The Sweet Smile of Success
What does it take to transform pleasant young women into beauty queens?
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The annual Miss Texas Scholarship Pageant was held in Fort Worth the second week in June, to select a winner to compete in the 46th Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City the week after Labor Day. This year’s 57 contestants were college students between eighteen and twenty-three years old, each of whom had won a local pageant bearing the name of that town or area, and each of whom had polished a talent act to present for this next-to-last competition.
Through the Miss Texas Pageant, I accompanied Miss Austin, Diane (Dina) Elise Elsik, a nineteen-year-old with golden skin, good cheekbones, and nice manners. Although she had been eligible to enter the Austin pageant because of her enrollment at The University of Texas, her family lived in Seguin, where I visited with them the day before we left for Fort Worth.
Dina’s warm, outgoing mother, the former Isabel Martinez of San Antonio, reminded me at once of Ethel Merman as Rose in Gypsy. Like her, she admitted to being a “stage-struck mother.” She was proud to show me around their large ranch-style home, and to catch me up on Dina’s past. Inside the front door, much like a shrine, was a life-size oil painting of Dina as the Duchess of the DeMolays, in a pure white dress, holding an armful of red roses. In front of her image was a vase of red velvet roses flanked on either side by red candles. We looked at the framed photographs of her as Albert Pike Priory Queen, second runner-up in the Miss South Texas Pageant, and Miss Guadalupe County. After eight years in a Catholic school where Dina wore a uniform and all the boys and girls were “like brothers and sisters,” she entered the public school system, where, as pictures in her high school annual showed, she blossomed more each year: cheerleader, Sophomore Class Favorite, Junior Class Favorite, and, in her senior year, Miss Seguin High School.
Isabel explained that she had started both her daughters early on dance lessons, both ballet and tap; that for the past twelve years she had put on the annual March of Dimes shows and that Dina had danced in every one; that four years ago Dina had auditioned for Toots Johnson, “who was in movies and on Broadway.” She had instructed her younger daughter, Ava, to understudy Dina’s week at the pageant. “What a waste, I told her, if she wouldn’t learn anything from this opportunity.” Of this younger daughter, who was much in evidence, her long hair flying, Isabel said, “She wants to be like her sister, but better, go farther. She really has the competitive instinct.”
Also around for most of the day was Dina’s boyfriend Doak. Dina was very proud of him and his blond good looks and introduced him to me, “He is Mr. All Jock.” He told me that he had been named for Doak Walker, that he had a younger brother named for Kyle Rote, that he played football and baseball for Texas Lutheran College. As he stood with his arm around Dina, he provided her with living proof that one could live up to one’s parents’ hopes.
Dina’s father, Leroy Elsik, and her younger brother, Dutch, were away on a fishing trip for the week to Indianola. Although Leroy had relayed the message that “You can leave my part of the limelight out,” he had told Dina, “I may not be there but I’m behind you all the way.”
Isabel spoke of Leroy—chiropractor, rancher, and real estate developer—as if he were all that a man should be. “He’s as blond as I am dark, and muscular. He’s better looking now at 46 than he was when we got married.” She bragged that Dina had inherited his good Czech bones. Of his close relationship with his son she related that “I had two girls and he really wanted a boy. Dutch came on New Year’s Eve and all day my husband went around saying, ‘I got my boy.’” We admired the large oil portraits that showed him in his white coat in his office, and on horseback at the ranch with his son, the two of them painted to look alike.
Most of Dina’s day was spent getting together the bare minimum of clothing needed for the coming week of rehearsals and competitions: seven long dresses, eight street dresses, two one-piece bathing suits, twelve pairs of shoes, pants outfits, plus “all the accessories and jewelry you have to have.” The contestants’ handbook detailed the clothes required for each event: there would be at least four costume changes a day for all 57 entrants.
Isabel showed me the seven long gowns that Dina would take; all except one—a gift from a bridal shop—had been used in other presentations. Each gown wrapped in its plastic bag had a history to go with it: the princess-line white dress which Dina would use for her gown competition was an exact copy of a Thirties dress and was designed and beaded by her mother; the bright orange chiffon was designed for her by a talented boy “who went to fashion design school in Atlanta and is going to make it big in New York.”
As part of advancing to the state contest, Dina had changed her talent act from a semi-classical ballet to a jazz number done to Barbara Streisand’s recording of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” For this Isabel had fashioned a scanty hot-pink suit, based on a leotard, with a pouf of scarves on the hips to wiggle as Dina danced: “This hot pink is really going to catch the judges’ eyes.”
There were other last minute changes, mostly influenced by word-of-mouth information from the other South Texas contestants, and second-hand stories about what Judy Mallett, the reigning Miss Texas and the carrier of the official gospel, had suggested. One recommendation was the purchase of a fall, bought with the money Dina had earned teaching dancing lessons, to put on top of her own wealth of dark hair; another was adopting the common practice of using padding in her white bathing suit, but this seemed, in Seguin, too deliberate a step to take.
Isabel talked readily about herself. Last year she had taken a course in writing for mass media, which she hoped would be a start in the field of public relations. “For self- improvement if nothing else, and for all the organizations I belong to.” But that came second. “I’m Dina’s mother and now Ava’s mother and even Dutch’s mother. You lose your identity.” She gestured to her dramatic black-and-white pant suit. “I tell her not to let herself go like I have. [If] you don’t watch yourself nobody else will.”
She showed me a picture of herself at Dina’s age: a slender girl in Portuguese folk costume, ruffled blouse, tiny laced bodice, heart-shaped locket. “[I’ve] danced since I was young.” Danced for her father’s band, did old-timey folk dances with her grandfather, then moved on to perform for the San Antonio recreation department, as well as for the air bases, and once, as in that snapshot, at the sunken gardens in Brackenridge Park. “If you have girls,” she said, “there’s nothing better than dance for grace and charm.” We studied the girl whose face looked out at us across the years with startling beauty and unlimited promise.
The morning we left, Dina, Isabel, and I had breakfast at four in the morning at the home of Juanita Taylor, the franchise owner for both the Miss South Texas and Miss San Antonio Pageants. In the past months, Mrs. Taylor had opened her home on Lake McQueeney often to the winners of those two contests, who joined us for breakfast and would ride with us to Ft. Worth.
A former executive with Mutual of Omaha, with no children of her own, Mrs. Taylor was glad to give her time and energy to helping “her girls,” since she believed strongly that the Miss America Pageant—as opposed to “the legions of other pageants that get press coverage”—had outstanding talent, was the world’s largest scholarship program for women, and, most importantly, was run by people like herself “whose main interest is the girls involved.”
Her husband, the owner-publisher of the Seguin Gazette, repeated her sentiments, and added that the only real problem was getting the right kind of girl to enter their pageants. He said they did the best they could, checking into a girl’s family background and morals, making sure the sponsoring group (“usually a Rotary or Chamber”) knew what caliber of girl they were seeking.
Each used the present Miss Texas as a good example. “Judy is a Christian but she’s not a fanatic,” she said. He agreed. “She made a little prayer last year at the end of each presentation. That’s the kind of girl the Miss America Pageant gets.”
They felt that the wide community support in Seguin for Dina was because she was the right sort of girl. This support had been evident to us the afternoon before when Isabel and I ran errands and were met everywhere with good wishes: the owner of the music store donated a tape for Dina to use for rehearsal, the assistant deejay who cut the tape reminded us that she had been a high school classmate of Dina’s, and the man in the dime store where we got toothpaste said he was rooting for her and welcomed me to town with a postcard showing that Seguin was the Home of the World’s Largest Pecan.
The Taylors showed me a copy of the contract that the sponsoring group signed. Each contestant must be of good moral character and shall not have been convicted of any crime and shall possess talent, poise, personality, intelligence, charm, and beauty of face and figure. No contestant will be eligible if she has endorsed or contracted to endorse any product competitive to products sold by the national sponsors of the Miss America Pageant Scholarship program or if she has participated during the franchise year in any other national or international competition of a similar nature which is televised nationally.
After we ate, we loaded more than a dozen suitcases and garment bags into Dina’s station wagon and my sedan and took off in the dawn. As Miss San Antonio rode with me to Waco where we all stopped for coffee and Miss South Texas rode with me into Fort Worth, there was a chance to get acquainted with these contestants.
I was interested in what they hoped to do with their lives after the pageant. Earlier Dina had said that she had considered majoring in PE, because she was big for sports, and then drama, because she had always acted in plays at school, but that a high school counselor had told her about the school of communications at The University of Texas and she had “loved it right away, especially TV.” Now a junior in summer school, she hoped to get an internship in television production in the fall.
Miss San Antonio, currently a weather-girl on a Spanish speaking station, had been for four years the solo dancer at Fiesta Nocha del Rio in San Antonio. With the poise of a professional performer she assessed her future: in a few years she would be too old to dance; she hoped the pageant would open up other possibilities. On the contestant fact sheet she had listed her future ambition as becoming a doctor.
Miss South Texas, a charmer who had taken time to attach “spiders” (false eyelashes) before our early breakfast, had been in drill teams in high school and college. Unless she broke into show business through the pageant, she planned to get a PE degree and lead a junior college drill team.
None of the three girls, all first-time entrants, expected to win the title of Miss Texas, but each hoped very much to place in the top ten. At the least they could count on television exposure during the finale Saturday night.
Each was certain that, as in the past, the winner would be one of the nine or ten girls who were returning to the pageant for the second or third time. As each contestant is allowed to enter the Miss Texas Pageant up to three times, but cannot succeed herself in the same local pageant, this means she has to enter a different one each year by changing her residence to that of her parents or to a school she is currently attending.
“Let’s all smile; it’s pageant time.”
On Monday morning a porcine official paraded the contestants alphabetically by title around the fanshaped swimming pool of the Ramada Inn. The girls had been instructed to remove their beach covers, and were in the outfit prescribed in the contestant handbook for this event: swimsuit, heels, and banner. This was billed as the Press Party and was a chance for photographers to get a few shots for their hometown dailies and weeklies.
It was vital to the backers of the Miss Texas Pageant that publicity about each day’s events be favorable and flowing, and that the press feel that information was readily available. Reporters received a fact sheet giving the height, weight, and measurements of all the girls, as well as a schedule telling what each night’s events were and where each evening’s preliminary swimsuit and talent winners would be available for photos and interviews. Reporters were assured that there would be time to photograph the winner and runners-up on Saturday night, and that all information would be provided well in advance of deadlines. “This way, darlin’,” an official urged, “get in line.” Photographers assembled groups of girls from their part of the state and posed them: leaning coyly forward with hands placed on bent knees to reveal cleavage, or tossing beach balls overhead in the wading pool for action shots. Someone in the back hollered: Get out of the way of my Hasselblad! To each other, sotto and not so sotto voce, they made comparisons between this scene and Fort Worth’s annual Fat-Stock Show, an image which was reinforced when an official checked his watch and called out, “It’s ten o’clock and time to start walking them around.”
For this event, as well as the week’s other contacts with the media, the pageant had hired the public relations firm that also handled Cycle-Rama, the World’s Largest Motorcycle Show, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth. While the girls were posing poolside, the PR men dispensed soft drinks and coffee and kept a watchful eye on the tensions between press and pageant officials.
The high priests of the Miss Texas Scholarship Pageant Corporation, the staff and the board of directors, were out in full force. They ranged in size from large to stout and portly, and in image from car salesman to carnival barker. Most wore loud plaid, checked, or paisley knit sports jackets that appeared custom tailored, and most had beepers at their waists like doctors. All wore medallions bearing the pageant’s gold seal suspended from a row of gold bars that looked like awards given for perfect church attendance.
The head of the group, the chairman of the board, was B. Don Magness, called by everyone B. Don, a name spelled in diamonds on his tie clasp. When he is not chairing the pageant or acting as manager for the present Miss Texas, he handles special events at the Will Rogers Convention Center for the City of Fort Worth.
Beginning with that first meeting at poolside, the press tried for an expose of the officials by slanting all interviews to reveal what had never been concealed: that most of the finalists would have been in the contest before; that B. Don and his wife, a stunning professional model, helped with the hair, clothes, makeup, and talent of any of the contestants who requested it or who appeared to have potential; that the purpose of the pageant was not to discover an unknown girl fresh from her hometown but to produce a winner who would stand a chance at Atlantic City.
The first stories harped on how the preliminary winners almost without exception had been entrants in this pageant before. There were headlines like: Former Runners-up Show Pageant Experience Counts.
When Terry Meeuwsen, a former Miss Wisconsin and Miss America (1973) who emceed the 1974 pageant, was asked her views on premarital sex and answered, “I think that’s none of your business,” her frankness did not make news. But the interview was concluded when reporters got her to say, that, well, yes, returning to competitions more than once could make a girl plastic, depending on where her head’s at.
A photographer with the local paper summed up the prevailing attitude when he asked me, “Why don’t you write how the press works its butt off to cover all this. There’s three of us assigned to it who all hate it.”
Meanwhile, it was on with the show: three full nights of well-attended preliminary contests followed by the sold-out grand finale.
The daddy of the reigning Miss Texas (Judy Mallett) opened the first night with an invocation thanking God “for the greatest chance to be a real American woman that the mind of man has ever devised.”
Seated next to me was a friendly fellow named The Reverend Mr. Billy Cox, who whispered that he hoped someday to be asked to pray at the Miss America Pageant. He revealed also that he was the number-one fan of Miss Toledo Bend, Donna Amos, and that he was here this week to represent the East Texas Light: “Covering Shelby County Like The Pine Straw Covers The Ground.” When we discovered that our two girls shared the same hostess and that “we” were both in Group A, we became friends enough for me to inquire if he had found his Scotch-Taped camera at a pawnshop. At this he vowed to come with a roll of film the following night, and, to show his good intentions, he shared with me his way of rating the girls, beginning at the bottom with “She barks and chases cars,” through “I knew her in high school,” up to “I could take her home to mother,” and the ultimate, “She teaches Sunday School.” For the first time that week we heard Judy fiddle her “Orange Blossom Special” and Terry sing, with New York polish, “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” All the girls were in their long dresses for the opening production number, doing a simple bit of sleight of hand to “Magic to Do.” Dina wore her bright green gift from the bridal shop and stood smiling on the front row.
For the competitions the girls had been divided into three groups of nineteen, with the strong talent scattered through the three groups in order to make each evening’s performance worth the money for the crowd. Miss Austin and Miss Toledo Bend, in Group A, had gown competition on Wednesday, swimsuit on Thursday, and talent on Friday.
In gown competition each girl had twenty seconds before the microphone to impress both the judges and the audience with her poise and her personality. Each, in a formal evening dress, gave her name, school, ambition, and a smidge of personal philosophy: “As a Dear Friend said to me, ‘Not my will, but Thine be done.’” “If life hands you a lemon, squeeze it and then set up a lemonade stand.” “Live as if we would live a hundred years, pray as if we would die tomorrow.” “My object in life is to unite my avocation and my vocation.” Miss Austin, in the white copy of the Thirties gown, told us in her even voice that she wanted to keep up with the world so “the world doesn’t pass me by.”
No one on the stage was lovelier, or more composed, than Dina in her slim-waisted homemade dress, but in Fort Worth on Wednesday it was already clear that a DeMolay Duchess from Seguin, Texas, could not make it on beauty and naturalness alone against girls who had spent a year or more being groomed and gowned by professionals.
The most well-known designers were a team from El Paso called Guyrex, who last year had created gowns for five girls in the top ten. Richard Guy explained that their secret was in the skirt (“anybody can do a bodice”), that their skirts were very full but were cut on the bias to make a girl look slim on the stage. This illusion ran from $400, he said, for “your average competition dress,” to about $800 for a “top, top.”
Becky Bloomer, the first night’s talent winner and the girl considered the favorite to win the Miss Texas title, had been dressed by Guyrex last year. This year, as part of her overall effort to take the crown, an effort which included weightlifting and sessions at a health spa to help in swimsuit competition, she had switched to designer Les Wilk.
She was entered this year as Miss White Settlement, a suburb of Fort Worth, since she was a student at Tarrant County Junior College; last year she had come as Miss Dallas, where her parents reside, and the year before that she was Miss Denton while she attended North Texas State University. Last year, as first runner up in the Miss Texas Pageant, she qualified automatically for the National Sweetheart Pageant, conducted in conjunction with the Sweet Corn Festival in Hoopeston, Illinois, where she was chosen National Sweetheart. When I asked her if she planned to go back to crown the new Queen of Sweet Corn she answered, “Not if I’m on my way to Atlantic City.”
There is no preliminary award for gown, as these points are tallied in with the judges’ interview, but had there been, Billy and I would have guessed the judges’ choice to be Shirley Cothran, this year’s Miss Haltom-Richland Area, who, from her first step on the stage, looked like all the Miss Americas we could remember.
I was interested in how the judges arrived at their final choices as I remembered my single experience as a judge in a Labor Day beauty contest at Austin’s Zilker Park. Not only did we tend to select larger finalists with bigger features the farther we sat from the stage, but when we got through, the winner seemed to be everyone’s fourth choice.
The judge I interviewed was the district marketing manager for Southeastern Bell Telephone in northern Mississippi, and had judged in Fort Worth before. He repeated what the handbook said: that talent counted 50 points and both swimsuit and the combined gown and judges’ interview 25 points each. He said that although each night’s preliminary winners competed only within their own group, in theory the ten finalists could all come from one group. He said the top ten were selected from the points given during the three days of contests and therefore they were known to the judges at the end of the competition Friday night. The ranking of the top five, also selected from this balloting, was made after the top ten repeated their gown, talent, and swimsuit on Saturday night.
The judge, who was dressed in a black and red paisley tuxedo jacket with bright red shirt and tie, explained that he was giving this week of his vacation to the contest because “I believe in the Miss America system and what it can do for a lady. I believe in it because of the development of the individual contestant. It takes young ladies who are introverted and shy. It’s like a Dale Carnegie course. It gives them self-confidence and self-discipline and exposure to the public. Plus the scholarship they get to pursue the interest of their choice whether it be merchandizing or art or whatever. It’s something college can’t give.”
I asked him about the judges’ interviews, which are said to be all-important in screening the candidate, as the South Texas girls had been worried about this on our drive to Fort Worth.
The judge explained that the interviews (street dress, heels, rosettes, DO NOT wear hats or gloves) in which the girls are scrutinized three at a time for a total of nine minutes, gave judges a chance to look over a girl’s complexion, her features, how she conducts herself. “For example,” he said, “a lady doesn’t come into a room and sit down and cross her legs.” It gave them a chance to spot a noticeable scar or one eye that was larger than the other; “Sometimes we’re amazed at how a girl we’ve interviewed up close looks on the stage with all her makeup on.”
Dina, on our drive up, had reassured the others that there was no need to read up on the news because the judges wouldn’t ask things like what was Kissinger doing in Israel, that they would ask you personal questions about your family and what you liked to do, things like what was your major in school. She had spoken with the assurance of one whose private life had straightforward answers; appropriately, she had planned to wear a deep red copy of a Victorian dress, complete with cameo at the throat.
One official, who had once been a judge himself, confirmed Dina’s belief that the questions themselves did not matter. “Here’s where they cut girls out, weed them out—you can’t keep 57 of anything in your head at once—then, if they’ve got talent you can put them back. You make up a list of questions that they can make an intelligent answer to, like what is the state flower, or what is the state bird. Or you ask them, ‘How long you been taking dance lessons?’; then when you see her talent later you think: fourteen years and that’s all she can do?” He supplied the real answer to what the judges look for: “Our contestants are a real contrast to those in the Miss USA even though they are really knockout looking, but if you told one of them to go empty the ashtray they would say ‘huh?’ and dump over a potted plant. We’re not like that. We’re the image the little girl wants to grow up to be.”
The second night of contests, when our girls were in the swimsuit competition, Billy, the preacher-photographer from East Texas, had put film in his camera and had adjusted his patches of Scotch Tape for a better look at Miss Toledo Bend.
In the stiff and obviously padded one-piece suits, the contestants walked out one at a time to the mike and then to the edge of the stage. As they showed their poise, Terry Meeuwsen told the audience the name of their sponsor and parents, their height and weight, their majors and interests. A few small concessions had been made to women’s lib: gone were the list of their measurements, the quarter-turns that used to show off the body profile, and no longer might the girls lick their lips when their backs were to the audience to make a moist smile.
Dina was slender and self-possessed in a white halter-neck suit. Her white V-neck which had been acceptable for poolside was not proper here: it had fringe on the hips. Miss Toledo Bend looked like a cheerleader at the beach and Billy whispered loudly that everything she had was hers.
The audience was too full of parents and surrogate-parents—hostesses, sponsors, managers, chaperones—for them to see the girls as other than their contestants. It was not a sex show: it was like the weekly posture contest at Camp Mystic. The same number of pretty faces and nearly pretty ones, the same good and bad skin, good and bad carriage, awkward and practiced movements. The real drawback was that we on the front row had a view we did not want: bruised thighs, callused heels, streaked leg makeup, as well as all too apparent glimpses of a protruding rubber falsie, or the obvious outline of a mini-sanitary pad. Embarrassed, Billy and I reminisced about other times when you paid to see bodies on display: we talked of pasties and clockwise tassels, and of the Champagne Lady of Bourbon Street who was of course a family friend of his.
This was the competition which brought the sharpest criticism from the press and the most defensive reaction from the pageant people, who felt compelled to repeat that it showed how a girl could hold up under stress.
Those who had the most trouble with swimsuit were the female reporters who were the same age and background as the contestants. For some of them it was an opportunity to work through their own feelings about being, or refusing to be, a sex object; for others it was a lesson in allowing each woman the use of her own body.
One reporter—who had been ambivalent about the pageant as she considered the girls were being exploited although she herself was using them to get a front page story with byline every day—had the difficult job of interviewing the preliminary swimsuit winner, who also had been a very good friend of hers in high school. There was between this intern reporter and Amy Griggs, who was this year’s Miss Hurst-Euless-Bedford and a top contender for the title, an awkwardness, a distance as if each felt the need to justify to the other the different path she had taken. After the interview the reporter confessed her second thoughts, “At first I wanted to knock it all. At first I thought the girls were doing their whole sex a disservice. It’s so absurd; it’s not what America is really all about. Now, well, I’d hate to see any of these girls hurt.”
The last night of preliminaries Billy and I watched our girls compete in talent. As we had seen on previous nights, what the judges wanted in a winner was a girl who could create an affinity between performer and audience. They wanted an act which could be repeated on TV talk shows and at other pageants, an act which would play in Atlantic City, an act that would bring the audience to spontaneous clapping and cheering like Terry Meeuwsen belting, in Liza Minnelli style, “You gotta ring them bells,”
Thus the outstanding voice at the pageant did not make the top five, although when Miss Waco came up to the mike and vowed to “make Rivers Hatchett a name to remember in opera,” there was not a doubter in the house. The non-finalist talent award went to Miss Pasadena, Peggy Ruth Oliver, who gave an electrifying performance, in warrior costume with sword upraised, of the war variation from Pandora’s Box ballet. It was like seeing Joan of Arc on a Broadway stage. But she was a sleeper: none of the pageant people had caught her act at her local pageant and she had been placed near the end of the program. As Terry explained it to me, as Miss Pasadena had not been noticed in swimsuit or gown earlier, it was too late by the last night for her to be a finalist. (The preliminary winner from her group was an audience-pleasing piano player who did a medley of Floyd Cramer tunes.)
Most of the talent numbers of the non-finalists were either a sensuous jazz dance done in eye-catching red or hot pink, like Dina’s, or a night club song, like Miss Toledo Bend’s, with the contestant holding the mike in her left hand, her right hand stretched to the sky, in imitation of big-name stars.
The finalists’ performances were not different in kind from the efforts of our girls, but their acts were as polished as those on the best TV variety show.
The supporting cast behind the ten finalists, whose names were determined by the end of Friday night’s show, was made up of mothers, hostesses, and franchise holders who had worked behind the scenes all week, almost around the clock.
There was little sleep for anyone, My own day began at 6:30 in the morning with the selection of the day’s outfit from my wardrobe of four shirts and three pairs of slacks, and ended around two in the morning in a hot tub, listening either to the sounds of the truckers’ favorite country deejay or to family problems through the paper-thin hotel walls. The girls came back from the nightly competitions to a midnight spread of hamburgers, homemade cake, and ice cream; then the hostesses helped them with their nerves, hair, and rumors until two or three o’clock. All were up again for a six a.m. breakfast of fruit and pastries served dormitory-style in the motel.
While the girls were being put to bed their friends and family were invited to what was called the Franchise Holders Party (Admission by Badge Only). These gatherings were a chance for B. Don and the other directors to press the flesh and call by name the owners of the 57 local pageants. To keep relations smooth, an open bar and a band that played loud oldies held forth until three in the morning.
Here I visited again with Isabel and the Taylors from Seguin. They crowded around a table in the dark, packed room to discuss their girls’ chances and to cling to the hope that at least one of the three would reach the top ten. Isabel wanted to hear that Dina had looked perfect in her white gown, that she had shown herself off as well as anyone in her bathing suit, that she bad danced like Cyd Charisse, that the judges had noticed her.
The pageant officials do all they can to keep the local owners content, since they have a strong interest in retaining the location of the Miss Texas franchise in Fort Worth, where it has been for the past twelve years. Under her contract, Miss Texas must go to TCU to receive her scholarship, and, once elected, automatically moves her residence to Fort Worth. In the event she goes on to become Miss America, she still resides in Fort Worth and her time and a percentage of her earnings belong to the pageant.
During her reign, Miss Texas is managed by B. Don, who keeps her working. As one official put it, if she doesn’t block out time for her old daddy’s birthday, B. Don will fill that day too. What advertisers can use Miss Texas? The same official said, “All they have to do is contact the manager; she’ll do anything for money.” Then he amended this quickly, “Not beer, not liquor. We never advertise it; we just drink it. But the girls never see it. And they can’t touch it.” He explained the girls’ abstinence: “It’s the Miss America dream. It’s what it s all about.”
Largely responsible for guarding this dream at the pageant were the hostesses whose job it was not only to keep the girls from drinking, but also from seeing or hearing anything offensive. At all times they were to keep their charges behaving like ladies. Not only were contestants not permitted at any time “to enter a cocktail lounge, private club, night club, bar, inn, tavern or any place where liquor is being served,” but they were instructed that a contestant “WILL NOT smoke in public”, and “Contestants ARE NOT PERMITTED TO SPEAK TO ANY MAN unless in the company of their hostess.” The contestant’s own family was not excepted. In addition, the hostesses had instructions to terminate any photographic session or interview which was “improper, indecent, embarrassing, or in poor taste.” To help with this they had the resources of a policewoman on duty 24 hours a day to protect against intruders. To prevent obscene phone calls, the girls were not allowed to receive incoming calls.
The hostesses (or “hosteii” as they referred to themselves), were all active in the Fort Worth community as volunteers, and each was fiercely partisan to “her” girl. There was an air about them of sorority sisters at a convention with much hugging and squealing lines like, “Morning, love. I forgot what I’m supposed to do about whatever we’re supposed to do.” Many of them stayed all week, some of them came in shifts; all of them took their jobs as chaperones literally and seriously.
From my own experience this protectiveness became tedious. One morning at rehearsal Judy needed a ride back to the motel from the convention center and, after she had asked around twice, I offered to give her one. My offer led to a conference of hostesses, as she still had one more day to reign as Miss Texas. At length, they decided that B. Don would not approve, leaving me feeling somewhat as if I had offered to hijack the President to Cuba. On another occasion, when the subject of suntans versus tan-from-a- tube and sunlamps was being discussed, I decided to ask the pro, Miss White Settlement, how she got her deep and even glow. This required, although we were sitting one row apart, getting permission from a hostess who accompanied us to the stairs where she sat between us while I asked Becky, “Do you use a sun-lamp?” “No, I use the sun.”
While the hostesses took over the functions of guard, valet, and mother, the actual mothers were left to hover in the hallways or wait in the registration room which served as a reception room. They waited for hair curlers to be taken down upstairs, or for naps to be over, hoping for a chance to pass (in the presence of a hostess, of course) necessities to their daughters: Tampax, shoeshop glue for a broken heel, a basket of fruit from the hometown Jaycees.
One corner of the registration room was used by hair-dressers to coif and comb contestants’ hair, a process which left a film of hair spray over the donuts and coffee. From outside in the hall came the effusive voices of visiting Misses from other states, old winners from this pageant, and, always putting out cornpone jocularity for her fans, the ever-present Judy: “I’ve got me a new dressy-poo, and it really is purty.”
While the mothers waited they talked about their glimpses of the inside: “She and her roommate both got constipated, it’s just nerves, they sent out for a laxative and now they’ve got the opposite problem”; “There were three other dresses like the one she wore in the opening number”; “Last night’s swimsuit winner is really flat as a pancake, I saw her myself this morning”; “You’re not allowed to shed any article of clothing in the talent contest; it might give the impression of stripping.”
The mothers’ optimism during the course of the week ran at roughly the level of the current day’s crop of flowers (dozens and dozens of Tyler roses), telegrams, letters, and gifts waiting for each girl by her name on the counter. By Saturday morning, before the list of the finalists leaked, the room looked like rush week at a big university, and the mothers appeared in their best bonded pantsuits, their hair fresh from the beauty shop.
Then a rash of hurt feelings broke out among the girls as the news of the finalists, already released to the press, reached them. There was one finalist who was suspected of having been on a date; there was the feeling that all of the four girls who had not won preliminary contests did not dance as well nor were as pretty as the ones passed over; there was much talk of politics and favoritism as four of the ten were from the Fort Worth area.
This, plus the lack of sleep all week, broke everyone’s reserve at the last rehearsal and there was a good measure of spoofing here and there. The men putting on the show relaxed; one of them said he could direct almost anything, that he had directed traffic and he’d directed “a few cows in my time—at the rodeo, of course.” One told a very confident contestant, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this; you’re running out of pageants.” And to a black girl about to miss her bus someone called out, “You just think this is an equal opportunities pageant.”
The hostesses, who had kept up a running commentary about the contestants during rehearsals—“She’s had her teeth capped since last year”; “This is the best Miss Prairie View we’ve had”; “She’s going to wet on herself she’s so nervous”; “I’m going to kill her and tell the Lord she died”—had an opportunity to do their own musical version of the show.
In a noontime follies that one of the hostesses called “a chance to have a fling of our own,” they produced a takeoff on the pageant, complete with song and dance production numbers they had written themselves (for one they sent off for T-shirts that said: You’ve Come A Long Way Baby), and the presentation of past Misses with names like Miss Take and Miss Guided. There were a number of apt touches: Miss Judged was introduced as a contestant “who had been an acrobatic dancer but she changed her ambition to brain surgery” to win the title. Another Miss from the Twenties came out in a bathing suit stuffed with two large balloons, one of which was punctured as she made her quarter-turns for the “judges.”
Even Judy must have been able to see freedom at the end of the rainbow. On the stage, going over a solo number with the tape recording which was used for background music, she said, “I can’t hear that dumb tape. If that happens tonight I’ll just stick my tongue out at them and say: nyaahhh, that’s the last time I’ll have to play this for you.”
The pageant officials had all but the two most serious problems under control, and those were at least tamped down for the last night. Already surmounted during the week were such troubles as the judges not being able to get into their hotel suite with the bar the first night, and having the Winnebago which was to convey them to the contest fail to appear; and a water main that broke in the street outside the convention center forcing that day’s talent to practice its routines on a concrete floor while two feet of water was pumped out from behind the orchestra pit.
One real problem which would have to wait until next year was the fact that the TV show was going down the tube, meaning that the pageant again had no national sponsor now that neither Toni nor the Miss America parent pageant picked up the tab. The 90 minutes had been sold to local advertisers and was going to lose money, but, as the executive director put it, this was part of the pageant corporation’s headache financially and not something to trouble the girls with; all they needed to know was that they would be on TV and they would be seen back home.
The other major problem remained: the press. Saturday morning at rehearsal B. Don flopped down in the seat beside me to give his version. He had been more than affable all week. Smiley the photographer had a blown-up glossy of B. Don’s rear end-bending over, which they had had Judy sign and had presented to him. Now his face sagged. Convinced the press was out to get him, he had squeezed out the time for a two-hour interview with the local paper and had set up a press conference for UPI, who failed to show. He sweated to remember a similar press attack a few years back when some franchise holders were threatening to defect.
But on the surface everything was prepared for the finale. As the crowd arrived in formal attire, the press ticket table began to crack down on what they called “the pageant freaks’’ who had been milling around all week. The first to go were the trouble-makers. As one PR man said, “You invent a little local paper and buy a roll of film and we’ll let you watch the early shows and freeload a drink at intermission. There’s no need to be obnoxious.” One of the ones who had appeared all week, purportedly representing a large paper with a dubious queen in tiara and ballgown on his arm, was bounced for the last night. So was another who pleaded, “I can’t be from the Dallas Morning News? Would you believe the Times Herald?” Billy’s credentials were called into question, but by Saturday he had learned to charge his camera’s batteries, knew everyone from the parking lot attendant to the ticket taker, was also representing another county newspaper, The Champion and, besides, he was in a tuxedo. A little pressure and charm was applied, and Billy was allowed to remain, front and center.
The final curtain up at last, Judy told the audience that this had been the most beautiful year of her life, that without the sacrifice of God’s Jesus, this year would not have been possible. For the next-to-last-time as Miss Texas (there was one show at 8:30, a final one televised at 10) she brought out the fiddle and played us the “Orange Blossom Special.” As the visiting Misses from other states each got a final turn at the mike (their part was not repeated on TV) Billy reported that Miss Alaska, who had spent all week giving chats in the lobby with her ventriloquist’s dummy Stanley, planned to come to East Texas Baptist College next year, and, wonder of wonders, that she taught Sunday School. Miss Florida floated on, reminded us all that she was only seventeen. Then Miss Wyoming, a tall, gorgeous black with a modified afro, gave the show-stopper. After casing her audience for four nights, she leaned into the mike and delivered her lines: “Someone said I ought to stay out of the sun, that I might get too dark. That’s nonsense; everyone knows that the blacker the cherry the sweeter the juice.”
Then, after the top ten (Billy complained that two of them “barked and chased cars”) had gone through their swimsuit, talent, and gown all over again, first for the judges and then again on live TV, there was the familiar drum-roll and we had presented to us the top five. And there, after years of work, waited the favorites: Miss Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Amy; Miss White Settlement, Becky; and Miss Haltom-Richland Area, Shirley. Each a finalist before, each waiting for one more chance at the crown.
They were not in this for their picture in the paper and certainly not for the $2500 scholarship to TCU, since each had surely spent well over that to get to that stage on Saturday night. The stakes they played for were much higher, beginning with the $1000 for going to Atlantic City: they were playing for what Judy had—$20,000 in the bank, a $50,000 baby food contract waiting, the chance for contracts up to $250,000, plus exposure before millions or TV viewers on the Jimmy Dean show, the Johnny Carson show, and at Super Bowl VIII.
It was a lot for a college student to win; even more to lose. All of them were already aiming high: Amy had a 4.0 average; Shirley had her masters degree; Becky had had overtures from the Christy Minstrels.
Pageant officials carried in sprays of roses. B. Don brought the red velvet train trimmed in ermine. The envelopes were opened and the names were read. When Amy was announced as second-runner-up she turned her face away from the crowd, received her consolation yellow roses through tears; when Becky’s name was read as first runner-up the whole auditorium could see her turn ashen as the knife went through her sweet-corn throat. Then it was, of course, Shirley who got the red roses, and the crown, and the future. Shirley who had, from the first night, looked like all the Miss Americas there ever were.
Billy passed judgment: “I could take her home to mother.” Then, to give her her full due he added, “But I’m not sure I could trust my daddy.”
Shirley’s mother, a plain white-haired woman, had told me earlier in the week about the first dress that her daughter had worn in her very first pageant, that she and a neighbor had sewed on it for two weeks, sewed on all those rhinestones at the wrist and neck. “All that work and it was a dress you couldn’t wear any place else.” Of this daughter she had said, “She and her sister are exactly the opposite of each other.” The other daughter loves horses, has a baby, has settled down.
Backstage, Becky and Amy sobbed openly into the arms of parents and friends. The intern reporter turned away from her distressed high-school friend Amy; a photographer debated, then rejected, grabbing a shot of the tear-stained Becky. After all, none of them had intended it to mean so much, to matter so badly.
The party afterward was like a dead dance in a high school gym. The red punch was tepid, the food scarce, and most of the girls began to talk slowly of “wait till next year.” Miss South Texas planned to transfer to Southwest Texas State University and run from that pageant; Miss Big Thicket’s mother told me that her girl was going to come back next year as Miss Austin since she was now at the University of Texas; Miss Toledo Bend, who, Billy told me, was informed that she was number eleven, now planned to go to school in Dallas and study voice next year and return from one of the metroplex pageants.
Isabel, introduced as a former star of stage and screen, grinned and obliged with a little soft shoe. She told us that next year Dina ought to wear a bright orange swimsuit to catch the judges’ eyes. She described her idea for a new competition gown, a copy of a Guyrex.
But with Doak’s arm around her and the thought of a TV internship before her, Dina hesitated. It would be fun to go back to Seguin and walk down the street and have everyone say, “I saw you on TV.” But would she try again? “Maybe, if somebody really wanted me to.”
But even as tears had been dried and the top five had posed, all smiling, for the photographers, retaliation brewed from the disappointed. In the following weeks the schism among the believers was made public. In the same edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that carried an editorial welcoming Shirley, whose crown “looked like it belonged there,” was a front page story claiming that the pageant was “controlled.” There were threats to “get” B. Don; franchise holders told anyone who would write it down that it had all been fixed from the start. Two disappointed groups approached a Dallas attorney to start an investigation they hoped could lead to a lawsuit; there were rumors of a Friday night caucus of the judges, of a leak from Shirley’s roommate, of a veiled hint from a former Miss Texas. Lubbock’s pageant owner sent to all owners an eight-page, single-spaced letter, going over it all, including why his contestant changed her dance at the last minute, and saying what was wrong with the whole pageant was that it did not have Miss Lubbock in the top ten this year.
But even in his anger what he wanted, what they all wanted, was not excommunication from the fold but control of it. In his suggested improvements he still held to the prevailing mystique: “Personally, I would like to see swimsuit competition eliminated from competition in this pageant… If they want a leg or bust review, they can watch Miss World, Miss U.S.A., or Miss Universe… Also, there are many very talented young ladies who would never enter because of religious or moral convictions. I don’t think swimsuit competition is relevant when we are looking for wholesome, all-American girls with talent.”
Richard Guy, of Guyrex, was rumored to want to move the state pageant to El Paso where he had the franchise. In his letter to owners he opted for a three-person jury of owners to be present at all times during the judging, including “during all of the entertainment functions which have been planned for the judges’ panel during their entire stay.”
The majority of owners did not go along with his protests. By telephone from Seguin, Mrs. Taylor, the franchise holder of Miss South Texas (who was Miss Congeniality) and Miss San Antonio (who was a finalist), declared that in her opinion all the flap was “flat sour grapes,” that the other owners were “flat very, very poor losers.”
But even as the heathens raged, the pageant machinery continued smoothly—only a scant six weeks remained to get Shirley ready for Atlantic City, and scarcely a year for the losers to get ready for the Miss Texas Pageant, 1975.