You may think beauty pageants are all glitter and gowns, but for Miss America hopefuls, big scholarship money is on the line. Our own Miss Wisconsin was crowned Miss America just last month, which means every local toddler in a tiara has her eye on the prize.
This stuff is serious. There we were, Sunday night, my roommate and I, on folding chairs in the basement of the East Side Club: low ceiling, silver balloons, windows overlooking the lake. Madonna's "Material Girl" played, reminding us what was important, as a dozen eager titleholders, not in competition that night, gathered at the front of the room and greeted each other like long-lost twins.
Below glittering tiaras, their sashes proclaimed the cities of their reign: Miss Racine, Miss Seven Rivers. Everyone was smiling and no one was tearing out anybody's weave. The scene was less Hunger Games than I'd expected.
We'd come to witness the coronation of Miss Madison-Capital City 2012. I wasn't jealous, even though the closest I've come to a pageant crown was the districtwide spelling bee in seventh grade. The scene was similar: nervous energy, disposable cameras, and the sense that all that was holy rested on my winning, which I did not, thanks to the word "treacle."
Sunday's contest began with a competition called the Onstage Question. In front of a crowd, their parents and six judges, the women had just 30 precious seconds to answer such everyday questions as "Do you believe in physician-assisted suicide?"
The only softball question was "Who, other than a family member, would you say is your hero?" The contestant had obviously spent her time prepping for "what are your thoughts on female circumcision" because she was visibly thrown.
"BENJAMIN FRANKLIN," she blurted out, and I accidentally laughed. "He's done many, many things which inspire many people here in America." True enough.
The swimsuit portion was next, which, we were assured, measured how well the contestants maintain a lifestyle of "physical, emotional and intellectual health." The contestants paraded up the aisle one by one in their most intellectual swimwear.
Talent followed. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on alto sax. Belly dancing. A tearjerking rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." An Irish jig performed by eventual pageant winner Chelsea Hammett, of Oshkosh. Sets of parents stiffened one by one.
Then the pageant was over. And as the crowd took snapshots, I took my leave. I have to admit, I prefer my tiaras on toddlers and drag queens.