Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Erstwhile BFF, the Beauty Queen

Katiebabs wrote a lovely post about why she writes, and her reminiscences about adolescence reminded me of a great story from my junior & senior high school life.  [I should note that Katiebabs has blogged about how intensely abusive and difficult a specific adolescent relationship was for her.  I don't want to dishonor her honesty by not acknowledging that it's an act of bravery to write about it.  Nothing in my story is meant to diminish what she has survived.]

Anyway, I wrote a comment to her writing post that was probably way too much information, which may be why Blogger ate it.  At least I think Blogger ate it, because it hasn't shown up.  (She might have her comments set as reserved for administrative review, which is fine.)

But then I thought -- Hey, that's actually a great story, and so precisely right for a blog about being Narrow End!  Because, I'm telling you, everything and everyone in this story is Narrow End.

When I went from elementary school to junior high school (it's a middle school now, but in 1967 it was a junior high school), I was a tall, fat, smart, lonely girl.  Oh, and young; I must have been 11 in 7th grade.  I have almost no memory of who my teachers were, or what I studied.  But I remember Susan.  She was in my homeroom, and she was very pretty.  And had lots of clothes.  No, I mean LOTS of clothes.

From the first day of school, Susan wore a different outfit -- a completely different outfit, not mix-and-match -- every single day for eight weeks.  I believe I counted 42 different outfits before she had to repeat one.  I remember only one of them: a skirt & vest in pinwale corduroy trimmed with embroidered ribbons, vaguely Tyrolean or maybe Scandinavian.  (Susan was big on her Swedish heritage.)  Perhaps because I was brimming over with admiration for this unique creature, we became friends.  Best friends.  Sleep-over friends.  I can remember her bedroom, with its two twin beds decked out in pale pink nylon ruffles, her brothers Wayne and Fippy (Philip, but as the "baby" in the family he had special baby-talk nickname, including, poor kid, "Fipper-doo"), and her mother.  (Tellingly, Susan's father has left no impression on me.  I suspect he wasn't home much; his wife made it a very kid-centric household.)

Susan took lessons at the local modeling school.  She was pretty in her way; she looked a lot like Susan Dey in her Partridge Family days.  At some point, Susan told me that the woman who ran the modeling school had an in with some guy (she mentioned his name, which was of those three-first-names names, like John Robert Benjamin, or something) who was going to be able to help Susan to win the Miss USA beauty pageant.

Now, I might have been the worshipful acolyte, but even I took that bit of "I know a guy who knows a guy . . . " with a grain of salt.  After all, Susan was 13 or 14 at the time -- way too young to be that connected.  Right?

As I recall, we were best friends until mid-way through 8th grade when she dumped me and took up with some other acolyte, and then the two of them were mean to me.  I actually don't remember the meanness, and I suspect it made very little impression on me.  (An ironic benefit of having a very very unpleasant family of origin: no one else can really measure up.)  After that, I didn't see much of Susan.  We were in different classes in high school.

Well, I should be clear:  I didn't see much of her in person.  But, as fate should have it (and sometimes fate is a very odd duck), I just happened to be watching television late on a Saturday night in 1973 when the local NBC affiliate ran the Miss New York State pageant.  (In case anyone doesn't know or has forgotten: Miss America is the older beauty pageant and has a talent portion; Vanessa Williams won Miss America but had to forfeit her crown when it was discovered that she'd posed for nude photos.  Interestingly, she was the first black woman to be Miss America, and the first runner up who replaced her was also black.  Miss USA -- the pageant my erstwhile friend was trying for -- didn't have a talent portion.  The reigning Miss USA was our entrant in the Miss Universe pageant.  I believe Donald Trump now owns the rights to Miss USA and Miss Universe.)

So I'm watching this rather low-tech videotape of the state pageant, and there's Susan, in the ubiquitous bathing suit & sash.  How surreal, and yet -- when the credit crawl ran after she'd won -- how easily explained.  Because John David Henry (or whatever) was listed as the Executive Producer of the pageant.

(As a lawyer, and just to be fair here, I need to say that I don't know that a) the fix was in for Susan, or b) that she wasn't winning fair and square, or c) that John William Bennett was pulling any strings.  I just know that she mentioned the name in 1968 and he was the state pageant's executive producer in 1973.  Any conclusion you wish to infer is entirely voluntary.)

Okay, so she's Miss New York State, and that means she's going to be a real live contestant in the Miss USA pageant.  This was a big deal in my household because, although no one else watched beauty pageants (we were all good women's libbers in my home), even my parents and brother watched this one because they actually knew Susan.  And, let me tell you, explaining to my parents what was going on was totally other-worldly.  (I have no idea why I watched beauty pageants, but I did.  Probably stemmed from my interest in paper-dolls...)

I must now apologize, because I'm about to be a little bit catty.  All the young women who participated in that pageant, and in every one I ever watched, were very pretty.  But I happened to know -- because I'd seen her in the halls of our high school -- that Susan was wearing a fall.  (Anyone else remember them?  The predecessors to hair extensions: fake hair attached to a comb that went at the crown of the head and then your hair would be teased and smoothed over the top of the fall and blended in to look like it was all natural.)  I did think that was a bit cheesy -- and I didn't even know about the spray adhesive and other gizmos pageant girls used back then.

Okay, cattiness over.

So first all 50 girls come out in state-themed costumes.  I suspect Susan's was the Statue of Liberty (because what else?), but I do recall that Miss Illinois was dressed like a Chicago gangster from the Prohibition era.  Think pin-striped suit jacket with wide lapels and show-girl stockings in place of trousers.  (In my memory of the parade of states, she was carrying a fake tommy-gun, but I suspect that's just my personal embellishment.)  We were charmed by that bit of whimsy.

If you've ever watched a beauty pageant, you know that all 50 girls come out once or twice, but for most of them, their fate is sealed by the time the show starts.  Bob Barker was the MC for that pageant, and he announced the 12 semi-finalists, who then wore relatively decorous one-piece bathing suits and then, later, pouffy gowns.  (In the 70s, it was all chiffon; sequins came later.)  Lo and behold, Susan was one of the 12 semi-finalists!  That meant my dad had to keep watching.  (Seriously, if she'd been knocked out early, he was so outta there.)

More beauty pageantry, and then we had five finalists, and lo! Susan was among their number.  So was Amanda Jones, Miss Illinois, the gangster we liked.  They got stuffed into a soundproof booth and pulled out one at a time for the Big Question that would elicit the answers upon which the judges would decide who should win.  The stage had an apron of sorts: a semi-circular walkway with the judges and audience in front and the orchestra in a pit between the walkway and the main stage.  It was on this walkway that Bob Barker had each finalist stand to answer the question.  After her answer, she then went back to those individual round disks they had to stand on.

The question was:  If you had to go forward or backward in time, which era would you pick and why?

Contestant 1 came out and said she would pick the Civil War because there was such a great sense of brotherhood then.

Contestant 2 said she would go into the future because America was getting better and better.

Contestant 3 (Amanda Jones) said she would pick the Renaissance because there was such an explosion of artistic and intellectual accomplishment.  (We all cheered that answer!)

Contestant 4 was Susan.  She joined Bob on the walkway, and he asked her the question, "If you had to go forward or backward in time, which era would you pick and why?"  She paused, and then replied that she'd stay in the present because America was so wonderful.  Bob laughed, reminded her that the question required her to go forward or backward, but not to go too far backward or she'd fall into the orchestra pit!  So she regrouped and answered that she would go forward because America was just getting better and better.

Contestant 5 said she would go back to the 1940s because the clothes were so interesting.

Here's the video of who won.  (Sorry for the crappy quality, but it's worth watching it for the wonderful reaction of Amanda Jones.)  Susan was interviewed on local radio the next day and when asked about losing, she said she knew Amanda was going to win because Amanda was on the middle disk, and the girl in the middle always wins.

Guys, I couldn't make this stuff up, but you can see why it is I remember all this even 36 years later.

I was fascinated by Amanda Jones (my heroine!) for a while.  Supposedly, she'd entered the pageant on a dare from her boyfriend, and because there might be scholarship money.

As for Susan, I saw her on the day of our high school graduation.  She was snippy, and I may have been snippy back.  (Sorry, Susan.)  She did enter the Miss New York State pageant for Miss America, but her lack of a talent may have hurt her.  She also entered something connected to Miss World, I believe, and also didn't win.  I think I learned later that one of her prizes from one of these pageants was a cruise on a Greek liner, and that she married the captain in a cave somewhere in the Greek islands.

Here's the thing, though -- she was just as narrow-end as I am.  I mean, really:  42 completely distinct outfits for a 12-year-old?  That's some weird parenting going on.  I suspect if I could talk to her now, she might well have some stories of how difficult she found it to fit in.


  1. 42 outfits. Seems impossible, doesn't it? But, I remember going to Quebec City at age 14 for 6 weeks of French immersion -- there were two gals from New Orleans and one of them wore a different outfit -- sort of crisp, breezy sundresses -- very chic -- for 6 straight weeks. I've never forgotten that. I'll confess, I was pretty impressed. Me that could wear jeans and a t-shirt for days on end.

    And now I have a dd and her erstwhile bf said to her once, critically, "I've never seen you wear the same thing twice."* I've never sorted out how I felt about clothes = costumes ... let alone going back in the time machine to HS ... but I'm going to think about it. In a Scarlett O'Hara timeline: tomorrow :)

    * and to be fair to my dd, she is a fabulous tripper (canoe not drugs) and is capable of wearing the same outfit for days on end while she portages :D

  2. I have a theory that bad dressers come in two varieties: frumpy or trashy. I'm in the frumpy category. But I do own a lot of clothes, probably because I'm not good at a) doing laundry (so need enough to get by until I do the wash) and b) throwing stuff away or donating it to charity. I'm getting better at (b), though.

  3. I don't think I've ever owned 42 outfits! I was far more fashion conscious before I had kids. Now that I'm home all day, there's really no point in getting dressed up. I also have less time to go shopping for clothes, which is probably not a bad thing for the family finances! I do enjoy making an effort when I go out, though.

    My school days were fairly wretched. I definitely wouldn't want to go through that again.

  4. What a crazy/cool story. I wonder where Susan is now... maybe you could find her on FaceBook!

    My junior high years were pretty terrible... I'm really glad they're over. :)

  5. Heidenkind -- I did try to find her on Facebook, with no luck. I also Googled her, nada there as well. If she really did marry her Greek cruise ship captain, she may be living in Greece.

    Mind you, I don't ever go back to my high school reunions, know no one from high school, and never plan to join any high school reunion groups (which is good, because Facebook won't allow us to search for our high school because it changed its name some years ago), so I'm unlikely to stumble upon her.

    My best chance -- and it's a long shot -- is that she Googles herself and finds my blog post!