From today’s Denver Post, the news (full story below the fold if that link has expired) that Oklahoma, besides being the buckle of the nation’s Bible Belt, is still a hot spot of activity on the beauty pageant circuit. The story says that Altus (population 21,000) even has a traveling fan club for its contestants.
I knew about the Bible Belt buckle thing, but not about the other.
The state has produced two Miss America winners in a row; this year’s is Lauren Nelson of Lawton.
Bibles and bikinis and high heels. Somehow they manage to work it all at once.
Which reinforces something I learned long ago from observing my wonderful Oklahoma cousins and friends: Do. Not. Ever. Underestimate. A. Woman. From. Oklahoma. For good or ill. You have been warned.
By the way, I was born there too.
A world of charm & contradiction
Story by Michael Riley
Denver Post Staff Writer
Article Last Updated:03/18/2007 10:49:12 AM MDT
Broken Arrow, Okla. – It’s 6:25 on a Saturday night, and with five minutes to go before the doors open at the Miss Broken Arrow Outstanding Teen pageant, at least 30 people are lined up in a bitter winter wind to be first inside.
Fans shelter cardboard placards and pastel-colored bouquets while women in Sunday coats struggle vainly to salvage an afternoon’s investment in perfectly coiffed hair from the prairie gale.
As the doors open and the audience streams in, 10 or so pretty girls in the crowd wear tiaras, a privilege granted to reigning queens attending other local competitions. Among the milling royalty are Miss Teen Tulsa, Miss Teen Okmulgee County and Miss Teen Route 66.
There are more crowned heads in this tiny corner of Oklahoma than at a Windsor royal wedding.
“My husband calls it the pageant cult,” joked Carolyn Hefner, a self-styled pageant junkie, who has dedicated a room in her Tulsa ranch house to Miss Oklahoma memorabilia, including a crown and a gold cape used by the state’s reigning royalty in the 1960s.
Beauty pageants have lost their sparkle for much of America, but Oklahoma is a land where pageants are still queen.
Fans follow the pageant circuit like a professional sport. A college in Oklahoma City has erected a statue on its front lawn of the three Miss Americas it’s helped produce. Contestants prepare for the shows as if they were training for the Olympics, with coaches that dole out advice on things as varied as fitness routines and the right heel height.
It’s partly why Oklahoma is one of the country’s pageant powerhouses, winning Miss America for the second year in a row in January, a feat that hasn’t been equaled since the 1950s.
Considered racy – in 1921
News to you? You’re probably not alone.
For much of the country, that dispatch got lost somewhere between coverage of Paris Hilton’s party meltdowns and Britney Spears’ hair disaster.
When the pageant started in Atlantic City, N.J., as a way to extend the summer tourist season in 1921, Miss America was considered racy. Somewhere along the way, experts say, the national pageant’s notion of the perfect woman fell further and further behind the country’s – weighed down in part by its own ideals.
“Half my students have had cosmetic surgery. People have Botox parties here like there used to be Tupperware parties,” said Sarah Banet-Weiser, a Los Angeles professor and author of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and the National Identity.”
“There is this growing cultural awareness that beauty is something that is constructed, an idea that just doesn’t fit very well with traditional pageant values.”
But many Oklahoma residents wear the state’s repeat win proudly, and just about everyone has a theory to explain it: the area’s strong family values; its Indian bloodlines (which account for those dark eyes and chiseled features); the fact that Oklahoma has more local pageants – 49 – than any other state except Utah.
But the answer may come down to this: In a world where the death of Anna Nicole Smith can command days of cable news airtime, this is a place where the values implicit in Miss America just seem to sit more comfortably – where the virtues of chastity and charity are still lauded without embarrassment or irony.
One hundred and fifty people from the town of Altus (population 21,000) accompany their local queen to the state pageant – and that’s after they’ve spent months helping hone her presentation and shop for gowns.
“From February to June, you live, eat and breathe pageants,” said Dannette Evans, director of the Miss Altus pageant, which she calls “one of the biggest events of the year” in the town.
Ideals worth fighting for
The contradictions of a ritual that idolizes virtuous women even as they’re sent out on stage in bikinis seems to bother no one.
For the fans and the participants, pageants are an enduring social ritual that represent the ideals of womanhood, beauty and grace still worth fighting for.
Oklahoma native Jennifer Page remembers when she was 5 years old, her grandmother presented her with a book called “White Lace and Party Manners.”
Among other things, it taught the now-6-foot blond how to set a table, introduce herself and sit like a true lady – ankles crossed, right foot over left.
In Page’s mind, there’s a lineage that goes from that book to this moment.
She’s on a practice stage, learning, at 24, how to walk. It’s no small feat to walk in 5-inch heels, across a stage, and make it look effortless, and Page practices it over and over, the click-clack of her heels tapping on the floor.
As she paces, she is scrutinized by an $80-an-hour coach named Sharon Cullison. After five years and 273 clients, Cullison knows what pageant judges want.
“They’re looking for the wholesome girl next door, but you have to be a sexy wholesome girl next door,” said Cullison, a former teacher who mothers her clients as much as coaches them.
Fine lines, perhaps, but Cullison navigates them deftly. Oklahoma is the buckle of the Bible Belt and proudly Southern – a mix that can create a minefield of sometimes-contradictory feminine ideals that contestants must wade through.
For the interview portion of the competition, for instance, Cullison tells her clients: “You have got to say exactly what you think and say it without offending anyone. That to me is the definition of a lady.”
Pageants in Oklahoma are serious business, and for Cullison’s clientele there are dress fittings, practice interview sessions and hours each day at the gym. The best interview coaches fetch $125 an hour; a designer gown for the evening- wear portion can cost $1,500.
Her clients can easily spend $5,000 – sometimes much more – preparing for a state-level competition, Cullison said.
“It’s not just ‘I woke up this morning, I was beautiful, and I walked on stage and won a pageant.’ It’s commitment and discipline,” said Page, a Norman schoolteacher who, despite spending the day with middle-schoolers, looks like she just stepped out of a beauty salon.
Among Cullison’s tricks: She has beginners wear heels and a bathing suit while doing mundane chores at home.
“They do the laundry in it, they do their homework in it, they eat dinner in it,” the 62-year-old Cullison said. “Then it becomes very natural.”
Heading west from Norman along Interstate 44, the Oklahoma landscape alternates between rolling prairie and a turnpike panorama of cookie-cutter chains – Olive Garden after Denny’s after Comfort Inn. But it may be that surface sheen of humdrum that gives the sparkle and glamour of pageants such a hold here.
Rising out of cotton fields, the town of Altus seems a long way from anywhere except a nearby Air Force base.
“Around here, you’re either military or you farm,” said Evans, the local pageant director.
But every year in late February, a little glitz comes to town.
Judges for the Miss Altus pageant are driven to the event in a limousine. The 1,250-seat theater sells out, and dozens buy tickets to watch the event standing up.
“You get so attached to these girls. I don’t want to use the word ‘obsessed,’ but you just get caught up in it,” said Bob Hefner, a retired Tulsa paint salesman, explaining how he and his wife’s lives have become wrapped up in the pageant world.
The Hefners are part of what is usually referred to as “the pageant family.” Their only daughter never competed, but for more than a decade they’ve volunteered hundreds of hours as minders, drivers or chaperones. Several Miss Oklahomas who needed a temporary place to stay in Tulsa have landed at their house, some for months at a time.
From there it took on a life of its own: The Hefners’ dog is named “Queenie.” And their corner bedroom is a virtual mini-museum to Miss Oklahoma, complete with a portrait gallery and – until the tape broke – a running soundtrack of “Here She Comes, Miss America.”
“I remember when Miss America used to be on the Wheaties box,” Bob Hefner said. “I think we need to get her out there again.”
“No size 10 winners”
If all the country were like Oklahoma, Miss America might still be on a cereal box instead of where she is now: the figurehead of a waning ritual that’s fallen from one of the highest-rated television events of the year in the ’50s and ’60s to a niche market event on cable’s Country Music Television.
But here the fall of Miss America as a national icon speaks more about the rest of the country than it does about those places where she’s never lost her shine. What could be wrong, after all, with admiring a woman who is talented, smart, beautiful and disciplined?
But ideals can be double-edged, and critics say that pageants end up channeling America’s complicated feelings about class, race and beauty onto those crepe-paper-covered stages.
Few poor women participate, said Banet-Weiser, the sociologist. And while most advocates emphasize the Miss America system is a scholarship pageant, “if it isn’t about beauty, why are there no size 10 winners?” she said.
Jackie Ledbetter’s daughter was successful in local pageants, garnering more than $80,000 in scholarship money and winning the Miss Oklahoma City University crown, probably the state’s toughest competition. But she struggled at the state level, never breaking into the top five.
With mocha-colored skin and a finely-hewn jaw, Leah Ledbetter is beautiful by just about any standard, but as an African-American, her looks didn’t fit Oklahoma’s typical “pageant girl” model, her mother said.
“It’s frustrating to see a ceiling on your children based on color,” Jackie Ledbetter said. “That’s a very bitter feeling.”
Many of those contradictions are recognized in the heart of pageantland but don’t seem to dull the sparkle.
Back in Broken Arrow, the annual teen pageant gets underway with a cadre of young girls prancing across the stage. Last year’s winner wows the audience by clogging to an Elvis medley. One contestant performs a self-choreographed dance representing her “strong Christian faith.”
Sitting in the packed audience, 18-year-old Morgan McLaughlin said she participated in pageants in the past but stopped a few years ago.
“I felt like I couldn’t be myself,” the Broken Arrow native said. “I just didn’t want to be fake.
“I know a lot of the girls who are in pageants. They preach these things on stage, but on weekends, they certainly don’t practice it.
“But I still love watching them.”
Staff writer Michael Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-954-1614.