I don’t remember giving consent. Or protesting. Or having a choice, not with adult forces at work. A secret committee decided that I should represent my elementary school at the Little Miss Lafayette pageant. How I got the news, I’m not sure, but my guess is this:

My mother: “Ronlyn, you’re going to be in a beauty pageant. You were picked out of everyone from the whole school. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Me: I likely scowled. I likely pondered the real threat of dress-up clothes. It’s possible I asked, “Why me?”

Why me indeed. There had to be at least 150 girls in my school. Certainly someone else would have been thrilled by such attention, someone to whom strangers commented, “Oh, what a pretty little girl.” I was a cute kid, like the quirky type in cereal commercials. I was not a beautiful child, one born for pageants or hair product ads, tresses wavy and loose, eyes and cheekbones aglow with well-placed catch lights. I was no girly-girl.

Regard the image on the left.

 This is where my memory begins of the pageant. I sat in someone’s business office for-damn-near-ever at the Mall. Chairs lined every inch of the walls, and little girls filled every chair.

Take a close look. Note the doily heart at my hip. That’s my pageant number. Cast your eyes upon the dress. My grandmother—a seamstress of great speed and talent—hand crafted the frock for my debut. It was February 1976, so we shouldn’t be surprised that I look like an extra from Little House on the Prairie. Dig the perfect part in my hair, held in place with festive barrettes. Now, behold my body language. We can all assume the outcome of the pageant from this one candid photo.

Seemingly hours later, we girls marched from our windowless, brown-paneled green room to a T-shaped stage in the middle of the Mall. At the top of the T was a row of adult-sized chairs for the contestants. The bottom of the T was the obligatory runway and, below, the audience. Not that one could see the people because of the lights, which created the effect of a near-death experience.

I suppressed my anxiety as each girl took her turn in front of the judges. It would have been normal to worry about my looks in comparison to theirs, but I was probably hoping I wouldn’t trip. Surely, I had to wonder what I was doing there at all.

What qualities gained my entry into the pageant? Congeniality? At that age, I was predictable and good at following directions. There was little chance that I’d burst into hysterical tears or wander off stage. Poise? I was well-coordinated and could walk in a straight line. That counts for something. Talent? I had good rhythm but couldn’t sing and didn’t dance. If we’d had a talent segment, I suppose I could have done a routine set to music with my Lemon Twist. Personality? I was quiet and shy yet highly verbal. That must have been charming.

My name was called. I shuffled my patent leather feet toward the runway. The host’s banter was something like: “Ronlyn Domingue is a second grade student at M___ P___ Elementary. She enjoys reading, watching Scooby Doo, and drawing. Her teacher says she is a smart little girl who does very well in her schoolwork. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. ____ Domingue. Let’s give a big hand to one of Lafayette’s Little Misses!” Through this, the lights blinded me. The audience looked ghoulish. At some point, I remembered someone had instructed me to smile, smile big. So I smiled and lingered for a spin at the end of the stage and resisted the urge to run back to my chair.

It was the lamest pageant ever. There was no dress change, no talent event, and no question and answer session. I didn’t have a chance in hell. My best attributes were below the skin.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has blocked out the judges’ announcement and the closing moments. I do, however, remember this. After the contestants returned to their families, my parents and I ended up next to the winner and her parents. My mom and dad did what civilized people do. They engaged in the niceties. My mother whispered to me, “Congratulate her.” I looked the little beauty in the face, her hair long and blond (maybe it wasn’t but that’s what I remember), her eyes bright, her teeth pearly. “Congratulations,” I muttered. To be honest, I hadn’t wanted to be there, but I was competitive and secretly hoped I’d place. One is allowed to be a sore loser when one is judged to be ordinary, possibly unattractive, at the age of seven.

Glance again at the photographs, now the image on the right.

That photo was taken a year later, my third grade class picture. My hair is short with cowlicked bangs. I sport a unisex red turtleneck and plaid pants. My footwear is designed for comfort and action. I wouldn’t grow my hair long again until I turned 19, and I wouldn’t wear a dress again without resentment until I was 23. I think the pageant traumatized me. I was gender bent, rendered androgynous. No more runways for me.

Third grade was better than second. My teacher realized I had a knack for stories. She’s the one who encouraged me to write. She’s the one who drove me to a local radio station so that I could read my prize-winning essay, the piece deemed best among 300 entries, a brief narrative on “Why I Like M___ P___ School.”

My fond memory of that experience: I stand in the kitchen with my mother, who turns up the transistor radio one morning to listen to my recorded eight-year-old voice. That’s when I stood in my own unique beauty, one meant to be felt and heard, not seen.

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

RONLYN DOMINGUE (pronounced ron-lin doh-mang, equal emphasis on all syllables) is the author of The Mapmaker's War and The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Books 1 and 2 of the Keeper of Tales Trilogy. The third book is forthcoming in 2017. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent UK, Border Crossing, and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. She holds a MFA degree in creative writing from Louisiana State University. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

4 responses to “A Thousand Words: I Was an Unwilling Beauty Pageant Contestant”

  1. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Comment by Mary
    2009-09-14 05:13:16
    Oh my gosh! I haven’t even read the piece yet, but I have to tell you MY SCHOOL DID THAT TOO! I went to a little Catholic school in Sulphur (near Lake Charles, you know… ) and a secret committee totally picked a junior high school girl to represent us at the fair. I never got picked, but my best friend did one year. And a girl I hated got picked the following year. No clue how it all worked or what they were trying to accomplish. It’s really kindof a ridiculous shame.

    (a few minutes later … I read the piece)

    “I didn’t have a chance in hell. My best attributes were below the skin.”
    Damn straight. This piece is a lot of fun, and so right on, and I WISH schools would quit doing this nonsense to little girls.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-14 05:30:23
    Junior high? Ouch. As if girls aren’t even more vulnerable then.
    Please tell me secret committees of this ilk no longer wreak such havoc in the 21st century.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Mary McMyne
    2009-09-14 06:43:55
    I love the last line of this one, Ronlyn. How true. I got chills.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-14 07:12:02
    Unexpected response. Wow. Thanks, Mary.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-14 12:15:56
    Great piece, Ronlyn! Funnily enough, I was looking in an old schoolbook from when I was about nine and it appears I was a contestant in ‘Junior Miss Bromley.’ The entry in my book sums up the experience: ‘I entered Junior Miss Bromley. Came nowhere.’
    It cracked me up when I read it, because I’d completely forgotten about it. Then it all came back to me, the funny dress I wore, the anxiety of parading round on stage. You were obviously much better behaved than I was, as you at least congratulated the winner. I don’t think I did that… Oh dear. What fun!!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-15 05:09:42
    The “came nowhere” cracked me up, too. Amazing that was buried in your memory.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Emilie
    2009-09-14 17:18:33
    I got chills too, Ronlyn. You’re my essay hero. Among your other hero, I admire your poise and wry turn of phrase. It’s all you, darling. First place.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-15 05:10:12
    Do I get a tiara?!!!!!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Jennifer Nuernberg
    2009-09-15 04:16:24
    You really tickled me with this piece. So try my best friend was Miss Teen Louisiana in 1986. Funny, while I always secretly envied her pageant-winning beauty, she always secretly envied my science fair-winning mind. Go figure.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-15 05:11:56
    Oh, she must have stories…
    I envy your science-fair winning mind, too.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Christine Cannon
    2009-09-15 11:21:39
    Knowing you as I do, this piece gave me such insight as to what drew me to you back in high school…it all makes complete sense to me now. You were traumatized-that is why I do not enter my beauties in those things…I must admit, though, that I am always surprised when they want to participate in talent shows or solos….I hope and pray that mine are learning that true beauty comes from inside. Thank you for sharing this with everyone.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-15 13:09:36
    Your note might require an off-comment conversation. *curious grin*

    Obviously, I was not constitutionally suited for the event. But other girls might be. To me, if a child is the first to express his/her interest in an activity and asserts a wish to continue with it, chances are it’ll be a positive experience.

    For the record, your children have a terrific model for beauty.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by LitPark
    2009-10-21 10:00:15
    Wow, I was unprepared for that gorgeous ending. Lovely.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-10-21 11:35:05
    Thanks, S!

  2. Carl D'Agostino says:

    Elementary school beauty pageant? Well I guess my generation wasn’t hip or contemporary enough to even think about such a thing. This leads me to figure out that M_____P______ School has to stand for Miss Pretty School.

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Be GRATEFUL your generation wasn’t into that sort of thing. The girls at your school were spared much angst.

    My old grade school—the building itself—was quite pretty. Well, to me. A long, high-ceilinged hall and giant windows in the classrooms.

    Thanks for reading, Carl.

  4. […] She was also a reluctant beauty pageant contestant. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *