The beauty-queen charade and the lesson of misplaced values

Feb. 1, 1998
My dear colleagues: what young girl has never had the fantasy of winning a beauty contest, at whatever cost, however fleeting that flight of fancy may have been? This month, there is no protesting, no jabbing, no call to activism, and no message. This is just a simple story for your enjoyment:

Heidi Emmerling, RDH, MA

My dear colleagues: what young girl has never had the fantasy of winning a beauty contest, at whatever cost, however fleeting that flight of fancy may have been? This month, there is no protesting, no jabbing, no call to activism, and no message. This is just a simple story for your enjoyment:

"I can`t believe we`re really going to do this," I said.

"You have to swear never to tell a soul as long as you live that I ever cheated."

"It`s our secret."

We put the teakettle on and waited. When the steam came rushing out of the spout, we carefully placed the envelope in the steam, just long enough to loosen the glue, but not so long that the envelope would disintegrate. We gently loosened the seal. For amateurs, I thought we did pretty well - no wrinkles, rips or smears. Lynne* removed the test that she had taken earlier that afternoon. Now we were ready. We were armed with every reference book we could find. This time, Lynne aced the test. We placed it back in the envelope, dabbed the smallest amount of Elmer`s glue under the flap and under the seal. Voila!

To explain: Lynne and I were best friends in high school. We were inseparable. We were not part of the "in" crowd, but we had a small, very nice group of friends. But Lynne wanted to be a star, to shine. She always pushed herself to be the best: valedictorian of her junior high class and well within the top 10 percent of her high school class; exchange student to Japan; 4-H Gold Star and four medals; seven Lions Club trophies for public speaking. She confided to me that she wanted to be Miss Teenage America.

I don`t mean to be cruel, but among her many attributes, beauty was not one of them Some of her nicknames from earlier years were "spider legs" for her stick figure and "Bugs" for her overbite. Still, she wanted to go for it ... privately. She knew others would have made fun of her for trying.

Lynne was embarrassed by her streak of vanity. Still, wouldn`t it be great for her to be on TV in a beauty pageant? All those mean kids that used to pick on her would see her and be really jealous.

Even though our small town lacked a local Miss Teenage America Program, Lynne still could apply. There was a category designed specifically for applicants across the country with no local contest. For these candidates, the competition prior to national finals would be conducted via certified mail. The one winner of this category would then make it to the televised finals, where she would represent her community and compete with all the other state winners.

Lynne was ready to compete and to win. All she could think about was making it to the TV round where everyone would see her. She dreamed of being on magazine covers and traveling across the country being a spokesperson for teenagers. The $15,000 scholarship that came with the title was but a small perk to her.

So she cut out the application from her latest issue of Seventeen. She listed her shining achievements and wrote an essay on why she should be Miss Teenage America. The judges must have been impressed. Several weeks later, she got a letter saying how pleased they were to have her as a contestant. She made it over the first hurdle.

Next, she had to get a dozen, professional 5" x 7" glossy, black and white photographs; complete the written test; and return all the materials by the deadline.

"Wow, Lynne! These pictures of you look fabulous ... they really flatter you."

And they did ... sort of. Instead of hiding her under tons of make-up and big hair, the photographer highlighted her large, sparkling eyes and her fair skin, all framed by her smooth, long blonde hair. In spite of her overbite, her smile emerged warm and sincere. The pictures captured the slightest hint of her shyness and vulnerability.

"I hate these pictures!" she moaned. "Look at my nose - it`s so huge! And that zit on my forehead! I don`t have time to do another sitting because the deadline`s in three days."

"What`s the deal with the pictures anyway?" I asked. "How do the judges know that the photographer didn`t somehow erase some massive birthmark from your face? Or what`s to stop someone from sending in pictures of a model instead of herself?"

"I don`t know," she replied. "I guess someone could try. She might even get away with it until the nationals, where all the girls have to show their real faces. At that point, it would be pretty obvious if the pictures didn`t match the candidates. Then, the judges would have to find alternates."

What was really more important to the judges was the test ... and Lynne always did well on tests! Our high school principal, Mr. Godfrey, had to physically supervise her during the entire two-hour test, just to make sure she didn`t cheat - as if she actually needed to cheat!

When she opened the test booklet, she felt a wave of panic and horror. The test only covered a small portion of stuff one learns in a classroom. The majority of the questions asked about trivia and current events like politics and sports: "Who`s the governor of Rhode Island? How many U.S. representatives does Alaska have in Congress? Who is the current Wimbledon champion? In what year did IBM introduce the first laser printer?" These fill-in-the-blank questions remained blank.

Lynne was devastated. Mr. Godfrey placed the test into the official pageant envelope and sealed it with the official pageant seal. At that moment, she saw her picture fading from the magazine covers. She knew that the Miss Teenage America title was not a reality for her.

She was supposed to take the test and the rest of her materials and ship the whole packet back to headquarters for judging. But that evening, temptation got the best of her. "We could steam open the envelope and answer all the questions, reseal it and who would know?"

I couldn`t believe what I was hearing! This was my closest friend ... my conservative, high-achieving, hard-working, honest friend.

"Technically," she continued, "the instructions said I couldn`t use notes during the test; they said nothing about after the test. Besides, no where in the rules does it come right out and say not to use steam."

Did I mention that this future dental professional was a consummate rhetorician?

The "altered" packet went out in the mail the next morning. We both suspected she`d never hear back from the pageant again. The judges certainly should be able to spot a tampered envelope with ease. Besides, what high school student with any life at all could really answer all those questions?

The fact that she answered every single question correctly had to look too obvious and arouse suspicion. And those photos ...

The following week, the delivery guy from the local florist brought Lynne a dozen, long-stemmed red roses. She read the card aloud: "Congratulations. You have been selected as a finalist in the Miss Teenage America Pageant." She was told that the winner of this round would get to go on national TV. Her family and neighbors were hugging her, crying with tears of excitement and joy.

What was she supposed to do now? Celebrate? Confess? Hide until the whole thing blows over? None of the options seemed really appropriate at the time - especially the last one. The public relations department for the pageant was way too efficient and the good news traveled fast.

Mr. Godfrey contacted her the next morning and insisted that she be the guest of honor at the Board of Trustees meeting that same evening. Next, the editor of the high school paper took her picture and interviewed her for the issue that was going to press. Finally, the city paper ran a story with her picture the next day. For the following two weeks, the guys would sing, "There she is ..." every time she walked into class.

This was not the recognition she hungered for. Guilt and paranoia overwhelmed her. This whimsical prank of ours was escalating too far too fast. Still, we held tight to our secret.

Lynne virtually camped out at the mailbox, waiting for the decision on who would win the candidate-at-large competition. For once in her life, Lynne wanted to be the graceful loser. Those were the longest, most agonizing two weeks of her whole life.

The letter finally came: "Although you have not been chosen as the winner of the candidate-at-large competition, please accept this certificate as a sincere acknowledgment of the high standards of scholastic attainment, personal development and community responsibility which you presented in generous measure during this contest."

Ha! She unquestionably had plenty of scholastic achievement and personal development, but they certainly weren`t demonstrated in "generous measure" during this competition. In fact, these qualities weren`t demonstrated at all during the competition. We both knew it!

The certificate never adorned her wall. Her "achievement" was never listed on her resume.

Never had losing felt so good!

*All names in this story are fictitious.

Heidi Emmerling, RDH, MA, is a consulting editor for RDH, a writer, speaker, and clinician from Sparks, Nevada. Her e-mail address is [email protected].