I lean up on my bed the morning of the pageant and find myself struck with anxiety. I’m usually never this anxious but right now, it’s like I can barely breathe. I try my best to calm myself as I gather everything I need into my suitcase so I can head over to the venue.
I see my dad sipping coffee and reading the paper in the kitchen. He looks up at me and smiles.
“I’ll be there in a few hours, cheering you on,” he says to me.
I smile back and kiss him on the forehead. He is a workaholic but the past two years he took time off work to support me at the pageants. This year is no different. Seeing his warm, familiar smile calms my anxiety all the way down.
The twins meet me at the front entrance and we all head inside together. They are pretty much my pageant "entourage", for lack of a better word. Technically what that means is that they help me make sure my hair, makeup, outfits, and everything else looks flawless before each round.
They are extremely valuable when it comes to this stuff.
“Trixie is already here,” Riley whispers in my ear, as we walk towards the dressing rooms.
“Okay?” I ask, with a strained annoyance in my tone. Why are the twins so obsessed with this new girl? I’ve literally not given anyone a single reason to doubt my ability to win this thing.
We enter the dressing room area to start setting up my things... and that’s when I see her.
This radiant gem of a beauty just standing there, surrounded by a team of bustling people. She’s got one person primping her nails, one person primping her hair, and another crouched down sliding her foot into a pair of heels. Three other bustling people are arranging a dress rack and makeup station for her. She makes direct eye contact with me... and smiles.
Something about her smile is so nonchalant, yet still equally calculated in some peculiar way. I can’t place a finger on it.
She’s really pretty. I can’t pretend I don’t see that. I glance around at the rest of the contestants in the dressing room and notice the same flurry of familiar faces I’ve defeated over the last couple of years. Gloria Gale, Hannah Fisher, and Courtney Pellman just to name a few. The rest of the girls are like me… we don’t have real “entourages” or teams of professionals preparing us for showtime. We’re small-town girls who get help from our friends, moms, sisters, or whoever is closest to us.
This Trixie girl obviously didn’t catch that memo.
“Don’t pay attention to her,” Ruthie whispers to me.
“Why not?” I whisper back.
“It will psyche you out!” she hisses.
I silently take offense to that statement. Who’s to say Trixie isn’t equally psyched out by my presence? Ugh. Who am I kidding?
“We’ve got two hours until the first round starts,” Riley says, pushing me down into one of the chairs. “Let’s just get you together.”
I sit there, stewing in my emotions as Riley applies makeup to my bare face and Ruthie begins straightening the curls in my hair.
The pageant starts with the swimsuit round. Then the talent round. Then the evening gown round. Last comes the deep cognitive question round. Each round is worth 25%. Both years so far I’ve pulled in near-perfect overall scores.
By the time the pageant is ready to begin, I can feel that the natural internal sense of confidence and strength I usually have has depleted rapidly. I mentally grasp onto whatever’s left of my self-esteem and force a smile onto my face.
The swimsuit round begins.
I watch the other girls I’m competing against walk the stage in their bikinis until it’s my turn. Scores of 91%, 93%, and 88% flash ahead of me.
I strut down the stage wearing my pink and white bikini. I force a smile on my face and place a hand on my hip. Fake it 'til you make it, I repeat to myself in my head. Which is strange because I’ve never felt I had to fake having confidence before. My score of 97% hits the big screen and I feel a whole lot better seeing a score that is significantly higher than the other girls so far. I see my dad in the audience standing and clapping for me. I see my boyfriend Doug standing and clapping for me also. I even see Tony Paulson, a guy I’ve grown up with since elementary school standing up and clapping for me. I feel like I’m on top of the world.
Until Trixie hits the stage a moment later, strutting like a model, wearing her itty-bitty, barely-there, hot red bikini. Her score of 100% is met with an eruption of cheers from the audience. I literally want to crumble. I don't have time to dwell on the scoring. I need to get myself together.
The talent round begins.
I watch a tap-dance sequence, a baton twirling performance, and a poetic monologue from some 18th-century play. Scores of 85%, 90%, and 92% flash ahead of me.
Riley and Ruthie set the stage for me as I hover behind the curtains anxiously waiting to go out there for my talent showcase. The twins arrange my blank white canvas, paint colors, and a stool for me to sit on. Each year I’ve painted intricate portraits for the talent portion of the pageant and each year, the judges have been blown away.
Art is something I’ve been good at since I was really little. My dad told me after my mom passed away that all of the creativity inside of her was magically embedded inside of me for "safekeeping." The imagery of that statement sort of stayed with me. I started painting and drawing all the time and it kind of just became… my thing.
After Riley and Ruthie retreat from the stage, I take my seat on the painter’s stool and begin painting a portrait. Just like both years prior, I paint the face of my mother. I paint every detail I can remember of her from when I was little before she was gone. I reflect on the images I've seen of her in some of my favorite photographs as well.
In less than fifteen minutes, she is complete. I’d like to take more time and add more detail but when it comes to pageants, you are on a time constraint for every round so I have to keep my artwork simpler than I’d prefer.
I look just like the painting I’ve completed but it’s obvious that the portrait I’ve drawn is not of myself, but rather of the woman who birthed me that I never really got to know.
Everyone in my small town knows about me losing my mother at a young age. It’s never been a secret. I was never one to discuss it with others but painting portraits of her gives me room to express the fact that I do in fact miss her… and that I wish I could have actually known her. The judges give me a score of 100%. I take a deep breath of relief. The highest score I’ve received so far.
Trixie takes the stage to showcase her talent. I’m unsure of what to expect… until I see her gently take the microphone to her lips and I hear the first few notes of a classic Marilyn Monroe song begin to play.
She sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” while flirtatiously prancing around the stage in a skintight pink dress paired with white gloves and a necklace of pearls. Just like Marilyn did back in the 50s. Trixie playfully adds sultry dance moves here and there, flips her hair around quite a bit, and ends the song with a wink in the direction of the panel of judges.
She receives a score of 100% too. Riley and Ruthie look at me with eyes full of worry. I ignore their reactions as best I can. I have no room in my head for their simmering doubt. I'm already doubting myself enough.
The evening gown round begins.
I watch the other girls in the pageant walk the stage in their gowns. I certainly notice some sophisticated and stylish looks. Scores of 95%, 92%, and 93% flash before me.
I walk the stage in my pale pink gown, maintaining elegance and balance in each and every step, even though the heels I’m wearing are as uncomfortable as you might imagine. My dress is made of lots of lace giving it a very feminine feel. It shows off my figure without being explicit or overly sexual. In other words, I look gracefully classy. I finish my walk with a 360 twirl at the end and receive a score of 99%.
Trixie follows shortly after in a gorgeous gold-colored gown that cascades around her body like something you might see in a fairytale. I hate to admit it but she looks like… royalty. As she nears the end of the stage, she slightly stumbles over the bottom of her dress but she collects herself in a totally dignified way-- she regains her posture and composure as if she never even stumbled at all. Over the past two years in this competition, I noticed that the judges are quick to dock points from any contestants who fall, trip, or even slightly stumble.
Despite her stumble, the judges still score her a 99%. My breath catches in my throat when I see that. Had that been Gloria Gale stumbling, the score would have dropped at least 5% lower. But then again, I guess it’s pretty obvious that Gloria Gale isn’t really much of a sight to see in comparison to the magnificent Trixie Townsend.
I return to the dressing room with Riley and Ruthie to prepare for the final round.
“So to recap,” Riley says to me, reading off her notepad. “You and Trixie are tied in the second and third rounds, but she has the lead on you in the first round by 3%.”
“Do you think I don’t already know that?” I ask her, visibly irritated.
“Well, this just means that you HAVE to outscore her in this final round to have a chance at taking the crown,” Ruthie explains.
“I am fully aware,” I respond to the twins with my arms crossed. I’m grateful they are here to help me but sometimes the twins really piss me off. I don't need the obvious the be pointed at to me in a moment of pressure.
"I can't believe she only lost 1% in scoring after that stumble," Ruthie mutters.
"The judges must really like her," Riley says shrugging.
I wish they would both shut up. They get started on my final hair and makeup change as I silently tell myself that everything is going to be okay. I repeat the words over and over again in my head until I’m out of time.
The deep cognitive question round begins.
I stand in a row with the rest of the beauty pageant contestants with the bright lights glaring right at us. This round is considered the most daunting because instead of coasting on outward appearances, we actually have to be able to articulately state an intelligent answer to whatever question is given to us... a question that allows for deeper thinking.
I listen to the girls before me answering questions like, “How do you define success?”, “If you could solve one world crisis or issue, what would it be?”, and “How do you intend to motivate positive changes in society?”
When it’s finally my turn, I hold the microphone in my hand feeling my palms start to get a bit clammy. Last year and the year before, I answered the questions I was asked effortlessly. I was calm, cool, and collected without a shadow of a doubt. This year is different.
The pageant host asks me, “What advice do you have for younger generations of girls who might look up to you if you win this beauty pageant today?”
I stare at him. Blankly. I’m literally frozen there without the ability to move my lips. Have I just been paralyzed? What do I do?
He repeats the question. I turn from him and look over at the panel of judges. I look over at the girls I’m competing against and I see Trixie standing there, smiling. I look out at the audience and see my dad. He looks worried with his eyebrows furrowed. I look to the side stage curtain and see Riley and Ruthie staring at me with most likely the same amount of anxiety that I have.
I clear my throat and raise the microphone to my mouth to say, “I would tell girls of the younger generation to… always remember to smile because it shows the world that you are a happy person. Being a happy person is so important because happiness improves your social life, helps you reach your goals, enhances your health, and more.”
I lower the microphone and grimace at what I’ve just said. I could have come up with something so much better. Tell girls to remember to smile?! What the actual hell is wrong with me? I personally hate being told by others that I need to smile more. Why the hell did I just say that?!
I look up at the big screen and finally see my fourth-round score plastered there. I’ve received a score of 90%. The lowest score I've gotten all day. I rejoin the rest of the girls in line.
Trixie takes her place, front-and-center, waiting for her question.
“What three words best describe you?” the pageant host asks her.
She giggles in a cutesy way and proceeds to give her answer to the easiest softball pageant question I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
“Three words that describe me would have to be adventurous, passionate, and determined.”
“Determined?” the host asks, reiterating her final word.
“Yes, indeed!” she squeals. “Determined to win this pageant today!”
The audience laughs and claps at her ever-so-pleasant comedic quip as we all wait on the judges scoring of her answer to hit the screen.
I see her score of 100% flash onto the screen, shining before my very eyes and it takes everything within me to hold it together. I want to run off the stage and collapse into a pile of nothingness on the floor. I feel tears welling up in my red-rimmed eyes but I refuse to let a single teardrop fall while I am still standing on this stage.
I watch them place the sash over her arm and chest. I watch them hand her the bouquet of flowers. I watch them place the crown on top of her head. I watch them give her the title of this year’s “Miss Hartford City.” I watch them take what was supposed to be mine for my third year in a row and give it away... to her.
The rest of the girls and I walk in a group back to the dressing rooms. They’ve all got their shoulders slouched with visibly tear-stricken faces. I force myself to hold it together. Riley and Ruthie rush towards me to comfort me with hugs and I appreciate their loving sentiments but honestly, at this moment I don’t even want to be touched.
I gather my things and load up my suitcase to leave. I see my dad waiting for me near the exit doors.
“Are you alright, beautiful?” he asks me.
“As alright as I can be I guess,” I mumble.
He hugs me tightly and tells me, “It’s not the end of the world, darling.”
When he lets me go I feel like I can sense the disappointment exuding out of him. He came here to see me win again and instead, I’ve failed him. And I’ve embarrassed myself.
“Would you like a ride home or you’re going to get one from Doug?” he asks.
“Doug is somewhere around here,” I reply. “I’ll get a ride home with him.”
My dad squeezes my shoulder and leaves. I can’t believe I’ve let him down like this. My mom was a pageant winner. I was supposed to follow in her footsteps, always.
I know deep down that if you really believe in something, it becomes your reality. Which means that if I had truly believed in myself during the pageant, rather than filling myself with so much negative self-talk and doubt, I would have been the one to win. There is something about Trixie winning that makes me feel like I am not valuable as a person anymore. She’s got this classic prettiness that she offers the world… The type of beauty that is considered beautiful no matter where in the world she might go. She will be sought after and accepted literally anywhere she might choose to go. With me, it’s different. I’ve got the type of prettiness that some people might approve of and other people might not. Nevertheless, I’ve never felt uglier than I do right now. The type of feeling that makes me want to jump off a bridge. I don’t think I’m dramatic enough to actually want to end my life but if I could jump off a bridge into a flowing stream that could carry me away into oblivion, I would probably do that.
It would feel so good to disappear right now. It would feel so good not to mentally continue comparing myself to Trixie. Even though I would like to stop thinking about these things, my brain literally won’t chill.
My phone vibrates and I see that it’s a text from Doug to meet him at his truck.
I hug the twins and thank them for helping me before I make my way towards the parking lot.
I sit down on the curb, holding my suitcase and canvas, waiting for Doug to pull up. A few droplets of rain slowly begin to fall. Suddenly hard rain is pouring and has me completely drenched. And I thought things couldn’t get worse.