Chapter 17: Miss USA Pageant
The hallways were filled with non-stop Spring Formal gossip. Girls whispered behind locker doors about makeup choices, dress attire, and of course the compelling dilemma: ruffles or no ruffles. Names of eye shadow colors and blush brands were being swapped at the speed of fire to the point where it felt like I had entered a cosmetics department store.
As I passed by the boys’ locker room, I heard echoey snippets of bets being made and decisions being deciphered in terms of choosing bows or ties. Every single question or choice sounded like word vomit to me, and I couldn’t help but wish I had brought earplugs. One dance, one night that wasn’t even as important as prom, had every single student attending growing antsy.
“Nina!” a voice called as I neared my own locker, relieved to have reached my destination unscathed by the mob of the Spring Formal obsessed student body. Faith waved me over with such enthusiasm, I was certain her wrist was going to break. I squeezed past a cluster of girls swapping cell phones and showing one another pictures of their formal dresses. Faith, good old Faith, was sure to have better news than this.
“Why so chipper?” I gasped once I reached my locker, placing a hand on my hip and spinning the combination of my lock.
“Guess who I asked to the dance?” she blurted out, jumping up and down on the balls of her feet. I whirled around to face her, my jaw dropping.
“You asked someone to the spring formal?”
“Danny!” she went on, not missing a beat.
“From camp?” I asked. “So he does exist…”
She narrowed her eyes at me before continuing. “I was thinking a lot about it last night, and it came to me that things don’t have to be so complicated. If I want to ask someone to the dance, I can ask them. So I picked up the phone and called him, told him about the dance, and he said he’d love to go!”
I pulled her in for a hug, grinning. “That’s amazing, Faith!” Her face was glowing. It was the first time in a long time that I saw her smiling confidently and looking so sure of herself. I turned away from her to swing open my locker, nearly bonking myself in the face, and laughed. She folded her arms, smirking.
“You’re extremely chipper yourself,” she said. I shrugged my shoulders, brushing her comment off because I couldn’t quite explain to her what it felt like after talking to Jane. Her words lifted me out of a sixteen year long funk. Who could truly explain something like that?
The bell rang just in time, jostling us forward unexpectedly. I brushed my fingertips against my locker door, just barely shutting it. Faith and I moved with the flow of hallway traffic, our arms looped through one another.
“Isn’t today your pageant?” she yelled over the noise. I nodded. “And you’re attending spring formal afterwards?” I nodded again. “Oh, honey, I don’t know how you do it!”
I didn’t either.
My ear still felt hot from the accidental curling iron burn fiasco, my stomach was growling because I had eaten only a granola bar and a yogurt cup, and I felt like I was going to go insane due to the butterflies fluttering around in my stomach.
The sun was just beginning to set beneath the horizon. I watched it slink down behind the mountains as Parker drove through the highway. Richel was checking off a list of reminders: walk across the stage with your head held high; look straight ahead; put one foot in front of other, heel-toe-heel-toe.
As soon as I completed the school day, Parker drove like a bullet to his house, where Richel was already waiting for us. Her bathroom sink held piles of eyeshadow palettes, different tubes of mascara and lipstick, and my dress hanging off a rack on the wall.
The preparation process had been long: I kept blinking, smiling was involved to find the apples of my cheeks, eyelids were opened and closed, and a whole lot of other facial exercises just to apply makeup. We were in such a rush that when we moved onto the hair, Richel haphazardly placed the curling iron on the back of my ear instead of around a strand of my hair.
“Holy crap,” Parker said now from the driver’s seat.
“What?” My head snapped up and I saw what had caught his attention: throngs of people were weaving their through the parking lot and walking into Melway Hall. Pageant contestants were wobbling across the concrete in their high studded heels and pulling up their strapless dresses to keep them from falling because what a nightmare that would be.
My eyes searched for the one friend I had managed to make, Anna, but she was nowhere in sight. Perhaps I would bump into her once we were inside. Parker pulled into an empty spot near the front. A water fountain stood in the foreground just in front of the double revolving doors. Palm trees were planted in a neat line along the sidewalk.
“Are you ready?” Richel whispered in my ear, grabbing my hand and squeezing my fingers. I nodded in awe. The last time I had been to Melway Hall was for an elementary school Choir event. Now, at night with girls in dresses floating their way inside, the atmosphere was different. To know that I was a part of this group that would soon be walking along the stage was unbelievable.
We headed inside as I kept in mind the heel-toe-heel-toe advice Richel had given me while walking. Heels weren’t exactly my forteit. “Do you need assistance, ma’am?” Parker asked, offering his arm. I laughed, looping mine through his.
“I do, sonny. Thank you for asking,” I replied in a weak grandma voice. He tipped his imaginary hat towards me, which only made me grin wider. Richel was zooming ahead of us, making sure to clear the way and make it somewhat easier for me to walk through the crowds of incoming families and contestants.
Entering the hall felt like entering a fashion show. The stage was one long, black narrow strip. A small table was set up just a few feet in front of it for the panel of judges. I spotted Jane sitting in her given chair, answering a few of the press’ questions while posing for the paparazzi that had surprisingly managed to get in. They were awfully sneaky, those people.
“Nina!” a voice called over the ruckus. When I turned around, Faith and the entire volleyball team, including Coach Tracy, were running towards me. It was strange seeing everyone in regular clothes rather than our usual sports uniforms.
Michelle pounced on me, squeezing my waist while Faith and the other girls marveled over my hair and my dress.
“You look hot. Stop.”
“You look like a real model!”
I pulled away from their tight embraces, bringing my hands up to my chest. “I can’t believe you guys are really here.”
“We promised that we would,” Coach Tracy said, standing on her tiptoes and looking around past the groups of people flooding in. “This is a lot different than the volleyball court, huh?”
“Do they have any male models here?” Michelle asked with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. I smacked her arm with my hand, shaking my head in disapproval, although her intentions meant well. It was only natural for a spunky character like her to be on the prowl again.
Parker’s arm was still looped through mine, and a few of the girls were murmuring to one another and shooting me knowing stares. I slid my arm out of his grip as subtly as possible before following Richel to where she was motioning for me to sit. Each contestant and mentor had their own station set up. A spinning chair was waiting for me, as well as a mirror with lightbulbs surrounding it. A small table held a can of hairspray, an eyeshadow palette, and a small pink goodie bag filled with complimentary cosmetics for us to keep.
“Woah,” I breathed, plopping into the chair. Richel got to work, adjusting my hair once more with the occasional spritz of hairspray and adding a few bobby pins to my twisted bun. She’d added small flower clips throughout the strands of my hair and left two dainty curls hanging just down my temples.
“I call dibs on the shimmery pink blush,” Richel said, opening the bag. I frowned at her and she laughed. “I’m messing with you.”
Faith and the team took seats in the rows of gray metal chairs placed in a section meant for the audience. People from all over Melway were trickling their way into the hall, filling up nearly every seat. I never imagined I would be walking down a runway stage for this many people. A large amount of butterflies were growing in my stomach, and I found myself wringing the fabric of my dress at a lame attempt to stay calm.
How had my mother competed with such a calm manner? It was absolute chaos here: girls were rushing to make last minute adjustments to their makeup and overly possessive pageant moms were arguing with their daughters about how to walk and purse their lips. It was growing difficult for me to even find peace of mind.
“Breathe,” Richel said after smoothing down a few baby hair strands atop my head. “You are going to do wonderful up there. Remember why you’re doing this. Realize how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown in the past month. You’re a real work of art, Nina.”
I inhaled and exhaled just as she asked. “Okay. You’re right. I can do this. I want to do this.” What surprised me was that it was true: I did want to walk down that stage. I had been so centered around the fact that I had to look and act a certain way that I’d forgotten the fun bits of being in a pageant. I’d gotten to know myself more, I learned what I liked and didn’t like when it came to makeup and I’d managed to make new friends.
“Anna,” I suddenly said, pushing past Richel. If there was someone here that I wanted to say a few last words to, it would be her. I wanted to wish her luck, to remind her that she was just as confident as the heroes and heroines in the books she was always reading. But Anna was nowhere in sight. She didn’t even have a station set up. My shoulder bumped into a person passing by. “Jane!”
“Nina,” she said, leaning in for a hug. “You look beautiful.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “But have you seen Anna?”
“Is she a contestant?” Jane asked, crossing her arms. I nodded and watched as she tapped her chin thoughtfully. Her eyes lit up and I could almost see the lightbulb go off above her head. “The girl you were talking with at the brunch meetup?”
“She dropped out of the pageant.”
It felt like someone had socked me in the gut. “What?”
Jane placed a firm hand on my shoulder. “The judges told me about it. She confessed to her mother that pageantry wasn’t her thing. She said she found the courage to do so because she met a wonderful person here that reminded her to go after what she really loved and be confident in doing so.” Jane tilted her head at me, placing a hand lightly on her hip before breaking out into a smile. “It’s only taken me three seconds to guess that this person is you. Am I right?”
I blinked, lost for words. Jane laughed, patting me lightly on the shoulder before being swept away by a woman with curly bright red hair. Anna had left the pageant because she had the courage to do so… because of me. Because I had befriended her, because I had stood up for her in a time where I felt courage was needed. Never in my life would I have ever thought I’d affect someone after only one encounter. I hoped she was somewhere reading right now, enjoying herself. Twirling around, I looked at my surroundings.
For the first time, I realized that I had joined this pageant with the wrong intentions. I wanted to walk down the runway with the right mindset. I knew what I wanted now. I wanted to be confident. I wanted to be my own style of pretty.
I pushed back the black curtain to take a peek out into the crowd. The audience had grown; there had to be at least eighty people sitting down in those gray metallic chairs. It took awhile for my eyes to find Faith and the team. They blended into the mass of individuals sitting cross legged with cameras and cellphones out, aimed at the stage. Everyone was eager for the show to start.
With a shaky breath, I got jostled back into line by two nearby contestants who kept jabbering their heads off. Strangely, I hadn’t run into Leslie, who I had mentally prepared myself to face tonight. I was certain she would have a snide remark hidden under her sleeve, but she wasn’t even here. Her station had been set up just a few chairs down from mine, but no one sat in the black spinning chair.
A woman wearing a headset was running around with a rather frazzled expression on her face, which I couldn’t blame her for. Trying to juggle a group of chaotic, nervous teenage girls and organize them required patience of steel.
Jane sat with the previous woman and man I’d seen her with during my very first interview. Notepads and glasses of water were placed directly in front of them. I could spot a few erratic mothers already attempting to peek over their shoulders and catch glances of the grading sheets. Richel and I had gone over the bullet points they’d highlighted for the specifics that they were looking for:
Four traits that I had been working on for nearly the past month, four traits that I was now expected to portray the minute I walked down that stage. This was the ultimate test.
“Two minutes!” the Headset Woman announced. “Two more minutes and our show is beginning! Please stand in one long line!”
The girls around me were scurrying around now, tugging at their dresses and patting their hair dos, making sure every strand was in place. We were all chewing on our bottom lips, our hearts pounding, imagining all the possible scenarios that could occur once we walked down that stage. But we all had to be here for a reason: to feel the spotlight, whether we had been in it before or not.
Suddenly, the audience outside burst into applause. All of the contestants, including me, pulled back the curtain by a few centimeters to look at what was unraveling onstage. Jane stood at the center of the stage with her microphone in hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming today to watch these lovely ladies walk the runway for the Melway Pageant Show,” she said, and more whistling and clapping erupted. She smiled, waiting for the audience to simmer down before continuing. “This is the first of three pageant shows. Those who make it to the next round will be attending the Miss USA Pageant. Those who succeed within that pageant get to travel to Florida on a paid flight for the Miss America Pageant, where many other girls from different states will be joining the competition.”
The audience was murmuring with excitement now. The idea of their daughters or nieces or siblings, depending on who the audience member was, leaving Melway and getting the chance to travel to Florida, of all places, was a timid dream. People who were in Melway usually stayed right where they were. But seeing Jane on that stage, knowing that she’d traveled and been to so many places because of her career, made me wish that I could do those things, too.
“Tonight we are all going to see twenty beautiful young women walking down this runway in formal attire. We have picked these young women because out of the many that auditioned to be a part of this pageant, these young ladies were the ones that stood out the most in terms of intelligence and approach. And with that, let’s get the show started!”
My throat never leapt into my stomach so quickly. I counted the number of heads ahead of me: five. At least I wasn’t number two this time.
“I can’t do this,” a girl behind me whimpered. I turned around and realized that she was on the verge of tears. I placed two hands on her shoulders as firmly as possible.
“Breathe,” I instructed. The girl, a rather tall blonde, took a deep breath, but her eyes were still tearing up. “Breathe again. And again and again and again until your throat stops hurting.”
“How do you know my throat is hurting?” she asked, letting out a hiccup.
“Because my throat hurts when I’m about to cry, too.”
She sent me a watery smile before breathing in and out. Her shoulders loosened and I tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear.
“You are going to make it down that stage with your chin held high and you’re not going to trip,” I told her, mainly because it was a bit of a mantra for myself. “You can do this.”
She sniffled, then motioned for me to move forward since the line was moving up. It was almost my turn. The girls were surprisingly walking quite well, although there were a few wobbles and almost-trips here and there. It was only inevitable; none of us were official models, anyway.
“Next we have Contestant Number Six, Nina Gregory.”
I blinked, stunned. Had the five girls in front of me already finished?
“That’s you!” the Headset Woman hissed before pressing her hand against the small of my back and giving me a slight push and shove. I tumbled forward before being hit by the spotlight, and I immediately straightened myself and stood taller. I blinked against the bright spotlight. The audience had suddenly disappeared, with only faded outlines of people’s bodies and heads.
I took a step forward, then another step. Heel-toe-heel-toe. I walked forward, striding and strutting until I had an imaginary beat going on in my feet. The music blaring through the speakers was upbeat, and by the time I reached the front of the stage, placing a hand on my hip, the audience was clapping and cheering. If I squinted hard enough, I could make out Faith and Coach Tracy, as well as Michelle and the other team members. They were grinning, hands cupped around their mouths as they chanted my name.
I had never felt more alert until this very moment of who I was and what I was doing. Too often had I grown used to living in the shadows, and now here I was: standing in a spotlight aimed right at me for all the right reasons. I felt confident, not because I was in this fancy dress. Not even because my hair looked nice and untangled, or because my eyelashes were longer. I felt pretty because I felt happy with who I was, and the feeling soared through me like I was growing a pair of wings.
Spinning around and letting my dress flow around me like a whirlpool, I started walking back to the end of the stage. By the time I reached the curtain, my knees were shaking, not because I had been nervous, but because I was surprised at how much I’d enjoyed walking down that stage.
The girls backstage who had yet to walk patted me on the shoulder, sending me encouraging smiles and reassuring glances. The girl I had comforted before I’d gone on was now walking down that stage with her chin held high. It was fierce, the way her feet and hips moved. To know that for a second I had been a part of that process of her confidence was a good feeling.
I peeked out past the curtain to find Jane looking back at me from the panel table, smiling and sending me a thumbs up. I had done it. I had gotten a taste of what it felt like to be seen, really seen.
All of us stood across the stage in one straight line, young girls wearing sparkly dresses and high heels. We had all never been here before, never imagined that we would be up here, yet here we were. Our arms were linked and our fingers were looped through one another’s. Out of twenty girls, only ten would make it onto the next round. Needless to say, tensions were running fairly high and if the room went completely silent and still, I was certain that the audience would hear twenty young hearts hammering.
“Let’s give another round of applause to these beautiful young ladies onstage,” Jane announced, and the audience went wild. The girls beside me were squeezing my fingers so hard that the circulation in my fingers was beginning to cut off, but they needed it. They needed to squeeze something in order to calm themselves from their shot nerves; I couldn’t blame them.
“The panel of judges and I have thought long and hard about the next set of ten girls who will be going onto the Miss USA Pageant. Before we announce the winners, we’d first like to congratulate each of our contestants for sharing with us their own shine. It takes a lot of strength and bravery for a young girl to get up on stage and walk without falling flat on your face.” The audience took a moment to laugh. “Everyone up on that stage is daring and spunky. Continue on with that.”
I felt my breath catching, knowing that the results were about to be released.
“It is now time to announce the next ten contestants that will be moving onto the Miss USA Pageant.” Jane waved a set of ten pink envelopes around in the air before balancing nine underneath her armpit and carefully opening Envelope Number One. She took a breath. “Judy Auburn.”
A girl on the far left of me wearing a teal gown flew her hands up to her mouth, her eyes tearing up. It was the tall blonde I had helped calm down earlier. A chant of “Judy, Judy” boomed from the back of the room, where I assumed her family sat.
The list of names were rattled off until there were only two contestants left. I felt the blood rushing to my head, and I was biting my tongue out of anxiety. I reminded myself that it didn’t matter if I made it to the next round or not. What mattered was how far I had come, how much I had found out about myself and how much I had blossomed.
Even if I didn’t pass, it didn’t mean I was anything less than my mother. It didn’t. Not anymore. Jane held one last pink envelope in her hands. My shoulders loosened in defeat.
“This last envelope defines the girl who will be moving onto the next round who is also our winner of this pageant. She has shown not only the qualities the panel has been looking for, such as poise, posture, her smile and her confidence, but has also shown us her vulnerability. She has shown compassion for her fellow contestants. I would like to take this moment to have the coordinator of this entire event enter our stage, the man himself all the way from England: Mr. Greg Klein!”
My jaw dropped as I watched Greg come out onto the stage in a black suit and tie, clean and pressed with his hair combed back. On his arm stood none other than my mother, in a long silver dress that shimmered with every step she took. I couldn’t move. Prickles were crawling up my arms.
“What a shame. That’s when the event I’m hosting will be.”
“I work in London, but my company is running a small business campaign over here for a short time period.”
“Hello everyone, thank you so much for coming out tonight,” he said through the microphone. “We’ve been working hard on building the pageants here in Melway. This year we’ve had an overflowing amount of girls audition, and it’s meant the world to me.” He turned to my mother, smiling. “I have here with me a special guest, someone who has once been in the Melway Pageant, Miss Flora Gregory.”
The applause burst out into the open, and my mother took the microphone from Greg, to my horror. “Hello,” she said politely, giving a small bashful wave at the audience. I locked eyes with Jane, who was shooting me a wide eyed look, but there was nothing she could really do. It wasn’t her fault that I’d gotten myself into this mess. As she handed the mic back to Greg, I wondered if anyone would notice me making a bolt for the exit.
“I would like Miss Gregory to give us the honors of announcing the winner of this pageant who will also be moving onto the next round with the other nine contestants,” Greg declared. With great hesitance and a sympathetic look my way, Jane handed the pink envelope to my mother. I shut my eyes. I didn’t need to win.
Mom opened the envelope, taking out the slip of paper. Her eyes landed on the name before lifting up to look for the winner, and when her glare fell on me, I knew I was in deep trouble, the kind you can’t dig yourself out of.