I’ve always thought that beauty pageants are silly. And that’s being charitable. Because I could make the case that beauty pageants objectify women in an insidious way that actually makes pageants worse than topless bars. At least topless bars are upfront about how they degrade women. The judges in a topless bar care only about a woman’s corpus and her terpsichorean interpretation of “Cherry Pie.” If she’s a member of Phi Beta Kappa and does puppet shows in her spare time for pediatric cancer patients, then that’s nice. But the judges don’t insult her by pretending that her brains or philanthropic endeavors matter.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve always thought. So maybe I wasn’t the best choice to emcee the recent Miss North Texas USA pageant. A woman named Debra, the pageant’s director, invited me to do it. It’s possible that Debra hadn’t read my position paper on beauty pageants. I took the assignment because I have a hard time saying no.
The gig went down on a Saturday night in the auditorium at the University of North Texas, and it was a double bill. The Miss North Texas Teen USA pageant, with its three contestants, ran concurrently. I had a co-emcee, the lovely and talented Pamela Parker, news director of KNON 89.3 FM. I’m fairly certain she hates me now.
Thing is, I get nervous when I have to put on a black suit and stand on a stage with pretty girls in bathing suits and talk to an audience. Even if only three of the girls are teens and even if there are only 60 people in the audience, I still get the jimjams. And the nervous energy, rather than affecting me like tetanus, acts as a double-duty truth serum that lubricates my jaw and sends words spilling from my mouth in a logorrheic fit.
My irreverence for the beauty pageant surfaced after the swimsuit round. The 10 women and three teens had just finished strutting around, following an intricate choreography that made brilliant use of the four white Doric columns that were the pageant’s only stage decoration. Pamela and I stepped up to our podium. And I told the audience, the majority of whom I now realize were likely parents of the contestants: “You know, ladies and gentlemen, one of the perks of emceeing this event tonight is that I get to watch the girls change into their swimsuits backstage.”
Later in the program, a young model with braces on her teeth provided a brief interlude in the program by walking across the stage in a fancy dress. I cracked a joke about how I was disappointed that she didn’t play the spoons. The only person in the entire auditorium who laughed was a 5-year-old boy sitting in the front row.
Making matters worse, the pageant—and I want to be careful here, because I know a lot of kind-hearted people worked hard to bring the thing off—was organized about as well as a bar fight between a drunk monkey and a blind rabbi. There were interminable pauses in the pageantry that had to be filled with some form of entertainment. For example, with all the girls standing onstage, smiling, waiting for us to announce the finalists’ names, I was told from the wings that they needed five more minutes to tally the judges’ scores. So I just grabbed a mic with a long cord and started interviewing the girls.
My first question to one of the teens: “So, um, what are you doing after the pageant tonight?”
Five minutes. I lost 3 pounds in those five minutes, all from perspiration. When my quiver of witty questions was empty, I asked in a whisper how much more time the guy in the wings needed. He said he needed another five minutes.
Eventually and at length, Candace Campfield was crowned Miss North Texas; Rochelle Hobbs won the teen division. There ensued much hugging and crying and so forth. Pamela and I thanked everyone for coming, and I busted cheeks for the door. But my route took me right through the crowdlette of the contestants’ friends and family. I expected spitting, blows to the head.
But something amazing happened. No fewer than three times I was stopped by someone who wanted to tell me what a great job Pamela and I had done. Really, it was shocking. And gratifying. I left the auditorium that night feeling much better about myself than I would have if I’d gone to a topless bar. No doubt about it.