I have been in over 100 beauty pageants. I won approximately one-third of them. What do I have to show for all that pageantry? Nothing but sweet, sweet memories.
As little girls, the highlight of each year for the inseparable three, Kristi, Penny, and me, was the Miss Panola County Pageant. Dressed to the nines in our Easter regalia, we sat breathless on the edge of our seats in the high school auditorium waiting for the runner ups to be announced. Then, the moment of glory for which we prepared by crossing our legs, our arms and our fingers. "OUR NEW MISS PANOLA COUNTY IS...." were the sweetest words that could fall upon my six year old ears.
My mother helped with the stage decorations for several years. My most vivid memory of her work was the "Up, Up and Away" backdrop. Mother painted an almost life-sized replica of a hot air balloon striped with yellow, blue, green and pink. It was a most glorious sight to behold. The best part of being the child of the Beautiful Balloon's creator were the perks that came with her involvement in the pageant. Because Kristi's mother was the volunteer accompanist, we had perks aplenty. Wearing sundresses and patent leather Sunday shoes, we became the envy of our friends owing to the fact that we were allowed entrance to the coveted Pepsi Party during which the pageant contestants were introduced to the "media" - some man from the Panola County Watchman with a reporter's notepad and a huge camera that required a change of flashbulbs for each "candid" shot.
With promises of absolutely perfect, ladylike behavior, Kristi, Penny, and I were permitted to tag along with Mrs. Hook to each rehearsal to watch the contestants practice their talents. There were twirlers. There were pianists. An occasional interpretive dancer. But, our favorites were the singers. We sat on the front row of each practice shiny-eyed as we worshiped the girls who could belt out songs like "Whatever Lola Wants" and "Singin' in the Rain." As the pianist's and backdrop painter's daughters, we felt totally qualified to critique each talent performance. Believe you me, we analyzed each song, each girl, each costume. A girl in a glittering long dress with a sultry, deep voice had an edge over a girl in a cute shiny raincoat with a big yellow umbrella just about any day of the week. She could also totally upstage a girl banging out Rachmaninoff on the piano. We shook our heads in disbelief when a contestant wearing a bathrobe and horn-rimmed glasses strolled onto the stage, blew her nose, and sang "A Person Can Develop a Cold" from "Guys and Dolls." Was she crazy?! Even a twirler could easily beat that without ever once lighting a baton on fire. The poor dear was committing pageant suicide as far as we were concerned. Sympathetically, we agreed that her saving grace was that she was, at the very least, funny.
The adored elementary music teacher, Mrs. Blair ["blay-uh"], directed the opening scene in which each contestant was introduced. She personally choreographed the big performance number which tied the bow on the theme, "Up, Up and Away." We sat spellbound as the girls strutted around the stage with perfect posture and chins held high as they belted out, "We can float up in the stars together - you and I....For we can flyyyyyyyyy up, up and awa-a-ay!"
During the sultry afternoons as we counted down the hours until we were allowed to sit at the feet of the glamorous beauties of Panola County, we three girls became those beauties. We took turns wearing my mother's old party dresses fitted to our bodies with huge tucks taken in the back secured by diaper pins adorned with tiny plastic pink ducks. We democratically determined which lucky girl would wear the coveted pale pink fluffy dress with the pink lace bodice with a quick round of "one-potato-two-potato-three-potato-four." This same system determined our talent numbers as well as the runner up order and, most important, the winner.
Teasing our hair with my mother's rat tail comb and painting our lips with her pink matte lipstick, we prepared for our opening number. Quickly checking each others teeth for lipstick marks, we lined up just outside the door leading from the hall into our living room. Perfectly on cue, we wished each other luck, took deep breaths, threw open the door and gracefully sashayed into the living room singing "Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloooooooooon?!" This glorious entry was followed by a quick change into our baby doll bathing suits for a quick prance through the living room to "A Taste of Honey" from the "Whipped Cream and other Delights" album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
Jumping back into our evening gowns during "intermission," we warmed up our warbly little girl voices in preparation for the talent portion of our pageant. "O-Kay...you can sing 'Whatever Lola Wants' this time. But, I get it next time!" "I want 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'! It's my best song!" Song choices divvied out, we took turns holding our audience of two - the two other contestants - spellbound with our dramatic renditions of the pageant songs we loved so dearly.
Then, came the crowning with a homemade tinfoil crown, a bouquet of plastic flowers "borrowed" from some vase, and faux ermine-trimmed, red velvet coronation robe fashioned from a twin flat sheet. One third of the time, Kristi was crowned. One third of the time, Penny took a turn. And, one third of the time, I was crowned - the Queen of the East Neal Street Pageant.
Later, as we watched the wanna-be Miss Panola County Pageant contestants practice walking down the four stairs from the pillared platform at the back of the stage with Mrs. Blair calling out, "Keep your knees together!" we smiled knowingly at each other. True beauty, indeed, takes lots of practice and preparation. Take it from us, Miss Ah-Poyson-Can-Develop-A-Cold, pageantry is not for sissies.