I stopped being a lady in 1st grade when I fell in love with a boy. Something within me said I had to become a guy just so I could sit closer to George at the boys’ lunch table. So I ditched the dresses, hitched on a pair of Dickies, played video games and kicked soccer balls with the best of them. Then I realized that what I thought was romance was really self-actualization. I fell in love with who I wanted to be:
A strong, confident, spunky young woman with the grace and slickness of a newborn fawn.
On March 15 2015, I found myself on stage rehearsing for the Miss Buffalo Scholarship Pageant, wobbling in heels and wishing that I had remembered to put on deodorant. This was my first step to becoming Miss America and I couldn’t help but wonder, What the hell was I doing here? On top of being a gym rat and a giant geek, I am black with an afro and I have pecs that are proud enough to perk up and say, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a B cup!” But was there space here for me?
Last fall, a family friend organizing the show tried to convince me to enter because she thought I’d be a great contender with the potential to diversify the contestant pool. I wasn’t really listening until she mentioned the chance to win thousands of dollars in scholarship money. I had just gotten into NYU to get my master’s in journalism. Tuition and rent would rob me of my savings so, What the hey, I’ll walk in some heels for some money.
I went home to fill out my application and wrote down my name, age and GPA. My mother took my headshot. I told them how I liked CrossFit and I dedicated my platform to fighting American obesity. I passed. I received a contract and I signed a year of my life away to the Miss America Organization aka “MAO.” My pen quivered when I initialed the agreement saying I couldn’t get married so long as I held the winning crown.
The thought of entering this foreign regime was exhilarating. What could I learn about this world? It was the start of an adventure. But under the heat of stage lighting, my aspirations dripped away and I prayed to God I didn’t smell.
“Relax. Just be yourself ladies.” A former Mrs. America winner stood tall and commanding in front of 13 contestants ready to coach us through a crash course in pageantry. A queen without her crown, she looked like Sandra Bullock and Hillary Swank had a million dollar baby. She owned a dojo around town and I admired the contours in her skinny arms. Naturally, I wanted to impress.
She represented the “perfect” balance between elegant and forceful. I started CrossFit to be with more women like her: Girls who weren’t afraid to be strong and still be the one that everyone envies. Perhaps Mrs. America understood me.
But with every step and pivot, I was in trouble. My stage poses were suspect because my thigh gap was too wide and I couldn’t fix it for the life of me. The assistant director pulled me aside and tried to force my knee in, sighing at the bowlegs that wanted to bow out. I cloaked my anxiety with sarcasm and wit like I always do and struck an Arnold Schwarzenegger pose during the bikini run-throughs. Off-stage, the assistant chased after me, “No. No. No. Don’t do that.”
Contrary to the conventional dancing and singing routines, I performed my own slam poetry for the talent portion—it was either that or squat 300 pounds, break the stage and my mother’s heart. I traded the glam for a pair of blue jeans and a cut-off t-shirt.
After I rehearsed my poem, Mrs. America pulled me into a deep corner of the auditorium and I was afraid I was in time-out again
“I really liked your talent,” she said. “It was powerful, and I see a young, beautiful, talented woman in front of me.”
“You were looking a little too masculine on stage.”
I smiled and noticed the laces of my Oxfords were untied. Of course. She was right. I had to stand there in her world, listen and take it like the man I was.
She continued to tell me to keep it feminine and sexy. Take the mic off the stand, prance around, remember to smile every time I stopped to pose and whip the long hair that I didn’t have. She asked me if I had a long sleeve shirt to cover up my arms because I looked like I was going to beat someone up. She suggested I sit down Indian-style on that large performing arts stage. Small, contained and packaged, the image made me depressed.
So I sobbed not because I was insulted. I cried because I felt a softness in her eyes. The woman only wanted to help. Then I realized I was really hungry.
“What are you feeling right now?”
With snot dripping down my nose and dry heaves choking my speech, I couldn’t tell Mrs. America all that I wanted to say. I said that I felt like I was trying to be someone that I’m not. If what I did was “masculine,” why couldn’t I show that side of myself? I didn’t understand why women were always trying stuff each other into this box—
“We are not trying to put you in a box. You need to learn to be flexible.” She said she understands. In her dojo, she’s beating up men all the time, but then she turns on her sexy lady side. That’s what producers want. “We are telling you that you need to balance the masculine and the feminine.”
Maybe I didn’t want balance after all. It’s exhausting. It depends on another’s standard. To be myself meant to tip the scales and I was tired of keeping everything together.
Mrs. America gave me a hug that I tried to appreciate, but all I could feel was the migraine pounding my forehead. I returned to the dressing room to wash my face and get ready for the show. I popped some Excedrin and drank as much protein shake as I could muster. The makeup artists powdered me up, the hairdresser sculpted my frohawk, and I slipped into my cocktail dress. Then out of the flurry of bras, glitter and the fog of hairspray, 13 contestants emerged sleeked and primped for the stage. I danced in the corridor to shake away my anxiety.
Despite my nerves, I was hitting my marks and I answered the questions thoughtfully and efficiently. During the swimsuit portion, I didn’t trip on my sarong, the audience laughed at my poem, and I managed to smile from start to finish. I performed everything the way I wanted to do it. I loved the tomboy in me and so I wanted to make the audience love it too. I started to feel that pageants were fun.
Backstage, the assistant said: “Adele, don’t listen to what anybody tells you. Just do you okay?” she said. “Now go out there and walk proud in that gown.” I smiled and hurried onto the final costume change.
In my prom dress from senior year of high school, I stood tall with the other girls waiting for the judges’ decision. I was so satisfied with myself that I believed I would definitely win 4th runner up with some cash in my pocket. (God forbid I had a shot to move on to Miss New York State. This train was ending here.)
As expected, a newscaster from Channel 4 reaped the grand prize and I didn’t even make top 5. The competitor in me left the stage a little disappointed but grateful to take off my heels and hug all of my friends and family: “We are so proud of you. You were so beautiful.” Parents of winning contestants shook my hand: “We thought you would have at least been top three.” A sad woman in blue gripped my shoulders: “You need to keep going. You need to enter more pageants.” I sighed and said it just wasn’t a fit. Mrs. America gave me her card: “You just need to learn.”
My mother and I went back to the dressing room to pack all of my stuff when the assistant director approached. A crowned pageant veteran, Chelsea was a beautiful African American woman, and in the beginning I didn’t trust her. But she told my mother that she was secretly rooting for me the whole time. She hoped the judges would recognize what I what I was trying to do. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she told me about her pageant career. In all the years she had spent pleasing others she lost herself. We need girls of all kinds entering pageants and celebrating themselves because “That is what Miss America should be about,” she said.
I held her words close to my heart, but I wrestled and I ruminated on that car ride home. I want to believe in that ideal and I believe that people want change. They want to see more faces, races and spunky tomboys. We want diversity. But even if pageants became this “celebration of identities,” what makes my self inherently better than another’s? Nothing. Perhaps I’m missing the point of pageants. But who am I to judge?← Previous Chapter Next Chapter →