Ever since a brilliant, beautiful friend of mine entered a small-time city beauty pageant and lost to the mayor’s granddaughter (whose talent was disco roller skating), I’ve not held these contests in the highest regard. But actually, my disdain started much earlier in life. One of the first grown-up movies I remember watching as a kid is Smile, a biting satire of pageants and middle-class American society. Teenagers compete for the Young American Miss crown while running the gauntlet of an overprotective chaperone (a former Young American Miss crown-holder herself), a sleazy, dimwitted emcee and a temperamental choreographer. The pinnacle of the film is the pageant itself, highlighted by a participant demonstrating how to efficiently pack a suitcase. Amongst the contestants are very young versions of Melanie Griffith and Annette O’Toole.
But this was just to be the beginning of my complicated relationship with beauty and its contests.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
This hilarious book opens with a plane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashing near a small, apparently deserted island. The crew members, as well as many of the competitors, die in the crash, and those who survive must figure out how to make like Gilligan. All this death and suffering makes for a knee-slapping premise in the hands of Libba Bray. At first the surviving contestants are little more than stereotypes, albeit not simplistic pageant queens (well, except for Miss Mississippi and Miss Alabama who are impossible to tell apart). Each young lady has special knowledge and talents that come in handy and Miss Texas, well, she’s just a natural born dicta…, um, leader. The story is occasionally interrupted by pageant entry forms, commercials for the pageant’s sponsors, and other humorous asides. As time passes we meet faux pirates who star in a reality TV show, a foreign leader patterned after Chairman Mao, and bad bad government men. Adventures and merriment abound, and throughout it all Miss Texas makes sure that the young women practice their pageant routines daily.
Little Miss Sunshine
Although a beauty contest does play a central role in this comedy, it’s a family’s quirkiness that’s the focus of the story. Olive is a seven-year-old pageant-hopeful surrounded by a remarkable cast of characters: an overworked mother, unsuccessful father, suicidal uncle, mute-by-choice brother, and heroin-using grandfather. In the midst of everyone’s issues, Olive dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine contest in faraway California. So the entire clan climbs into their trusty VW bus and begins an 800-mile journey. Hilarity ensues, misfortune is overcome, and the family arrives at the last minute to discover a gaggle of skinny, tan, and overtly sexual little girls. Olive, in contrast, is plain and somewhat chunky. The family tries to talk her into withdrawing from the contest to avoid embarrassment, but in a lovely show of support Olive’s mom decides that Olive should just be herself and compete. Humor, drama, pathos, angst, and merriment combine for a unique movie-viewing experience.
Laurie Notaro is a hilarious woman. In her first novel we find Maye Roberts moving to a small university town in Washington where her husband has landed a tenure-track job. She leaves her job and friends in Phoenix and moves to Spaulding, a clique-ish place where it’s difficult to make friends. The town originally was famous as the world’s largest producer of sewer pipes, but a devastating fire put an end to this claim and Spaulding is now known for its prestigious university. A final remaining vestige of the town’s plumbing heritage is the annual Sewer Pipe Queen pageant, a remnant of the Spaulding Festival which featured sewer pipe oriented contests. It is suggested to Maye that she compete for this title, which is a guaranteed gateway to instant popularity, and she decides to follow this advice. While this is not a book about a beauty contest per se, it is an amusing look at the challenges of fitting in.
Drop Dead Gorgeous
Perhaps my favorite pageant movie, Drop Dead Gorgeous, is a mockumentary about the Sara Rose Princess America Pageant in small-town Minnesota. As the contestants begin to expire spectacularly one-by-one under suspicious circumstances (exploding tractors and what-not) the remaining contenders soldier on in fear and trepidation. The talented cast, which includes Kirstie Alley, Kirsten Dunst, Ellen Barkin and Denise Richards, lends an aura of authenticity to the proceedings. Who will win the crown, and more importantly, who will survive?