texasmonthly.com: You attended and researched the Miss USA instead of the Miss America pageant stream. Are there any clear differences between the competitions as you understand it now?
Pam Colloff: Yes—there’s a big difference. The Miss USA system does not have a talent portion, while the Miss America system does. The Miss USA system does not call itself a scholarship program (although one of the Miss Texas Teen USA prizes is a scholarship). I was more interested in the USA system because, in my opinion, it’s more honest about its mission; it’s a beauty pageant, not a beauty pageant that calls itself a scholarship program.
texasmonthly.com: How are the judges chosen? Who constituted the panels? Were they former beauty queens themselves?
PC: The judges were chosen by the pageant directors, Al and Gail Clark. There were nine judges—five men, four women—who were ethnically diverse and who came from a variety of professions (an educator, a firefighter, a CEO). One of the judges, Carissa Blair-Cox, was a previous Miss Texas Teen USA and Miss Texas USA.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most popular reason for the contestants to compete? Was it the potential for fame, or just a desire to be officially beautiful?
PC: Girls were in the pageant for all kinds of reasons—some good, some bad. I think the serious contenders saw that winning the pageant could do a lot for them; Tye Felan, for example, wants to be a country music singer, and she felt that winning the pageant could help her career. Some girls were in the pageant because their mothers wanted them to run, or because their mothers had been in beauty pageants. Other girls did it on a whim. Those girls who didn’t have a great deal of confidence were looking for validation, I think.
texasmonthly.com: Social behavior and standards are different within every environment. What defines the beauty pageant culture and who (or what) really makes the rules?
PC: I think pageants’ standards of beauty are just a reflection of society’s standards. It was interesting to look back at photos of beauty pageant winners from other decades, because the beauty paradigms looked so dated. The beauty queens from the ’50s were very curvy and wide-hipped. The beauty queens from the ’20s were pale, skinny, and had short-cropped hair. The standards may seem more exaggerated in pageants, but they are no different than the standards that are communicated to women every day in advertisements, magazines, and so on.
texasmonthly.com: Does the beauty queen mentality hold women back? Is this focus on beauty detrimental to a woman’s self-image?
PC: I don’t think that beauty pageants themselves are holding women back; many of the beauty queens I talked to for this article told me that they had gained a lot of confidence by having to speak on a stage in front of a large audience. But as for the values themselves, I think all girls and women struggle with the expectation that they are supposed to be beautiful. A man can be incredibly successful without being handsome, but a woman is always held to a higher standard.
texasmonthly.com: What was your perception of beauty pageants before your experience at the Miss Teen Texas pageant? How has it changed? What are the positive aspects that may have surprised you?
PC: I really didn’t know anything about beauty pageants before I started working on this story. I used to watch the Miss America pageant when I was a kid, but that was it. I was surprised by a lot of things. First of all, those girls—like Ashley—who don’t live or die by the outcome have a lot of fun. Those girls who win, like Tye, gain a lot of confidence. Another surprise was how much I liked the people who ran the pageant&151;both the Clarks and the local pageant directors. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting before I met them, but they were very down-to-earth people. I guess the biggest surprise to me was that I got caught up in the whole drama of it all, which I certainly wasn’t expecting. When they announced the winner, I actually cried (which was really embarrassing). It was an emotional weekend, with 117 girls each very much wanting to win, and so when the crown was handed to just one girl, the emotions in that room were very intense.
texasmonthly.com: Do you feel that the beauty pageant culture changed much over the years? When you walked into the pageant, did it feel like you had stepped back in time?
PC: I really didn’t feel like I had walked back in time at all, because the pressure on teenage girls to be beautiful is still as much a part of our culture right now as it was when pageants were more popular.
texasmonthly.com: Was there anything that happened that shocked you?
PC: The only thing that really shocked me was realizing how young the contestants were. There were a couple of moments at the pageant when I would be looking at a girl who appeared to be at least 25—she had a womanly body, and poise, and a certain sexiness—and then I would realize that she was only 15 or 16 years old. That shocked me. But I think those girls were taking their cues less from beauty pageants than from popular culture; they were just imitating what they see on TV.
texasmonthly.com: Pick-up any good beauty tips?
PC: Yes! Preparation H beneath your eyes—it supposedly reduces under eye circles. I haven’t tried it yet…