September 14, 2009
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.
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.