When I was younger, beauty pageants were big events. On the scale of teenage importance, they fell somewhere between my birthday (I was always puzzled why banks were open and we had mail delivery on Dec. 4) and getting asked out on a date, which was about as likely as being asked to sub for an ailing Rockette at Radio City.
In other words, Miss USA, Miss America and especially Miss Universe were notable moments in my otherwise unexceptional existence. Blessed with a subscription to TV Guide (we weren’t cheapos who depended on the free weekly insert from the newspaper for our viewing pleasure,) I could schedule the Saturday nights that coincided with any one of those three respective coronations days ahead of time. Not that I had anything else to do on those nights (please refer to the “date” comment above.)
I suppose the reason these pageants were so important to me, other than the fact that I regarded mirrors the same way Dracula looked at garlic, were their ability to lift me out of myself and show me that beauty was achievable. I know that might sound counter-intuitive and in this day and age where Ophelia is drowning and we’re supposed to throw her a life preserver by not even using the word “chubby,” but the vision of dozens of radiant women with perfect hair and glowing skin and straight teeth made me feel that my current sad state of being was temporary. I actually believed that I, too, could become an Ecuadoran citizen one day and — through hard work and plastic surgery — work my way up to Ecuadoran beauty queen.
I remember one Saturday night in 1974, sitting in my living room and watching as this brown-haired chick from Spain who looked amazingly like the brown-haired chick from Mexico on Lawrence Welk who looked amazingly like me when I squinted really hard and backed 10 feet away from the mirror, won this beautiful, 100-pound crown. (Know how many rhinestones you need to hit 100 pounds? Me neither, but Amparo Munoz, Miss Universe 1974, did.) It was a particularly dark period in my life, one in which my St. Francis of Assisi haircut and Hubble Telescope glasses made an all-girls school the only safe place to spend the shank of my day. When Amparo won, it made me feel some affinity with her because we both had brown hair. See how little it took to make me happy?
Happiness is what those pageants promised, and happiness is what they brought me vicariously, until about 20 years ago when I found myself accidentally stumbling upon them during commercial breaks in the football game. This tragic change in priorities was a function of many things, not the least of which was my realization that one does not need to wear a crown to get a law degree, to get paid for your writing, to live in a foreign country (but strangely, not Ecuador) and to even get asked out on a date. Miss Universe (and her sisters) were no longer needed to make me feel that good things were possible when I grew up, because for one thing I’d already grown up, and while Donald Trump would not want to marry me, I was happy in my own, sagging skin.
And yet, I felt a bit sad because it’s bittersweet to realize that one of the things that sustained you during the dim times of youth has become almost superfluous. Just as I’d let my TV Guide subscription lapse when it became simpler to check on the cable guide for daily viewing choices, so had I let my passion for the beauty pageants lapse when it became easier to go to the hairdresser for a self-confidence boost.
Or so I thought.
Love rarely dies, though. It simply goes underground and remains buried beneath anger or resentment or grief or incomprehension, until something reminds us of the pure beauty of that early love.
And the something that reminded me of the pure beauty of my early love of beauty pageants was Steve Harvey on Sunday night.
By now we all know what happened to the popular comedian and author when he hosted the Miss Universe pageant live from Las Vegas. In what can only be viewed as Donald Trump’s revenge on the Hispanic world, Harvey announced Miss Colombia as the new Miss U, which would have been fine if the judges had agreed with him. Sadly, they had not, except perhaps the one or two who really thought Sofia Vergara was competing and were amazed that a 43-year-old woman could look that good in a swimsuit. (Those who have not seen Miss Colombia will just have to take my word for the fact that she looked like one of Vergara’s contested frozen embryos, thawed out and put in an evening dress.)
Miss Colombia, incredibly lovely as she was, had not earned the top spot in the pageant. Miss Philippines was the true winner, and while both women were equally stunning and accomplished in talking about world peace, they were not interchangeable on the stage. And so, Harvey was forced to say, “I screwed up” on international TV, which in Spanish translates to “Es la culpa de Donald Trump, el Diablo!”
And a lot of people started tweeting mean things about Harvey, which is not OK (especially the racist stuff) but which is understandable given the fact that one is not paid to break the heart of Colombian beauty queens on international television.
But other people started making fun of the pageant itself, making it seem as if there was no reason for the anachronism of a “girlie show” and echoing the empty rhetoric of feminists who have had their senses of humor surgically removed at puberty. One blogger wrote that “with the increased focus on equality, beauty pageants are becoming one of the few institutions where women are objectified.”
Right. And being told to look at Beyonce or Nickii Minaj as role models, or tatting up your arms and sticking needles through your lips is so much better.
But what do I know? I get my beauty standards from Lawrence Welk. And still, apparently, from those wonderful pageants where women can be queens as long as the host isn’t endearingly dyslexic.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.