1. So I Told Them

August 2014

It’s Corrine’s fault. She got me into this. All I wanted to know was how to model for Nike and get free shoes.

My dad’s friend Corrine used to be an international model and she still carried with her the airs of Paris and chic gentility. I knew she could help me get my foot in the door. We sat outside a Wegman’s grocery store to talk about our plan of attack over a plate of salty pasta. I think we settled on just making a couple of cold calls (Ah, hello Nike? It’s me), but then Corrine had a very different proposal:

Corrine: So I’m on the board of the Miss Buffalo Pageant…

by Hana Omiya

by Hana Omiya

Adele: Oh that’s great!

C:  I think it would be great to have more African American women enter the show.

A: I would be happy to recommend…

C: I think you should enter.

A: Noooope.

This had nothing to do with getting my free Nike shoes. I tried to find her eyes through her designer sunglasses. Was she serious? Did she know who I was? Did she not see the hole in my pants that clearly was not made at purchase?I’m unrefined. 

She talked me down. Said that she would guide me through the process, coach me and show me how to own the catwalk. I sighed and said that girly stuff just wasn’t for me. It would all seem like a joke.

C: But aren’t you going to graduate school? We are trying to raise $10,000 in scholarship money and I’m sure that could help you.

She was right. I was in the middle of applying for journalism school in NYC. I was deathly afraid of being a poor student and I was looking for ways to offset the costs. So why not? I said I’d give it a go. I had nothing to lose and everyone to blame when they’d laugh at me at work.

That year, I was working at my high school where most of my colleagues were the older liberal intellectuals I admired as a teenager. Now among their ranks, I enjoyed the lunches cutting through tough societal questions—and even tougher cafeteria meat—with the proud feminists of the art and history departments.

So when I worked up enough courage to tell my colleagues about the beauty pageant, I bashfully stuttered hoping they’d find me so endearing they’d have to come.

“S-so are you guys going to come to the show?” (Utensil clinks and the sawing of chicken breast.)

“You’re going to lose,” said Dr. Connel without looking up from her plate. I considered her the wise matriarch of the school and the sound of her disapproval made me bow my head in shame. “You’re not what they are looking for.”

“So what if I’m different? Shouldn’t we want to change the face of beauty pageants?” I swallowed, surprised by my own words. I wasn’t sure if that should be my life aspiration or if I was even qualified for such a task.

“We don’t want to change them, we are trying to get rid of them.” She looked me directly in the eye with raised brows.

Ms. Johnston jumped in: “Why do you do these things to yourself? I’m convinced you’re a masochist.”

She was referring to the time I chose to teach English in rural Japan. A black anomaly, I was the hot topic of blatant whispers in the street. I was a victim of unsolicited hair yanking and boob poking from my cute, naive little students who were not quite convinced of my femininity. But hey, being the center of a stranger’s distant Snapchats made me feel like a TMZ celebrity—and with that came loneliness.

But I assured my colleagues that I grew from these adventures, even if it meant alienation. I continuously fall into the trap of my naïve curiosity (Ooo what’s Japan like? What are beauty queens all about?). But at least at the end of my blunders I have something to say, a story to tell. I may not win scholarship money, but exploring the unknown makes entering a pageant worth it right? Right?

Ms. Johnston finished her plate and got up from the table: “Humph! I’m not coming.”

Was I losing my friends? I felt like I was in a scene of Mean Girls starring Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams, but this time I forgot we wore trousers on Fridays and I had left my pride to dry on the clothesline. Tsk tsk. For shame.

So I bumbled over to another table after everyone was done with their meals—not because I felt ostracized but because I felt like eating more yogurt. I sat down with some teachers closer to my age and gave them the news. Ms. Castillo got excited because she used to enter pageants growing up in Spain. She said that they were a lot of fun and maybe I’d be unique enough to pique the judges’ interest. Ms. Harrison chimed in and said I was brave for even wanting to do this. She too raised the flag for social activism: “Pageants are great, but we should get different people in there!” I tensed with a sense of justice.

In the faculty lounge it was a relief to be embraced by men of the English Department. The Not-Yet-Dead Poet Society guffawed at my mission and the image of me smiling and walking with the hip swing of a pendulum. “Write a book called Pimped and Primped.” Mr. Donald said. I relaxed because everything seemed less real.

When I told my dad about it he said, “Well. That’s different,” and left me to my “grown woman” decisions. My mom was excited that she could go shopping and dress me up like she used to. “Oh this is going to do so much for you!” You could almost see in her eyes the Baby Adele who wore plastic bows in her braids and spent quite some time dancing outside Abercrombie at the mall. RIP cuteness.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t pinpoint the main reason for why I decided to enter this pageant. It was everything: the smell of adventure, the urge to reclaim a sense of my femininity with an innocence and sensuality, my desperation for scholarship money, the possibility of fame or simply the idea of trying on another hat.

I just prayed I wouldn’t trip in those shoes.