A couple of weeks back, I told you guys about an event I'd be performing in called Spring Forth. It was a night of music & storytelling put on by OSNY to raise money for City Harvest. I told a story that night, which I had prepped by writing an essay. I realized this week that I just had this written story sitting around now, so I decided why not share it? For anyone who missed the event, below is a story of childhood dreams, feminism, and friendship. I've included some pictures just to add a little razzle dazzle.
When I was six-years-old, I was sitting in the bed of my dad’s truck while watching the Cornyval parade in my hometown of Helotes, Texas. There were several floats going by on Bandera road, each featuring some organization from the town, but there was one in particular that stood out to me.
It was a larger float covered in white fluffy crepe paper, and on it were different tiers on which three attractive women stood like brides on a very sexy wedding cake. On the very top stood a woman with bleach-blonde hair, a sequined form-fitting dress, and a tiara glittering like nothing I had ever seen before. She was Miss Helotes, and when she waved, her hands were like spoons – the fingers stuck together so determinedly that they looked as if they might be webbed. Her smile was impeccable, and I thought she was perfect.
|A more recent scene from the Cornyval (Via)|
Now, at this time, all of the women who would eventually become my role models in life had not really risen to prominence, or if they had, I just hadn’t heard of them yet (because I was six, so give me a break) – women like Flannery O’Connor, Tina Fey, Betty Friedan, Beyoncé. So when I saw these sparkly women that day at the Cornyval parade, I revered them as the pinnacle of female existence, and I decided that I needed to do whatever it might take to get on that float.
|Ugh, why wasn't a children's version of this available for me in the 90s?|
And there was hope because at the bottom of the float stood three miniature versions of the women up on top. These were the Little Miss Helotes contestants, and they were my age. Their dresses were slightly less form-fitting, but they each had tiaras and they each embodied everything I wanted out of life, especially the one in the middle…because she had the biggest tiara.
So a year later, I approached my mom to tell her that I wanted to enter the Little Miss Helotes pageant. I don’t really know what I was expecting in terms of her response, but she looked at me a bit puzzled, and just said, “…Why?” Now, this was pre-Toddlers & Tiaras, so her hesitation did not stem from the stigma that is now associated with kids being in pageants. I mean, the world had yet to even meet this glorious creature:
Instead, as she has reluctantly told me in my later years, my mom was afraid that I wouldn’t win. This was weird to me because up until this point, everything she had been telling me throughout my entire life had indicated the opposite. As far as I knew, I was the cutest, sweetest, most gifted child my mother had ever met. I mean, every picture I brought home went straight on the fridge, every time I said “Mom, watch me!” before belly-flopping into the pool, she had indeed watched me and had even applauded when I emerged from the water. Like, I was special – potentially the most special…at least that’s what I figured.
I do think it’s important that you know that in reality, I was kind of a squatty, weird little kid whose biggest accomplishment up until that point had been not peeing my pants more than thrice in a calendar-year. I was also missing four of my top front teeth and I had a decent unibrow forming, which held a very special place in my mother’s heart, but I’m sure she questioned whether the world would have such an open mind.
But she conceded, and so began a series of rigorous practices to ready me for the big pageant. I went to the local Presbyterian Church every Thursday to practice alongside the other contestants with our coach. She was a woman with smoky breath who I remember as having a thick Long Island accent, but it was Texas, so I now think that memory may be corrupted from things I’ve seen on TV. Anyway, from this gruff woman, we learned how to stand properly, how to walk properly, and how to speak properly – all of which were things I thought I already knew from, like, being a person, but it turns out I did not.
Coming into this whole thing, I knew I was the youngest girl in the pageant, which despite my inflated self-esteem, did intimidate me. My mom told me that in order to overcome this fear, I needed to “stand out”. She took me to a hairdresser who gave me a new signature style, which coincidentally, was also the signature style for Mary Tyler Moore in 1973.
So the big day came – I had my signature Mary Tyler hairstyle prepped, a pink dress from Dillards, and my eye was on the prize. There were three different times that I was supposed to appear on stage: The First Look (where I’d just be introduced to the crowd), The Interview with the emcee, and The Beauty Walk. During First Look, my name was called and as far as I knew, I had won it right there. I smiled at the judges, piercing them with my eye contact. It was in the bag.
Immediately after came the interview. We all lined up as the cheesy emcee approached us with the mic. The questions were related to profiles we’d submitted beforehand that our moms had filled out. Right before me, a girl named Cindy was asked why her horse was named Prince, and she responded, without skipping a beat, “Because he’s a prince to me” (and by the way, she pronounced "me" as "may"). At this, the audience collectively lost their minds. They thought it was so cute, and it was. It was perfect -- almost like she’d rehearsed her answer – like instead of spending time clearing a place on her shelf for her new tiara (like I did), she had actually thought about what words were going to come out of her mouth on a stage in front of her entire town.
When the mic got around to me, I was in the midst of an existential crisis. Why the hell hadn’t I practiced the interview portion? I tried to shake it off by telling myself that I could get through this if I just responded in a mature manner – the way a grownup would. So the emcee leaned in towards me and said, “So you play softball for the Helotes Little League. What else do you like to do?” A very generous question. Should have been easy, but for some reason I was drawing a blank. What did I like to do? Did I like to do things?
I knew that my answer was “I don’t know,” but I wanted to say it in a classier way, so I leaned into the mic, locked eyes with the emcee as though I were trying to put him in a trace, and I said, “…I can’t say...."
Now, what I meant by that was, “Hmm, gee, I can’t really say!” (another way of saying "dunno") but because of the ultra creepy way in which I chose to say it, it ended up sounding like I couldn’t say because the thing I liked to do might involve murder or watching people sleep.
|"...I can't say..." (Via)|
The audience erupted with laughter, and I felt deflated. Backstage, I was kicking myself, thinking of all of the things I liked to do. Watch television, make mud pies, draw pictures of frogs.
I was certain that my interview had been a spectacular failure, but I was hoping that all of the work I’d put into my beauty walk would pay off.
When I got out there, I moved to the middle of the stage and got into a perfect t-stance (this is where you put your feet in the shape of a “T” because otherwise you’re standing like an animal). The crowd was still abuzz. I was sure they were still talking about my interview, and honestly, in my mind I started to get exasperated with these people. I mean, come on, guys, that was before…look at all this beauty happening in front of you. I walked all over that stage, incapable of smiling because of the rowdy crowd, and when I got backstage I realized that they actually weren’t laughing about my interview anymore. As it turns out, I had walked on stage with my dress tucked deeply into my pantyhose like a sausage stuffed into its casing. God only knows how I managed to do that, but I super did.
So I did about as badly as one can do in a pageant, but my self-esteem was so inflated that when it came time to announce the winners, I still somehow thought I had a shot. At the very least, I was sure to get 2nd runner up, right? We all lined up on stage for the last time. Smaller awards were given first. Then they started with the big ones. First they announced 2nd runner up – not me. Okay. Then 1st runner up – not me again…I started to get excited…I guess I did better than I thought…
Then the emcee announced, “And your new Little Miss Helotes IS….”
Not me. Duh. It was Cindy. The girl with the horse. Serves me right for entering a Texas beauty pageant without owning a horse.
I should mention that I did leave with an award that day and a tiara. In the smaller awards section, I was crowned “Little Miss Photogenic”, which even then I knew was the most BS title I could possibly get. The judges had made this call based on professional photos we’d taken a while back, and guys, here’s mine:
|"...I can't say..."|
Now, that looks like the face of a terrifying little girl who can’t say what she likes to do in her spare time.
Like, if the criteria for the title of “Little Miss Photogenic” was being present for the photo, then I guess I nailed it. But besides that, I’m missing four very important teeth, my hair is other-worldly, and as my husband has pointed out when looking at this picture, I’ve got “those cold, dead shark eyes.” Plus, whose shower curtain am I wearing?
After this experience, I was devastated. Devastated in a way that I hope no daughter of mine ever has to be. I cried the whole way home, tiara on my head, dress still partially tucked into my pantyhose because it’s an easier mistake to make than you would think.
Something you may have noticed in this story, something that always sticks out to me, at least, is that it includes no real details of my relationships with the other contestants, no fun anecdotes from the friendships that I formed. That’s because I didn’t really form any. The other little girls in that pageant were just hurdles to overcome, annoying things that stood between me and my crown.
That was the problem with having Miss Helotes as my role model. Because I wanted to stand at the top of the float, because I wanted to wear the sparkly dress and the biggest tiara, I subconsciously felt that any girl who wanted the same thing must be a villain. Sweet girls who would normally have been my friends actually became my enemies.
But as the years went by, I developed some new role models – women who taught me that we win through relationship with one another, not by pitting ourselves against each other...over a tiara, no less. I mean, believe it or not, we can all just buy a bunch of tiaras on Amazon.com (they’re like $8), wear them with sparkly dresses if that’s what we want, and then get down to the real business of making the world a better place through collaboration, not competition.
I’m honestly glad I did not win Little Miss Helotes. I’m glad I walked away from that experience with the crappiest title and with the entire town thinking I had a weird hobby I couldn’t talk about. It taught me an important lesson about losing, but it taught me an even greater lesson about friendship. I never did another pageant after that, but you may be wondering, did I hold onto my Little Miss Photogenic tiara? And do I still sometimes wear it around my apartment if I’m having a bad day?
…I can’t say...