How I Faked My Way Through a Beauty Pageant

Hoping no one notices I’m full of shit

I n my striving to look somewhat attractive and not like a hairy mongrel, I eventually lost 10 lbs., convinced my mom to buy me contacts, and lost the braces. I went from “Ugly Betty” to saucy (faux) Latina in what seemed like an overnight transformation. Puberty was like a bad teen movie.

My mom was thrilled I was finally presentable and became convinced that I was the next Miss Teen USA. Unbeknownst to me, she sent in my picture to the Miss Junior Teen Pageant, in what was to become in her eyes my first step in world domination as a pageant queen. She bounded into my room one Saturday morning to deliver the news.

“Oh my God, you’ve been accepted by the Miss Junior New Jersey Pageant!” she screamed one morning.

“What?” I was still groggy. Mom had started her shrieking at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I was still half asleep. My mom’s normal speaking voice has always been several decibels higher than an average person’s, so it always sounded like SHE WAS TALKING LIKE THIS. It got even worse when she spoke in her native tongue Tulu to my half-deaf grandmother or got into an argument with my father. I suppose I should have been ecstatic that she started her screaming at 10 a.m. and not her usual 7 a.m., but I was not.

She thrust open my bedroom door and charged in. “I sent your picture into the Miss Junior New Jersey Pageant, and you were accepted!”

“Wow, that sounds awesome. I’m so excited I could eat glass,” I responded. Personally, I thought pageants were mind-numbingly brainless. I had yet to fathom the point of a contest in which I was going to be judged on my appearance. If I was going to be judged, I wanted it to be something that involved an actual skill like dancing or cheerleading, both of which I competed in on a regular basis. What’s funny is that we think beauty pageants for women and girls is completely normal. It’s so completely normal for women to be judged based on their appearance that it doesn’t even strike us how bizarre this whole ritual is. Imagine if instead of women it were a group of men parading around in swimsuits and tuxedos being judged based on their appearances. Hmm, he’s got tight pecs and broad shoulders, but his penis doesn’t look any bigger than a mini-golf pencil, says judge number one. “6.5!”

If I wanted to be judged on my looks, I could walk past a construction site in a short skirt (as I had recently learned). It was a lot easier.

“Listen, you’ll need new outfits so we can go shopping and buy you a whole new wardrobe. And you can keep the money you win.”

Ah, the magic words. I was like a horse to a carrot. The sweet promise of cash and clothes was all I needed to hear. I was totally in. I knew what little self-worth I had wasn’t going to be shattered by a bunch of old people deciding if I looked good in an evening gown. If only Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were this simple.

I decided I was going to milk this whole pageant thing. I stocked up on makeup, gowns, dance costumes, shoes, and of course hair spray. My life was now almost complete.

I had been hoping the pageant would be held somewhere glamorous, like the Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City (OK not really glam, but that’s the only place I knew at the time). But it was not to be. The pageant was being held in some generic hotel convention room. You know those mind-numbing places. The hotel was totally lacking in any sort of sophistication. It smelled like fuzzy carpeting, the lighting was heinous, and the hotel staff had the ugliest uniforms I had ever seen. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised seeing as beauty pageants were as exciting as a bag of rocks. Needless to say, I didn’t have much to say to the other contestants. I was not going to win Miss Congeniality anytime soon. This brings me to the people.

I was doing the pageant for the mom-sponsored bribes and therefore couldn’t have cared less if I ended up in last place. So I was stunned to find hundreds of Jon Benet-like girls milling around the hotel, muttering, dancing, singing, and practicing speeches to themselves. Not to mention the parents working themselves into a state of frenzy trying to make sure their daughters were the epitome[1] of perfection. I’ve never seen so many people trying to validate themselves through their kids. And I thought my parents were fucked up. Almost every single girl looked like she was about to have a nervous breakdown at any given moment.

I breezed through the interviews and evening gown competitions. Along the way, I even won the talent competition for my rousing tap dance set to the 1930’s Benny Goodman hit “Sing, Sing, Sing”. You should have seen my white and silver sequined leotard and matching feather hat. Thank goodness, I didn’t get my period that day. Who the hell thinks a white leotard is a good dance costume for a menstruating female? But I digress.

The crowning glory of the evening’s festivities was the question and answer session. As I sashayed to the front of the stage, I started to feel a wee bit nervous. Even though I could have cared less about winning, I still didn’t want to make a fool of myself in front of all these people. Plus if I won this pageant, it ensured my mom taking me to more pageants, which equaled more clothes and money. My left eyebrow started to twitch. What would the question be? Would I be able to answer it? Would one poor answer mark the end of my (lucrative) pageant career?

The host pulled a question out of a hat or box or something like that. I nervously gulped while smiling like my life depended on it. “Can you tell us which person in your family do you look up most to in your life?”

Oh shit! I thought. I didn’t look up to anyone in my family. I couldn’t stand most of them for longer than five minutes. Good thing I am a master of spontaneous bullshit.

“My grandfather is one of the most amazing people I know. He was a hard-working family man, opening up his own business to support my grandmother and four kids. He bravely fought in World War II. The last thing he wanted to do was leave his wife and children behind, but he always believed in what is just and right and knew it was his duty to liberate those are suffering. His strength has taught me how to have courage in everything I do and to stand up for what I believe in no matter what the circumstances.”

Yeah right. My grandfather was a Hindu vegetarian pacifist and never fought in a single war. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if India was even involved in the war, as it was still an English colony. The result of my bullshit? I ended up coming in fourth place out of two hundred girls. Two hundred girls who had been dancing, walking, and speeching for months on end to win this pageant. I also won the Most Likely to Become a Model prize. Somewhat ridiculous considering I’m all of 5’1.

M y mom was so excited by my win that she decided to continue entering me into pageants. The next one I did took place in Vegas. This was next level! Now I was getting free trips out of this nonsense. But like a woman fooled into dating a douchebag, I was soon about to realize this wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We had to perform a full opening number to some dumb electronic song that made me want to scratch my eyes out. We were in rehearsals all day in the middle of summer. In Vegas. A vacation this was not.

I was exhausted and having as much fun as I would be if I were having a root canal with no anesthetic while watching “American Idol”. I knew I was over Vegas when my mom and I were walking down the street and some random dude whistled at me. And no, it wasn’t because of the whistle.[2] It was because my mom became angry. With me.

“Your shorts are too short,” she snapped at me.

“You bought them for me!” I snapped back. “Also, hi it’s 99 degrees outside. We’re in Vegas. What do you want me to wear?”

“You could wear something more appropriate,” she replied irritably.

There’s an inherent absurdity in having a mother dying for you to participate in pageants who also becomes angry when you are catcalled. Mom was perfectly OK with me parading myself around in a bathing suit (on a stage no less) with a bright smile and cheesy wave. But should I wear a short skirt during the summer and should a dude look at me, I would suddenly be chastised for dressing like a whore.[3]

It dawned on me that my mom was totally fine with me being judged by a bunch of old men on a stage so I could win a trophy, but in real life by a real male? Not so much. In fact, I was forbidden to date.[4] It goes back to society’s age-old contradiction; women are valued for their appearance but if she’s perceived as being “sexy” it’s her fault. Women are encouraged to present themselves as sexy or hot garnering enough attention to validate that they are attractive to the opposite sex. If a woman refrains from presenting herself as sexy, she may be labeled uptight, unfeminine, or a lesbian.[5] Cross over to actual action- having sex and enjoying it (rather than just presenting yourself as an object) and you’re easily branded a ho. So I was supposed to be pretty enough to be in a pageant and pretty enough to be a sweet, good-natured girl-next-door but not pretty enough to be overtly sexually desirable.

I spent years ingesting images of sexualized women from Hollywood to Bollywood. Images that played into male domination and objectification. But where were the images of women deciding how to be sexual of their own accord? Besides Madonna and Nicki Minaj, there were few examples. And when they used their voice, they were criticized.

The idea that my appearance or sexuality was only OK if it was regulated or if I wasn’t personally deriving pleasure from it angered me more than I could even express at the time. By the time I graduated high school, she had already called me a slut, a whore, and a prostitute simply because I wore a short skirt or two. And this was all before I even lost my virginity! Considering I had spent part of many of my formative years feeling and looking like a hairy Butterball turkey, I was as surprised as my mom was when I started getting noticed by the opposite sex.

Screw pageants.

[1] To this day, when I read “epitome” I still say EPI-TOME in my head and not EPI-DEMY in my head. I thought they were two different words until I was a senior in high school and I said EPI-TOME in a conversation with my sister. She laughed hysterically and called me an idiot before correcting me.

[2] I never had a problem with catcalling unless it was weird and uncomfortable. Like the time a whacko came up to me and told me he was going to eat my pussy. FUCK. NO. But you want to give me a shoutout with a “god bless you” or “good morning miss” or “girl, you fine”, I may think you’re trashy but I could give a shit as long as it’s polite and not demanding or rude. One guy thought he would take it a step further and grab my crotch as he was walking by. I ran up to him, yanked his backpack so he stopped, and began hitting him with my purse and screaming. When passerby realized what happened, they began calling him a perv. It was awesome. Fuck that guy.

[3] Don’t worry my mom no longer thinks like this. I’ve finally managed to convince her this is not India or the 1800s. She’s come a long way from her formerly conservative thinking so I give her a lot of credit. I wish more people could grow and change in the same way.

[4] Thanks, conservative Indian parents!

[5] Can we stop using people’s sexuality to insult them? Thanks.

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