ASHLEY SWANSON WAS NOT THE kind of girl you would expect to find in a beauty pageant. At sixteen, she stood six feet two inches tall, and she walked with the awkward gait that very tall girls do, when their bodies seem to be all elbows and shoulder blades and long, skinny legs that have not yet found their center of gravity. She rarely wore makeup, and her chestnut-brown hair was often pulled back, perfunctorily, into a ponytail; when it hung loose around her shoulders, it got on her nerves. Until recently, her only concession to glamour had been her eyebrows, which she tweezed into half-moons that arched above the brown frames of her glasses. That was until one weekend last fall, when she became contestant number 53 in the Miss Texas Teen USA 2003 pageant. For three days, she was Miss Gray County. ¶ Exactly what motivated Ashley to take part in a beauty pageant involved reasons less obvious than a desire to win. She had learned of the pageant last summer, when a postcard came in the mail along with a handful of teen-magazine subscription offers and cosmetics ads. The postcard featured photos of five beauty queens beaming beneath their crowns. "the chance of a lifetime," it announced. "you could be next!!!" Farther down, it read, "Miss Texas Teen USA in November! . . . As a contestant, you will be judged in three equal categories, consisting of personal interview, swimsuit/fitness, and evening gown. There is no performing talent category . . . To become a contestant in this year's event, complete this form . . . Apply today!" Anyone who wanted to become a contestant was asked to send her name, address, and a recent snapshot (no beauty queen title was required, only an entry fee) to the pageant headquarters, in Houston, which Ashley did. When I asked her why she had decided to enter the competition, she shrugged as if she were still trying to make sense of it herself. "Curiosity?" she said. "I don't know. I think I'm trying to figure out how to be a girl."
The day after Thanksgiving, four hours before the Miss Texas Teen USA 2003 pageant orientation was set to begin, Ashley sat in a Houston hotel lobby, waiting. She wore a white peasant shirt, blue jeans, sneakers, and a worried expression. Her excitement had given way to a bad case of nerves, and she fiddled with her silver pendant necklace as she talked. "I just keep thinking," she said, "What have I gotten myself into?'" At dawn the day before, she and her family—her mother, stepfather, little sister, and two dogs—had left Pampa, the Panhandle town where they lived, and the 619-mile, eleven-hour drive had provided her with ample time to second-guess herself. Her mother, Crystal, studied her with a mix of amusement and maternal concern, leaning over to brush a strand of hair from her face as we talked. Ashley was notoriously klutzy, her mother told me, and it was unusual for a day to go by that she didn't stub her toe or run into a wall or fall down. "Just remember, honey," her mother instructed her, squeezing her hand. "Stand up straight, look at the judges, and whatever you do, don't trip."
THE CONTESTANTS BEGAN DRIFTING INTO the hotel at noon. Outside the Doubletree Post Oak, near the Galleria, where the three-day pageant would take place, teenage girls stood fixing their makeup one last time as their mothers looked on, their arms draped with gowns made of candy-pink taffeta and ice-blue satin and ivory tulle. Bellhops maneuvered past them, wheeling carts stacked high with shoe boxes and matching mother-daughter luggage sets. Inside the hotel, the pageant contestants—who ranged in age from fourteen to eighteen—strode across the lobby, coolly appraising the competition. Miss Dallas County, a leggy blonde, made her entrance in a buttery brown-leather miniskirt, matching boots, and a snug, rhinestone-studded suede jacket lined with white fur. Among the other girls' "arrival outfits" there was a crimson-colored knee-length coat made of alligator skin. A white silk suit adorned with sequined appliqué. A fringed buckskin ensemble. An off-the-shoulder black sheath dress. A leopard-print pantsuit. The veteran pageant girls all had tan Louis Vuitton handbags and French-manicured nails. Many of the first-time contestants—who had done no more than apply a fresh coat of lipstick before their arrival—looked on, bewildered.
The competition began the moment a girl stepped out of her parents' car. The nine judges would not arrive until that evening, and the first scored event would not take place until nine o'clock the next morning, but the jockeying for position was well under way. Arrival outfits were worn with the intent of scaring off the competition, as were the withering looks some girls gave to each other as they stood by the bank of elevators. "It's all a mind game," Miss Bayou City, sixteen-year-old Bria Wall, told me several weeks before the pageant began. "You want to intimidate the other girls. You have to walk through that lobby like you already know you're the winner."
A few contestants had an aura of celebrity, and Bria Wall was one of them. Her parents had spared no expense in preparing her for the contest, providing her with her own pageant pit crew, including her own coach and makeup artist, as well as a dazzling wardrobe culled from Houston's best boutique shops. No detail had gone unnoticed, down to the pink "Go Bria!" pins that bore her picture worn by her supporters. A petite blond cheerleader from the Woodlands, Bria had an intensity of purpose about winning the Miss Texas Teen USA crown that was fearsome. She had already memorized the names and photographs of the contestants she anticipated being her rivals, and she stood in silent concentration that afternoon, scanning the lobby for their faces. Primary among them was eighteen-year-old Miss Houston, a lithe, luminous blonde named Tye Felan. She had narrowly won the Miss Houston Teen USA pageant