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 required to rank the contestant on a scale of one to ten. We must be merciless and resist the temptation to inflate grades.

The contestants begin to parade in before us, filling the air with tense, youthful energy. Question after question, platform after platform, these women display, for the most part, a poise, focus, and articulateness that would put your average job interviewee to shame. One of them is surprisingly fearless in her right-leaning political convictions; another speaks frankly about a history of domestic violence in her family. Choosing between these girls, I soon realize, is not going to be simple. And it doesn’t get any easier. Approximately six hours and one Mexican Inn lunch later, we’re all settled into our seats in the front row of the Old Bedford School auditorium, pens poised. Before us are dossiers on each girl. If the private interviews proved a challenge, the public event is even more intense.

The girls quickly emerge onto the stage in their seemingly identical brown, two-piece swimsuits and just as quickly strut off (Miss Teen contestants, who are scored slightly differently than the Miss contestants, wear sports bras and spandex.) Whatever moral qualms I might have about scrutinizing the physical appearance of these young women—any hint of cottage cheese on those thighs? Any jiggling in that midsection?—are swiftly laid to rest: Who has time for moral qualms when you have only eight seconds to give someone a one-to-ten ranking? The talent portion is most poignant. One would-be queen impressively wields a tae kwon do staff to the tune of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting.” Another takes to the stage with charcoal and a sketch pad and, in three minutes flat, conjures up a none-too-shabby portrait of a winged angel while Martina McBride’s “Concrete Angel” blares from the speakers. We finish with the evening gown segment. One of the contestants steps out in a highly constructed, couture-style black-and-white number that looks as if it cost considerably more than I make in a month.

As the competition nears its conclusion, a clear rivalry emerges. April Zinober, a tall, curvy blonde from Dallas, has impressed just about everyone with her bright smile and a topical platform that addresses bullying in schools. But she’s up against last year’s Miss Dallas, a petite 22-year-old brunette from Texas A&M University–Texarkana named Ali Burrow, who, the judges seem to concur, looked pretty darn smokin’ in her swimsuit. The onstage interview question, which each competitor draws from a fishbowl and must answer on the spot, fails to resolve the matter. Both Zinober and Burrow nail it.

Throughout all this, lurking just offstage, is co–executive director Martin, who—like any showwoman watching her big event unfold—wears an expression of combined pride and anxiety. The Fort Worth–based Martin created the Miss Irving pageant in 2009 with her husband, Chris. A garrulous, energetic 29-year-old who works as a marketing and event director for Cancer Care Services, she competed in pageants as a teenager and college student and suffered her own share of slings and arrows. (One trainer, upon spying her with a ham sandwich, sputtered: “Eat a pig, look like a pig.”) She believes fiercely in the mission of the Miss Texas system, the confidence it can teach, and the mentorships it helps develop. “Every job I’ve ever gotten,” she tells me afterward, “was because of someone I met doing pageants or because of the interview skills I learned while competing in them.”

In fact, as the Miss Texas system struggles with one foot in a hair-sprayed past and the other in our American Idol–ized present, Martin seems determined to save the institution by shaking it up. She represents a new, more appealingly self-aware age of pageantry, one that celebrates a Facebook-age “It” girl rather than a pretty, plasticine woman who says absolutely nothing controversial (to wit, Martin’s Miss Irving organization is one of the only regional pageants in Texas that’s active on Twitter). Though she is careful not to criticize the leadership of the Miss Texas organization (most of whom are north of sixty), there’s no mistaking the contrast between the Miss Texas shows of old—super-sparkly gowns, do-gooderish onstage questions, vocal performances of Crystal Gayle’s greatest hits!—and Martin’s event.

As the clock nears six, she takes to the stage to deliver a tear-filled farewell to last year’s Miss Irving, 22-year-old Jordan Johannsen, a bubbly blonde who is a student at Texas Christian University. More than a few people around me begin tearing up along with her. Eventually we arrive at the announcement of the winners: Burrow earns top honors in the swimsuit category; Zinober is named the winner of the interview portion. The tension escalates as the names of the runners-up are rattled off, leaving only Burrow and Zinober onstage.

Finally the moment arrives. Miss Irving 2011 is . . . Ali Burrow! A wave of very loud cheers erupts through the audience. Turns out I wasn’t the only one in the room enjoying the fact that this had become an old-fashioned nail-biter.

About a month later, I’m with Martin at the Halo Salon and Color Lab, in Fort Worth, to meet both Burrow and Johannsen, who after her stint as Miss Irving 2010 was named Miss Colleyville 2011. The queens are preparing for a photo shoot, and as we talk, Martin buzzes brightly in the background, snapping pictures and uploading them online. Burrow and Johannsen are naturals as pageant ambassadors, able to carry on a conversation while a woman paints their lips and another spritzes their hair. They tell me that a system that feminists deride for objectifying women is, for them, a means of self-improvement: learning to be confident in one’s body, to speak in front of an audience, and to eat well and exercise regularly.

They make a convincing case. Sure, they speak in bromides about being “supportive” of one another and wanting to have a “healthy” physique. But they’re not so naive or self-serious to think they’re engaged in the competition for the Nobel Peace Prize. Burrow, who only began competing when she was 21, acknowledges simply, “I like walking around onstage in an evening gown.” These women are also not so proper and over-rehearsed as to deny the competitive fire in their bellies: They really want to be crowned Miss Texas. “We’re girls,” says Johannsen, who was the first runner-up in the 2010 Miss Texas pageant. “So let’s face it. There are mind games that get played.”

They are aware too of the need to stay relevant. Johannsen tells me that after winning Miss Ellis County, in 2009, she was handed a long, stodgy list of “dos and don’ts” by the pageant’s directors, which included the edicts to not wear big jewelry or be without panty hose in public. “Seriously? I mean, no one wears those anymore,” she says.

“When we’re at Miss America, we don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, Texas, they’re an old-school pageant,’ ” she continues. According to Johannsen, Miss Texas competitors were sent a letter from the Miss America organization reminding them that the national pageant would once again be airing on ABC, a network that has proudly showcased the likes of Lady Gaga. Translation: Don’t be afraid to move with the times, and don’t be so familiar and polite in your music and costume choices that you bore viewers silly. For her part, Johannsen has tried to modernize things with a platform that focuses on HIV and AIDS awareness; one of the special events she attended during her Miss Irving pageant year was a fashion show at the Rose Room Theatre in Dallas’ Station 4 gay nightclub.

Change is afoot throughout the Texas circuit. Martin later puts me in touch with one of her Metroplex counterparts, Hunter Daniel, the co-executive director of the Miss Dallas pageant. At 26 he is the youngest pageant director in the state and, until recently, the youngest in the country. “Our approach, our clothing, everything we did leading up to Miss Dallas was modern,” Daniel recalls when we talk, describing the Sex and the City–meets–New York City Fashion Week theme he adopted for the 2011 pageant, including a runway for the evening gown portion. As part of Daniel’s recruitment efforts, he has partnered with a Latina beauty magazine called Chic and hosted a “prom dress drive” for teenagers of modest means. His strategies seem to be paying off: In 2007 six girls competed for Miss Teen Dallas and seven for Miss Dallas; in 2010 there were ten Miss Teen and nineteen Miss contestants in a pageant that had more than thirty local and national business sponsors.

It might take a miracle to bring pageants back to their former glory, but directors like Martin and Daniel are at least willing to try. And when you consider what they’re competing against, you might just decide to join them. The reality shows that threaten Miss Texas have altered our notion of the girl next door. Whether it’s Kelly Clarkson (pride of Burleson) on American Idol or Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars, young women now find celebrity through insistent overexposure. When Jersey Shore’s Snooki hits the New York Times best-seller list with an autobiographical novel about drinking, sex, and spray tanning, the Miss America competitor’s carefully cultivated air of elegance and elusiveness may be a little, well, staid.

So how will Martin and Daniel get new generations to pay attention to Miss Texas? Their best hope may be with the contestants themselves, a group of savvy, sweet-natured young women who are most certainly not the airheads you might imagine them to be and who are eager to see the institution carried forth. Burrow and Johannsen tweet, blog, mentor, rehearse, and travel to elementary schools and auditoriums with a tirelessness that would put any reality show contestant to shame. (The fact that Johannsen has been dating Texas Ranger Craig Gentry for two-plus years certainly hasn’t hurt in raising her profile either.) And, of course, they eagerly welcome into the pageant fold those curious young ladies who think they might look good in a sparkling tiara.

With one small caveat.

“It’s a bit of a balance,” explains Johannsen, with a mischievous sparkle in her blue eyes. “You want to bring in new people, but you don’t want to bring in someone who’s going to beat you.”