Beauty Pageants and Reality TV

Beauty Pageants and Reality TV

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be a guest judge for a local beauty pageant.  Although, I don’t really consider myself a “pageant girl” of any sort, I have literally been addicted to them for most of my life.  I grew up on The Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe pageants and my memories go back far enough that I can remember when the Miss BLACK America pageant was also televised. My best friend from my childhood, Tommy Brock and I would never, ever miss a beauty pageant.  We sat in his living room (back then his family was one of the first on our block to have a color television) watched them all (the pageants) intently, oohing and aahing over the beautiful, ornately beaded evening gowns, critiquing their performances and occasionally arguing if we had a disagreement about who we thought would take the crown.  This pageant thing was a long-standing tradition for both Tommy’s and I.  Of course we noticed that there weren’t a whole lot of black women in these pageants and there were most certainly no women who had my body “type” competing.  You had to be poised and graceful with the ability to think quickly on your feet – not mention that you HAD to wear that bathing suit so you had to be in great shape.  But at the end of the day it always came down to the final question.  No one ever knew what they were going to be asked but it was all about how you handle pressure in those 30 seconds and how gracefully you could do it.

Like most young girls my age, I too, dreamed of having that crown placed on my head, sash across my chest and taking that “first walk” as the new “queen”, Unfortunately for me that whole bathing suit thing quickly put a damper on any pageant dreams I may have had back then.  It would be 30 more years before I would even come close to knowing what it felt like to participate in a beauty pageant.

Mo’Nique’s F.A.T. Chance was my first and only foray into the world of beauty pageants on a competitive level.  I have participated in model competitions before and when I was growing up Cotillions were also very popular but I tended to stay away from beauty pageants in particular for a number of reasons.  Mainly because for many, many years speaking in front of an audience was always something I simply couldn’t work up the courage to do.  The thought literally terrified me, my nerves always got the best of me and I had a tendency to stutter whenever I got nervous.  It was when I got connected into the underground of plus sized fashion that I saw that the beauty pageant circuit was thriving for women who were a size 14 or larger.  It was a very competitive and sometimes cut throat atmosphere and with my old fears fueling me I consistently avoided entering pageants of any kind.  That is until my life changed in May 2005 and I quit my job and got the casting notice for MFC a few days later.

I almost deleted it after opening the initial email because I’d already assumed that as a former professional model I would be “locked” out the running or the fact that I was over forty, with not a strand of hair on my head, I thought that no one in their right mind would actually pick me.  But at that point I felt like had nothing to lose so I went ahead and clicked on the link to see what the qualifications and/or restrictions were.  To my surprise there were none, I took that as a sign and I gathered up all the courage I could muster and went down to the casting.  To make a long story short I made it down to the wire and became one of the top ten finalists to appear on the debut of the show.  To be able to finally “feel” what it was like to actually compete in a nationally televised beauty pageant with millions of people watching was truly a dream come true for me.  And for me, that one experience was enough to satiate my hunger to wear a crown.  As a matter of fact when it came down to the wire and I realized that I might actually win; the most terrifying thought in my head in the few seconds before they announced the winner was “OMG!! If I win, how in the hell was I going to wear a tiara with combs in it on my head with no hair!”  Lol, for me it was both a memorable experience and a learning experience.  Preparation is most definitely key when it comes to competing in beauty pageants and my years spent developing and honing my skills in the underground unquestionably gave me a huge leg up against the competition.

Beauty pageants are big business everywhere it would appear except New York City. From what I have seen, beauty pageants on a local level don’t always do that well in NYC.  But in other states little girls are groomed for pageants from the womb.  It is THAT serious for these competitors.  And with good reason, as you ascend up into the ranks of the pageant world there are huge prizes and world wide recognition to be acquired by winning a title.  There are scholarships, grants, money, trips, clothing and many other prizes that are up for grabs.  Futures can be changed in a matter of a few hours by winning a big title.  These competitors and their parents know this and they often invest heavily in acquiring the skills or sponsors needed to make their child shine above the rest.  It’s serious business for them; as it should be for anyone who decides to compete in a beauty pageant on ANY level.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this particular article. I have had the opportunity to judge many pageants in my career and it always amazes me how the contestants differ from pageant to pageant in their looks and/or nationalities but their attitudes are always pretty much the same across the board.  I have also long wondered why some one would spend their hard earned monies on entry fees, evening gowns, hair & makeup, accessories etc. and then not finish the job by giving a 150% effort to win.

As some one who has been on the both sides of the table I can always see immediately where the contestants make their mistakes. I’ll give you a few examples:

During the last pageant I judged one of the first things I noticed was that one of the contestants had bright blue polish on her toes.  Not a big deal perhaps but it was the first thing I noticed about her and every time she hit the stage my eyes were drawn to her feet.  It drove me absolutely crazy!  After the pageant ended, I went to the ladies room and as I  looked down at the floor I saw those same blue toes in the stall next to me.  So me being myself, I blurted out “I recognize those toes…” and I heard her laugh.  When I emerged from the stall I couldn’t resist asking her why she didn’t remove that horrible blue toenail polish.  She looked at me with a straightest of faces and responded:

“Ohhh…I know, I didn’t have time to take it off.”

(Sound of a needle scratching over a record) Huh?  I looked at this young woman like she had three heads when she said this to me.  I simply could not believe that she actually said that and I told her so.  My reply?

“Girl!!!! Are you serious with that?  I have had my toes painted before and it takes no more than about 5 to 10 minutes to get that stuff off!  Stop playing, you could have removed it before you went to bed last night and painted your toenails with clear polish if you didn’t have time to get the full pedicure.”

I was commentating a plus sized pageant in New Jersey a few years ago where the swimsuit segment was swapped out in favor of a lingerie segment.  As the contestants hit the stage, I would say various things about the contestant and perhaps a few words about what they were wearing if it (the outfit) were interesting enough to me.  So imagine my surprise when one of the contestants hit the stage wearing a baby doll nightie and black winter ankle shoe boots!!

(Sound of a needle scratching over a record again…)

Yeah…I said it “WINTER ANKLE SHOE BOOTS” (Mmm hmm…yup, the ones with the zipper on the side.)   Needless to say, I, along with everyone else in that audience was stunned into silence.  It took me only a few seconds to regain my composure but unfortunately that wasn’t fast enough, my face had already shown what was going on in my head.

“What on EARTH were you thinking of when you put that little outfit together?”

As it happens this same young woman sent me an email later on asking me what I thought of her performance and I simply HAD to ask her why she wore those dang boots with that lingerie.  Her response:

“I didn’t have anything else to wear.”

(Sound of a needle scratching over a record, yet again.)

Sigh…girlfriend, you could have come out barefoot and gotten a better response.  Did that thought even enter your mind?  Do you wear boots with your lingerie to bed?

I was even more amazed at the staff members that watched her line up backstage with those boots on and no one said a word to her!  I mean I can understand the contestants not saying anything (at the end of the day it IS a competition) but as a backstage producer, I would have stopped her and gently suggested that she lose those boots.  But that’s just me and that’s how I get down.

– OR –

The young woman who came out for the Question & Answer segment that I was hosting in a beautiful red evening gown but she was wearing a HUGE red feathered covered sombrero-like hat that completely obscured her face from me (and I was standing right next to her), the audience AND the judges.  I literally had to go up under that hat to put the microphone in her face so she could answer the question.  It took ALL of my strength not to call her out on stage and make her remove that damn hat.  The whole scene was comical to me, because it didn’t matter WHAT came out of her mouth at that point because everyone in that room was so distracted by that hat that NO ONE was listening to what she actually said.  I felt bad for her.

And that was just on the local level, let’s take it up a notch and I’ll even do you one better….

When I returned to Mo’Nique’s FAT Chance for the 2nd & 3rd season as a Casting Producer, we went all over the country interviewing THOUSANDS of women vying for the chance to be the next “Miss F.A.T.” (Fabulous And Thick, in case you forgot).  We could ask the contestants any questions we wanted in order to find out who they truly were as a person.  The question most often asked to ANY contestant in ANY competition is:

“Why do you want to be Miss _______________ (fill in the blank)?”

– Or –

“Out of all of the women I have interviewed today, what makes YOU so special that I should choose you?”

Sounds like an easy enough question right?  Wrong!  I am always shocked at how unprepared contestants are when it comes to answering these questions.  And then immediately afterwards I get accosted in hallways or on the street from disgruntled contestants who want to know what they did wrong or they want to know why I chose someone who (in their opinion) was obviously inferior beauty-wise (this sort of attitude tends to drive me nuts too!)  There’s usually quite a bit of prep time involved in beauty pageants too, usually at least a month or so.  So you have more than enough time to figure out a really great answer to the above questions.  But what I find is that most contestants don’t even THINK about why they want that crown and sash until the question is asked of them.  And in the back of your mind you HAVE to know that someone is going to ask you why you are there.  So you need to have a prepared answer if you want to win.  But most contestants don’t and that doesn’t sound too smart at all does it?

I would like to share with you all my responses to all the emails from disappointed and/or disgruntled contestants that I wrote a few years ago when I was still casting for MFC.  This information should be saved to your memory banks and referred to if you even remotely thinking about entering a pageant of any sort.

What did I do wrong in my interview and how can I make it better?

As I have said from the beginning, there is no real “Trick” to “Wowing” the judges. You have to speak the story that is unique to you and you alone and you have to be passionate about whatever resonates in you. Passion does not necessarily mean tears and believe me…we know crocodile tears when we see them. There is no right or wrong here it’s about whatever comes out of your heart/mouth/soul that stands out to whomever you are interviewing with and I can tell you this much, it varies from producer to producer.

No one is sitting around deciding what types will be chosen and there is no contest for who cries the loudest and the longest. What may appear to be a sob story to YOU may be something completely different for the producer you are telling it to. So changing your story to a sad one probably would not have helped you. You didn’t do anything wrong, someone one else just did it better or made it more interesting. And I can’t make it more honest than that.

Runway Diva Tip:  Don’t make the mistake of trying to “read” the producer(s), I guarantee you will get it wrong each and every time.

From the moment your number is NOT called you have approximately 365 days to step your game up, reassess the mistakes you made the first go round, live the next year of your life to the fullest, do something you’ve never done before, change your way of thinking/living and then come back and tell us how your life is different from the last time you saw us but the key is to speak from you heart and be passionate about whatever you are talking about.

How are they supposed to hear our story if you are only given 15 seconds to talk?

Lol…this is a very funny question to me…. first of all 15 seconds is a bit of an exaggeration…. you get more time than that! Not a whole lot more but more. And secondly, welcome to show business…. for every person that thinks that “15 Seconds” is not a lot of time…. there’s fifty people who will take that 15 seconds and tell you exactly what you need to hear. It’s about thinking on your feet! Make it the most AWESOME 15 seconds of your life! You have no choice…do it in the time allotted or go home and practice and get it right next year. And remember that no one is going to “Pull it out of you”…if you drone on during your 15 seconds and bore the hell out of me…. I’m going to move on to the next person. It’s an audition people…it’s not SUPPOSED to be easy.

We have to see hundreds sometimes thousands of people in one day. The selection process is not easy at all…. it’s really about finding a way to stand out in the time that you’re given…. and if you’re going to be in this business at all…get used to being quick on your feet or you’ll get passed by.

When the producer asks you why they should pick you…. it’s not enough to say:

“LOOK at me”, I want to be a role model for all the plus size women of the world, I am doing for my kids, husband, mom…etc”

EVERYONE says this stuff and it gets really boring really quickly. The same goes for the sad, heart wrenching, and tear jerking stories. We will let you tell your story…because talking about it aloud can be very therapeutic and healing but know you are NOT a “shoo-in” if you cry.

It HAS to stand out and make them (the producers) want to hear more.  Generally if you don’t get asked a few questions after you finish your “story”, use that as sign that you haven’t “hit” the mark. That’s a simple as I can put it.

Runway Diva Tip:  It’s okay to briefly mention your religious affiliation but if you turn your interview into a “devotional testimony” – you are pretty much done.

It’s not hard to make yourself stand out in a beauty pageant in a good way (trust me it’s REAL EASY to make your stand out in a bad way!)  But you must be willing to go the extra mile and do the work!  And this is where most aspiring contestants fail. Do your homework!  If this is the first time you have ever entered a pageant and you have absolutely zero knowledge, for goodness sakes try to find out what you need to do in order to win. Turn on your TV and WATCH a few of them if they are airing.  Try to attend a few pageant events to get a feel for what you are getting yourself into.  Or it can be as simple as turning on your computer and “Googling” “How to win a beauty pageant”; it doesn’t matter if the pageant is held locally or televised on a national level. It doesn’t matter if this is something you are entering on a dare or if pageants are “just a hobby” for you. Take it seriously.  If you are not going to give a winning effort, you have to ask yourself why you are even there in the first place. The whole point of your entering is because YOU WANT TO WIN the prize, wear that crown and sash or whatever it may be for you. The more knowledge you are armed with ahead of time the bigger your advantage will be against your competitors.  I did a google search on “How To Win A Beauty Pageant” and the list of articles that came up were staggering in numbers and I thought I’d share a few tips:

The pageant interview is arguably the most important part of your competition. Your poise under pressure, personality, and intelligence will be immediately evaluated. Whether you are competing in the Miss America or Miss Universe circuits, it cannot be emphasized how crucial it is to master the interview.

This goes without saying: know your current events! Study up and have opinions. Read, read, read, and then discuss with family and friends.

Interview various people in your community. “Pick their brains” for information and ideas. Ask what they think about current affairs and take notes. They can give you invaluable knowledge and fresh points of view. University professors and government officials are great sources and are often willing to give a half hour of their time.

Listen to talk radio in your car and in your spare time. Watch “Oprah” and “The View,” even celebrity interviews on late night shows. Ask yourself questions like: What points of view are expressed? How are they spoken? What body language do you see? STUDY it out! Who do you respond the most to, and why?

“To thine own self be true.” Always, always, be yourself. Above all, the interview is a chance to be passionate, informed, and genuine. Everyone can sense when you are not. Do not make up things you don’t know. Be candid; show consistency in thought and variety of expression.

Beauty pageants are a great way to get your name out there, network, make a little change for yourself, see the world, make new friends and meet people from all walks of life and have fun all at the same time.  But you must remember at the end of the day it is STILL a competition and anything less than a winning effort from you will probably just blow up in your face.  When I am judging pageants, I am rooting hard for everybody!  I just want to contestants to come out and just dazzle me with their presentations to the point that it makes it difficult for the judges to pick a winner! I get so disappointed when they just aren’t getting the job done correctly.  Study your craft inside and out; get comfortable speaking and/or performing in front of an audience.  If there’s a talent segment make sure that you do something that you are actually good at doing. This would not be a good time to launch your new stand up comedy routine that you have never performed before. Practice in the mirror so you can get a good idea of your facial expressions when you speak and then learn how to manipulate them.  And most importantly, your energy has to be at its highest levels for the duration of the competition.  It has to absolutely emanate from your pores!  If YOU are excited to be there, then WE will be inspired watching you.  If you appear to be bored to be there, it will be boring to watch you and that’s never a good thing.

Do the work, do it correctly and trust me when I tell you it will pay off for you big time!  Please know that I am rooting for you all to be the best that you can possibly be!  By the time this particular article is live, I will already have been down to Dallas, Texas to check out (and speak to) the contestants of the Plus Teen USA pageant.  I’m excited to participate and I truly hope to be inspired by what I see!

Continued Success in all that you do family!  Good luck and I will definitely see you on the runway!

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking risks, and that means you’re not going anywhere.  The key is to make mistakes faster than the competition, so you have more changes to learn and win.”  – John W. Holt Jr.