Late on a Sunday afternoon in November, as the rest of the Metroplex grimaces through what will turn out to be the final game of Wade Phillips’s calamitous season with the Cowboys, a modest crowd of eighty is gathering to watch as the new Miss Irving and Miss Teen Irving are crowned. The stakes are high: The victorious queens will secure a spot in the statewide Miss Texas and Miss Teen Texas competitions, which are held each summer. The winner of Miss Texas then goes on to the Miss America pageant, which takes place the following January in Las Vegas. From there, who knows what heights can be reached? Since 1935 the vaunted tradition known as the Texas beauty pageant has launched scores of young women to glamorous careers, from Phyllis George (Miss Texas 1970 and Miss America 1971) to Eva Longoria (Miss Corpus Christi USA 1998). This is where it all begins, where a small-town ingenue can take the first high-heeled step in her journey to big-time icon.
Yet as the attendees of the Miss Irving pageant take their seats, the air is not exactly crackling with tension. We’re in a dimly lit, mustily decorated auditorium on the second floor of an old schoolhouse in Bedford (about fifteen miles from Irving), a space that would perhaps be better suited for a sleepy PTA meeting than the razzly-dazzly beauty pageant we’ve been promised. Even more dispiriting is the fact that the competition has lost three of its would-be queens in the past 24 hours: One injured a knee; another dropped out because her grandmother had a stroke; and the third was crowned Miss Teen Southlake the previous night, rendering her ineligible. Presently there are more judges (seven) and pageant representatives (five) in attendance than contestants (six for Miss Irving, four for Miss Teen Irving).
The fact is, behind the glimmering gowns and perfectly coiffed hair, the Texas beauty pageant is a tradition in crisis. Last year, at the seventy-fifth Miss Texas competition, only 33 women competed for the statewide title. That’s less than half of the nearly 70 women who competed annually throughout the eighties and early nineties. What was once a lavish spectacle produced at the Fort Worth Convention Center and aired on television stations throughout the state now takes place each year in Arlington in a nontelevised event. (The separately run Miss Texas USA pageant, held each September in Houston, has seen similar, if less precipitous, drops in participation and interest.) Sponsorships have been equally hard to come by. In decades past, Miss Texas’s prize package included a new car, in which the lucky girl traveled to all corners of the state to talk to schoolchildren about her platform. In 2010 pageant organizers were scrambling up until the last minute to find a car dealership that was willing to lend Miss Texas a vehicle for the year.
It hasn’t helped that two decades of bad press (JonBénet Ramsey, Carrie Prejean) and mocking movies and television shows ( Drop Dead Gorgeous, Little Miss Sunshine, Toddlers and Tiaras ) have turned the very notion of a beauty queen into something of a national punch line. Or that the things you were once able to get only from a pageant—tense competition, toe-tapping entertainment, kitschy spectacle—are now served up weekly on Dancing With the Stars and American Idol . It’s no secret how television executives regard the tradition. ABC dropped the Miss America pageant after 2004, when viewership dipped below 10 million; it resurfaced on the TLC network, where only 4.5 million tuned in last year. Then, finally, it returned in January to ABC, which would seem like a triumph if it weren’t for the fact that, according to industry trade reports, the Miss America organization had to pay the network to air the program. As for the Miss Texas pageant, it hasn’t appeared on statewide television since 2006.
None of this was on my mind several months before the Miss Irving pageant, when a friend introduced me to Alex Martin, the event’s co–executive director. After I expressed to her my longstanding curiosity about pageants, Martin invited me to serve as a judge on the panel (provided I didn’t write about any of the actual deliberations). But now, as the lights go down in this drafty auditorium and the small crowd settles in and the contestants wait nervously backstage, I have to wonder whether I’m witnessing the dying gasps of an outdated institution. Have we come to the end of Miss Texas?
Pageant day begins with the long-form interview portion of the competition, which is held in a conference room at nine-thirty in the morning at a Homewood Suites on Airport Freeway in Bedford. We are heavily outnumbered by attendees of the hotel’s Sunday morning church service. There are seven of us judges, including two longtime pageant directors, a former competitor turned life coach, and a part-time photographer. I’m one of only two judges who have not done this before, which means that I’m listening intently to Miss Texas co–executive director David Vogel as he gives us our instructions: The long-form interview, which is held privately, counts for 25 percent of a Miss Irving contestant’s final score. Swimsuit, talent, evening gown, and the onstage interview question during the pageant proper count for 15 percent, 35 percent, 20 percent, and 5 percent, respectively. (In a not entirely convincing nod to political correctness, the swimsuit portion is referred to as “lifestyle and fitness.”) For their long-form interviews, the girls will stand before us for eight minutes, during which we can fire off any question we like. We are not to embarrass them by asking for the capital of a tiny island nation in the Caribbean, but we shouldn’t be afraid to test them on current events or request that they defend their all-important social platforms. (One veteran judge says that, for many years, competitors were often asked what the Dow Jones Industrial Average had closed at the previous Friday.) After each interview, we’ll be