"AND contestant #7!" she yelled, "is Katia DUNN!"
I had been told that when I walked out to the middle of the stage, Katie Harman would be asking me an easy question, so the audience could "get to know me." I had no idea what the question would be, which only made worse the sincere fear that I might vomit on America's most beautiful woman. Public speaking has never been one of my strengths. In fact, I'm pretty bad at it.
"Now Katia," Katie said to me in a jovial voice. "We want to know What do you like best about Portland?"
"Ahh um, ahem."
Oh god. There was a padlock on my brain. I couldn't get inside. I was stuck and panicking, and there were at least 300 people watching me. Probably 500. Maybe more. Goddamn this is a hard question. What do I like most about Portland? The bridges? The parks? My job yeah, I should plug the Mercury if I can, plug the Mercury, oh wait, god, no--I'm such an idiot. That would be SO inappropriate. Okay, start over, take a breath, it's okay, if I could just think of one thing my dog? No stupid, like there aren't dogs in other cities. My boyfriend? I like him a lot. No--it's not like he's a part of Portland, like a statue or a building or something. Okay wait, wait, yeah, here we go I've got it.
"Umm" Katie smiled and held the mic up to catch my mumbling, showing a thin look of relief at the sign I was finally ready to speak. "I really love the rain?"
Then I remembered to smile.
BECOMING MISS PORTLAND
The Miss Portland competition is the official precursor to the Miss America competition. It's a three-tiered system: Miss Portland, Miss Oregon, Miss America. Judges score contestants based on four categories: Artistic Expression (40 percent), Presentation and Community Achievement (talent) (30 percent), Lifestyle and Fitness (swimsuit) (15 percent), and Presence and Poise (evening wear) (15 percent). Contestants begin rehearsing and preparing for the contest about three to four months ahead of time.
Sometime in late February, after discovering the contest, I determined that I met all the requirements: I've never been married, never been pregnant, I have always been a woman, and I'm between the ages of 18 and 24. I've lived in Portland for more than six months. "This is not a beauty pageant," the advertisement promised. "It is a scholarship program."
Still, when I arrived at the first rehearsal, I was petrified. Even if it wasn't technically a beauty pageant, wasn't it still based somewhat on looks? Were there going to be a lot of 100-pound Barbies there? What would they think of me? I mean my eyebrows weren't even plucked. I sat in the car outside the practice space--which was all the way out in Tigard--and fantasized about going home. It was Sunday, I could be in bed Instead, I forced myself to go in.
Practice, that first day, consisted of learning the swimsuit and ballgown patterns for walking on stage. Kerry, one of the coaches, was leading the lessons.
"It's not about how skinny you are or how good-looking you are," she told us over and over. "This contest is a who's who of confidence. Now. Shoulders back, head up." And as Kerry walked in a small circle in front of us demonstrating her "shoulders back, head up" theory, she really did look more confident. "Smile, smile, smile," she reminded us as we practiced.
There were nine of us total, and everyone else seemed pretty normal. I, on the other hand, probably came across as cagey and weird. At that point, I still wasn't quite sure if I wanted to enter the contest at all and was therefore not sure what to tell them. Plus, I still had the paranoid feeling they were going to realize I was not a lifetime pageant-goer, and kick me out.
"So, you go to Reed?" one girl asked. "Um yes. Yes I do," I told her--which was a lie, since I had graduated from Reed almost two years before. But I suddenly couldn't remember what the requirements were. Was I supposed to still be in college?
"And what's your talent going to be?" Darcy, the coach, asked me towards the end of practice. I had already told her in an email that it might be dance, but the truth was, I've never really done any kind of formal dancing. "Singing," I said, attempting to sound confident. Jesus. Where did that come from?
SOME STUFF ABOUT ME
I declared myself a feminist at the young age of 15, and made a regular practice of walking up to people in places such as videostores and banks, and saying things like, "Your Big Johnson T-shirt really offends me. I think it's sexist." This was clearly not very well received by the T-shirt wearers, but I saw it as furthering the women's movement and, in retrospect, this defensiveness was sort of helpful while growing up as a tomboy in a small, conservative town.
Though I am no longer quite so antagonistic, I'm hardly the picture of a lady. I rarely wear makeup, shave my legs, or put more than five seconds of planning into what I'm wearing on a given day. I hate shopping. Consequently, despite their level of acceptance, I still felt completely out of place in a room full of girls who had concentrated on honing grace and poise for a good part of their life.
And so, as practice went on, I realized that coming up with a political "platform"--the cause for which Miss Portland chooses to advocate--as well as a talent, would be the easy part. I've always been politically informed, and as for talent? Well, I knew I'd think of something. But it was the strutting around on stage that worried me. I left that first day almost crying, having tried to master the "pivot" step; that thing every Miss America innately knows how to do when they're walking across stage in a swimsuit. Plus, I was terrified of the opening number we had to learn, which involved a synchronized series of said pivots, turns, arm shakes, and hip movements.
In the end, however, I was determined to assimilate as best as possible. I wanted to learn about Miss America from an insider's perspective, not as a critic. So, with some confidence, I declared my platform to be "Ending racism through education." I know a lot about the topic, and it seemed pretty bipartisan. (Besides, who aside from a few people in Idaho would argue against ending racism?)
And even though I can't sing, it still seemed like the easiest thing to do. I looked for something simple and emotional to perform, as most of the previous vocal winners leaned toward singing slow, popular ballads. In a quick brainstorming session, I remembered a rousing rendition of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" I'd sung during an inebriated karaoke night. All my friends (also drunk) talked about it for days.
Perfect. I was ready.
MY FELLOW CONTESTANTS
The first time I met Audrey--a fellow contestant--she was wearing a long, handmade skirt and a red, puffy down vest covered with buttons that said things like "Free Tibet." She was sitting on the floor, while the other girls around her were waving around cans of hairspray. She was reading a book called Cunt.
"Oh yeah, it's really great," she told me, and asked if I wanted to read it. "It's about women reclaiming the word 'cunt.'"
Audrey and her friend Marie, both Lewis and Clark students, had joined the pageant as a kind of experiment in sociology, as far as I could tell. Marie's platform was "Anti-capitalist Action: Creating class consciousness and worker solidarity to revolutionize our world," and Audrey's was "Womenstruation: Menstrual Health Awareness." Audrey came to the program after doing a paper on the pageant for her gender studies class.
"I just started researching it," she told me, "and the pageant presents itself as this forum for bright, smart, intelligent women to earn money for school. I was like, 'I could do that.'"
Other notable contestants included Dawn, a sweet, beautiful, tall PCC student, whose campaign was "Youth smoking prevention." There was Shontina, who kind of looked like Kirsten Dunst--tall, thin, blonde, and very bubbly. She was a cheerleader for Portland State and was unsurprisingly loud and perky. Tyrene was quieter, though she had an amazing, enormous voice. She was an opera singer. Later, during the night of the pageant, Tyrene, Audrey, Marie and I often found ourselves sitting in the corner, waiting while everyone else ran around with strapless bras and eyeliner.
While I had anticipated a feeling of competition amongst my fellow contestants, I honestly never sensed one. There was more of a camaraderie than anything else. People wanted to know about me; where I went to school, what I did for a living. Despite the vast differences between us, to my knowledge there were no secrets and no backstabbing. Even Audrey and Marie seemed to be accepted without question; they solemnly discussed awareness of women's menstruation alongside discussions of anti-smoking campaigns and more funding for music education.
THE SWIMSUIT DILEMMA
"The conclusion I came to," Audrey explained to me, "is that the pageant itself kind of exploits female sexuality, while doing some really good things for the people involved. But I still don't know if the negatives outweigh the positives."
No matter how I looked at it, one of these negatives was the swimsuit competition. The Miss America program gives more scholarships to women than any other organization in the world, yet judging a woman's worthiness of education by how she looks in a swimsuit is ludicrous.
"I think it's time for this program to be relevant to this generation," Darcy told me. Darcy, who's 25 and in the business of high-tech PR, was a pageant contestant herself before she was a coach, and felt her participation was significant in contributing to her success and confidence during and after college. Plus, with the scholarship money she earned, she was able to graduate debt-free.
Nevertheless, Darcy does have issues with the program. "Why do we have to wear swimsuits?" she asks rhetorically. "The truth is, I don't have a perfect answer for that. I mean, I have issues with it myself. But I do think this program can offer so much to young women as far as confidence building, goal setting, and being involved in the community. That's what drives me to keep doing it."
Darcy's not the first person to encourage change through the endorsement of the program, rather than objecting to it. Over the years, some of the most significant progress within the Miss America program has come from the competitors, rather than bra-burning protesters. For example, Bess Myerson, the 1945 Miss America, was the first Jewish contestant to win--a big difference from the white, upper-class girls who usually won, and a significant political statement in light of the anti-Semitism in the world at the time. After a short, four-week reign, Myerson turned in her crown because of the pageant directors' refusal to let her participate in normal Miss America activities.
THE BIG NIGHT
Okay, so by the time it actually happened, I wanted to win. Bad. I'd put two months of preparation into the contest, and I wasn't about to walk around in a swimsuit and high heels and sing karaoke in front of 500 people for nothing. Plus, I was a nervous wreck. Whereas I'm normally comfortable with my body, anticipation of the swimsuit contest had assisted me in a return to an adolescent obsession with losing weight. (3500 calories equals one pound, a one-hour run burns 600 calories, a burrito is 500 calories. In order to lose weight, one must stay under 1500 calories a day). I was running five miles a day.
The day before, I was going over my last-minute preparations when my editor confronted me.
"What are you going to do with your hair?" he asked, while scrutinizing the top of my head.
"Ummm I don't know," I said. "Comb it?"
This was clearly unacceptable.
"That rat's nest?!" he squealed in a manner that belied his stated sexuality. It was one thing for a tomboy to work in the office. I guess it was another for her to represent the office in a beauty contest. After much objecting on my part, he convinced me to actually have my hair "done" by a professional.
However, by the time the beautician had finished, my home-cut "long-in-front/short-in-back" dynamic had turned into a late '60s Florence Henderson flip of excessive height and flippiness. "Touch it up with some hairspray," she instructed me as I left. "It'll hold until next week."
The pageant started at 7:00. By 5:00, I was falling apart. I think of myself as brave--some of the accomplishments I'm most proud of are hopping a freight train, hitchhiking alone in other countries, getting arrested, and getting naked in front of a large crowd of people. But I had never before felt the sense of dread that I had before the pageant. I couldn't stop pacing. I was wringing my hands so maniacally I couldn't concentrate on simple tasks like removing jewelry or putting on Chapstick. Everything was lost, I couldn't find my pantyhose--they were too small anyway--and I had forgotten to find a necklace. At 7:10, we were all ushered onstage and instructed to put our heads down and wait for the opening number set to a Janet Jackson song.
Shortly after, everything fell apart.
I SEE YOUR TRUE COLORS SHINING THROUGH
Almost immediately, our timing was off. We hadn't accounted for the bigger stage, and things were taking longer than in practice. We missed our cue. Some people started dancing, while others were rushing to catch up.
This first mess up, however, somehow made me less nervous. Ten minutes later, as I took my first few steps onto the stage, I didn't really care that I was dressed in a highly unlikely combination of swimsuit and high heels. The lights were blinding and hot, and blurred my view of the audience. I concentrated: slow, slow, slow, turn, exit. Someone was talking: "Katia Dunn is a writer for the Portland Mercury, and in her spare time, sings " People clapped. Did I hear my dad?
There. It was over before it had even started, and I just stood there stunned for a minute, incredulous that I wasn't dead. For one moment, I was made of steel. I strolled backstage, ready to get into my business suit for the "getting to know you" part of the contest, and stared peacefully at everyone frantically running around trying to remove the buttglue meant to insure that our swimsuits wouldn't ride up and give us a wedgie.
Still. There was the singing.
All along, I had been most afraid of the singing. Like I said, karaoke is the extent of my vocal experience, and I can hack my way through songs, but I certainly don't have any real talent. For two months, I had been screaming "True Colors" at the top of my lungs in the car, while other people in neighboring vehicles had smirked at red lights alongside me.
Therefore, in lieu of actual talent, I had been told I was going to have to "sell the song" and "own the stage." And as I walked out, held the mic, and turned around, I felt better than I had at any point in the last 24 hours. It was just singing, I realized, and it was just people out there.
"You, with the sad eyes"
(My voice sounded okay, I mean, at least it was coming out and everything.)
"Don't be discouraged, though I realize/It's hard to take courage"
(I was building, building. I only had two minutes, so I knew I had to rise quickly to the crescendo.)
"In a world, full of people/you can lose sight of it all"
(Oh shit. I had been practicing that line for so long, but it came out just a second too late, and was totally off pitch. Hmm. Oh well. Keep going.)
"The darkness/inside you/makes you feel so small"
(At this point, I'm actually enjoying it, and decide to throw in some dramatic stumbling around. Sing like you're about to die.)
"I see your true co-ol-orrs shining through/I see your true co-ol-orrs, and that's why I lo-ove you/So DON'T BE AFRAID! to let them show/ your true colors your true colors "
(I'm so wonderfully tortured I can hardly get the words out!)
" are beautiful "
(And now the dramatic pause.)
" Like a ra-a-a-a-a-a-innboww."
There was clapping. Nice. Was I good? Man, I must have been awesome. Later, coworkers would describe me as a "drunken Liza Minelli on 'ludes." Whatever. It was my moment.
THE CROWNING MOMENT
Audrey and Marie (the hippies) were by far the most entertaining candidates.
"Now Audrey," Miss City of Roses 2001 asked during the interview section. "We're all dying to know. What do you do for fun?"
"Well," said Audrey cheerily, "I enjoy going to protests that speak out against the war, and hanging out with my communist roommates!"
In another section, the MC asked Marie about her platform (menstruation)--but alluded to it as "women's health issues."
"I think that women's menstruation is something we do not have enough awareness about," Marie said without blinking. "Women should talk to their partners about their periods, and not feel any shame in doing so."
"Thank you, Audrey!" yelled the MC.
While, competitively speaking, I wanted to win, I didn't really want to win. If I did, I'd have to spend a year hosting Miss Portland events, not to mention the fact I would have to compete again in the Miss Oregon contest in June. By the time the winners were announced, I was bored out of my mind from waiting, and simultaneously terrified and delighted at the thought of winning.
"And now, the next Miss City of Roses is "
I waited, trying to smile.
She was the Kirsten Dunst look-alike, and rushed forth and ducked down, as we had been instructed to if we won, bowing so the crown could be pinned on her head. I wasn't surprised. Shontina's talent had not only been a sign language interpretation of an Alan Jackson song, but she dedicated it to the victims of September 11, AND her platform was helping kids learn to read. She looked like a movie star and had been in countless pageants. She knew her shit and probably had a very good answer to the question "What do you like most about Portland?"
But there was one more winner to be announced, as two people go on to the Miss Oregon contest.
"And Miss Portland, 2002, is Tyrene Bada!"
Again, I wasn't surprised. Tyrene had a tremendous voice, and seemed really committed to her platform: Music Education in Elementary Schools. There was chaos, crying, hugging, and a few devastated looks. All of us--the losers--were ushered backward behind the judges, as praise and hugs rained down upon the winners. Audrey and I looked at each other and hugged. It seemed like the thing to do.
I rushed backstage to change and leave as quickly as possible--I needed to go home and start getting drunk. As I did, I heard Audrey's voice and some yelling going on behind me. Audrey was being escorted out quickly by one of the coaches, and yelling to Marie to bring her stuff.
"What's going on?" I asked Marie, both of us topless in the dressing room.
"Oh," Marie laughed nonchalantly. "Audrey just got kicked out. She mooned the audience as we were walking offstage."