next day captured the incredulous look on both of our faces. But the real look of amazement was that of my mother’s. Her baby girl had come a very long way from Lynchburg.
Just like that.
Amy Mangan is an
associate editor for Ocala Style
and its special publications.
Her writing can be found