My mom shook her head, scrunching up her nose and gazing at me with concern. "Are you sure you want to enter pageants?" I nodded, insisting upon it. Years of watching "Miss America" had convinced me that being a beauty queen was the ultimate dream come true.
From the ages of 12 to 15, I was obsessed with pageants, watching them, participating in them, and ultimately, winning them. The pageants I competed in were primarily based on scholastic achievements, but they also scored highly on personal appearance, poise, and grooming. I often felt like I was in a reality show when I competed in pageants. The vibe was eerily similar to TLC's hit show "Toddlers & Tiaras."
America's National Teenager pageant meant that I had scored a trip to Nashville, Tenn., to compete for the national title of Miss National Teenager at the Opryland Hotel.Of course, I started small, winning a few local pageants before being crowned Miss Nebraska National Teenager at age 15. Being named a state titleholder in the
The Opryland Hotel was the largest, most luxurious hotel I've ever seen, complete with a bubbling stream, vegetation, street lamps, shops, restaurants, and nightly entertainment. My brother and I were in awe as we explored the hotel, finding a new treasure around each corner.
On the first night of the pageant, the girls assembled in a banquet room to meet and greet each other. Each contestant was asked to bring a gift from her home state to give to the other girls. I presented Nebraska pins, donated from a local bank. As I spoke about the Cornhusker State and announced my gift, I saw contestants in the audience frown and gasp.
It wasn't long before I understood their reactions. The other girls' gifts were elaborate: baskets stuffed with glittery tissue paper, spilling over with glamorous handmade lotions, potpourri, perfumes, gift cards and gourmet boxes of chocolates. The other contestants, who had been competing in national pageants since they were toddlers, understood the gift rule. Expensive gifts were expected.
The next day, I came down with the worst cold of my life, schlepping through rehearsals. The other girls perfected their jazz hands with Pixy Stix-fueled pep and ear-to-ear grins. Nothing fazed these plastic people. They were older versions of JonBenét Ramsey, sporting frosted blonde hair, spray-tanned skin, and straight teeth as white as the clouds in Heaven.
It was obvious that the "Toddlers & Tiaras" mentality was rampant in Nashville. These young teens wore makeup heavier than Broadway cast members. Pageant coaches accompanied girls to their interviews, preparing them until the last second before meeting the judges. Every word that came out of these girls' mouths was rehearsed, even during "casual" tours of the Wild Horse Saloon and Grand Ole Opry. These girls had been groomed for pageants since they were born.
Some of their dresses cost more than my parents' home. I had come from a safe, solid and loving - yet very middle class - family. These girls were affluent enough to wear designer gowns. They traveled with their own personal makeup artists and hairdressers, never leaving their hotel rooms without perfect ringlets and fake eyelashes.
One experience at a national pageant was enough for me. Before participating in pageants, I had held them in high esteem. After one national contest, I was scarred for life.
I knew that my personal constitution was so much stronger, and so much smarter, than what the pageant world had to offer. I was a girl with substance running through her veins rather than superficiality. As suddenly as my desire to compete in pageants had started, it stopped. I replaced my tiara pursuit with the dream of becoming a writer.
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