Judging MS. Minnesota

[In this story, names of contestants have been changed.  The photo is a stock image, per credit link, and is unrelated to the event described.]

I read the email through again, not quite believing it:

Dear Jacques,

We would be honored if you would be one of our Judges for the Year 2002 Mrs. Minnesota Pageant. The pageant will be held March 16th & 17th, 2002. Please check your calendar and let us know if this works for you.

Thanks,

Allison Stavrakis, State Director

Mrs. Minnesota Pageant.

I knew Allison well. She was the wife of one of my company’s customers. More than that, she and her husband Rich were friends of mine. And I knew she was somehow involved with the Mrs. Minnesota pageant. I also knew that Allison herself had once won the Mrs. Minnesota pageant. She was extremely attractive. And their daughter, Jolene, had won the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, and went on to place 8th in the Miss USA national competition. For that matter, Jolene was also a friend of mine, and had once spent the day with me, just for fun, promoting Polygon at the Minnesota Jewelers Show, where she’d worn her full gown, banner, and tiara, packed the booth with autograph seekers, and brought all sales activity to a halt. But the event had been worth a picture of the two of us on the front page of National Jeweler magazine, her arm around me in a way that elicited plenty of kidding from my customers. All well and good. But that was the closest I’d thought I’d ever come to a beauty pageant.   Now they wanted me to be a judge? I didn’t know the first thing about judging a beauty pageant.

I replied to Allison by email:

“I’m extremely honored, but do you think I’m qualified? I’ve never done anything like this before!”

And she wrote back:

Yes, you are qualified, most of my judges in the past have never judged before. We choose our judges from their back ground. Its always three men & two women. The women are always former Queens from different states. The men have back grounds in business, fitness, public relations etc. As a judge you would receive in the mail a compete Judges Handbook, to help you and give you guidelines.

You will do fine.!! Most people who are the first time judges are great!! They take the job very seriously. Once you have decided to accept the position, I will need an address, phone number, fax number, e-mail address to be able to mail your Judges information to you. As a judge the pageant pays for hotel, & meals for the weekend. You  would be working under our judges Official, Victoria Terry. She takes care of the judges for the weekend. They really become a close group!! They have a great time together.

Allison

I found her syntax revealing: “Once you have decided to accept the position…”

Well of course I would. Probably no one has ever turned down Allison in her offer of a beauty pageant judgeship. And the one line touched a chord, about most first time judges taking it very seriously. I was already doing so, obviously.

That had been nine months ago. Now I was on a United Airlines flight that would soon be touching down at the Minneapolis airport, and I was quite nervous This was an odd phenomenon. A veteran of twenty years of business meetings and speaking engagements, I rarely get “nervous” about anything these days. Yet a beauty pageant was making me so. Some of the lines from the “Judges Handbook” came back to me.

“When you judge the gown competition, you want to be looking at the overall impression. You want to judge not the gown itself, but the woman in the gown. Remember that you are looking for both inner and outer beauty.”

What the heck did that mean? For that matter, what did I know about “beauty” of any kind, inner or outer?

When a man meets a woman, the very first thing he does—always, every man, is make a snap physical evaluation. I’d once discussed this phenomenon at a trade show with one of my company’s female sales representatives.   She’d been talking about the visitors to our booth, and somehow the conversation had veered to the intimate. She’d indicated an attraction to one of the recent prospects.

“What a hunk,” was how she’d put it, after he’d walked away.

“A ‘hunk’? What does that mean? What’s a ‘hunk’?”

“You know, an attractive guy. Someone you’d want to, you know…”

“Michelle, that is so shallow. You’re not saying you can decide in 30 seconds whether you’d want to sleep with someone or not!”

“Oh, c’mon Jacques, said Michelle. “You know! You know immediately!   Everyone knows immediately! That doesn’t mean you’re going to sleep with them. It’s just that you automatically classify everyone that way. Those you’d want to sleep with, and those you wouldn’t. Are you seriously trying to tell me that guys don’t do the same thing?”

She was right, of course. But it’s something men have been trained not to confess. It makes us look petty and immature.   Yet here was Michelle, flippantly granting hunk-hood to men, right and left. She didn’t seemed the least concerned with their personalities.

Men spend their lives trying to be mature about women, trying to not be victims of our hormones, and trying to pretend we don’t care that much about physical beauty—don’t notice it, aren’t affected by it, and so forth. Then a stunning woman walks into a room, your eye is caught and your personal chemistry goes haywire. That’s what men try to fight against all their lives.

Yet here I was in a very formal, very analytical, very left-side-of-the-brain environment, with rules and regulations (“hem must split on top side of shoe” according to the instructions for the gown competition), with precise, defined procedures for exactly how everything had to be, and yet ultimately the directions all boiled down to: judge physical beauty. Judge the one thing you’ve been told all your life not to judge.

This seemed so wrong. So politically incorrect. I suppose beauty pageants never scored high on a politically correct scale.

Did it just come down to the Michelle test? Were we to watch a group of twenty women parade across a stage and just mark down whom we’d most like to sleep with?   That seemed almost…sick.

And wouldn’t the gender of the judge make a huge difference?   Wouldn’t a female judge have almost a conflict of interest—kind of a “curse them all” natural attitude towards these women’s impact on the dating pool. Perhaps the “Mrs.” status helped diffuse that factor. On the other hand with today’s divorce rate hovering around 50%, one could assume that half these women would end up as Miss again fairly soon, and be eligible to enter the Miss Minnesota pageant.

“Ah, yes, you see Cindy over there. A few years ago she was Mrs. Minnesota. But her jerk husband ran off with his secretary, so that’s why today she’s competing for the Miss Minnesota crown.”

I resolved to think of the event we were going to judge as the “Ms.” Minnesota pageant. That seemed to make it slightly more PC.

Knowing what I’d be doing this weekend, my kids had tried to help me out by renting movies that involved beauty pageants: Miss Congeniality and Drop Dead Gorgeous. The latter had actually been about a beauty pageant in Minnesota, with Kirsten Dunst. They’d both been quite funny, but they had served only to increase, not lessen, my apprehension.

I also discovered there’s a rarely-mentioned conflict in beauty pageants between whether they are true “beauty” pageants, or whether there are other factors to be considered: talent, charm, accomplishments, etc.

For example, in the film Miss Congeniality, at one point the Pageant Director makes it very clear that this was not a mere ‘beauty pageant’, it was a ‘scholarship program.” That gave it more stature, presumably.

Yet Allison had once disdainfully referred to the Miss America pageant as “merely” a scholarship program; her point being that the Miss USA competition, by contrast, was a true beauty pageant. Apparently the Miss USA women compete solely on looks, while the Miss America women are a bunch of brainy scholarship-seeking “doesn’t she have a great personality!” types. Allison didn’t quite say that the Miss Americas were a bunch of dogs compared to the Miss USA’s, but the implication hung in the air.

According ot the notes Allison sent me, at the Minneapolis Airport I was to rendezvous at the limo desk with a “Steve and Stephanie,” a husband/wife team of judges. Stephanie was last year’s Ms. Utah, apparently.   The three of us were booked on a limo from the airport to the Radisson Hotel in St. Cloud, a 90 minute drive northwest of the city, where the pageant would be held. I found the limo desk. Seated nearby was a young couple, the woman a stunning blonde, the man large and muscular, with a shaved head. He looked like a younger version of Jesse Ventura, Minnesota’s governor and former wrestling star.

“Hey, you guys look like beauty pageant judges!” I said.

Their instant smiles revealed them as warm friendly people, no matter how intimidating they might at first seem. We became friends quickly, but I suspected anyone would become friends quickly with charming Steve and Stephanie. They lived in Park City, Utah, the ski area. Steve was a mortgage broker. Stephanie worked in a retail furniture store. It was useful to be reminded that striking women like Stephanie who win beauty pageants don’t necessarily ascend from there directly to TV talk shows, and a life of fame and wealth. Sometimes they work in furniture stores—their fame short-lived and even irrelevant. But the former Ms. Utah and her husband were very happy people, one could sense that. And there was nothing pretentious about them. One might imagine that beauty pageant contestants would be vain, shallow, and self-centered, and the actual winners especially so. Gracious and charming Stephanie belied that prejudice. I was beginning to relax a little.

Our conversations continued nonstop in the limo, and eventually the topic shifted to where we were going, what the weekend would look like, and so forth. Another passenger in the limo, a man, couldn’t help overhearing us and became increasingly intrigued.

“What event are you guys talking about?” he finally asked, puzzled.

“It’s a beauty pageant,” explained Steve.

“A beauty pageant? In St. Cloud?”

“Yeah, it’s the statewide Mrs. Minnesota event.”

“And what’s your involvement, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“We’re the judges,” said Stephanie.

“The judges! Man, some people get all the luck. How do you get chosen to be beauty pageant judges?”

“A lifetime of study, training, and preparation,” I responded. “We’re very skilled at this. I’ve traveled all over the world judging beauty pageants.   I know quite a bit about gowns, in particular…”

“Actually, this is his first time,” added Stephanie. “He’s very nervous.”

“Hey, if you get too nervous, I’d be happy to take your place!”

“No, he’s going to do great,” Stephanie continued. “I’m giving him lots of tips!”

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the hotel. A late season snowstorm had dumped two feet of white powder on St. Cloud the day before. Now the skies were clear but northern Minnesota was an arctic landscape and seemed a strange location for a beauty pageant. Weren’t they supposed to be in places like Atlantic City?   Of course I suppose a Minnesota pageant needs to be in Minnesota.

We checked into our rooms, with several hours to kill before the first event. For the judges the first event was an orientation dinner in a private dining area at the hotel. At this dinner we would meet the other two judges, plus Victoria Terry, the judges’ “coach”. I was very glad I was going to have a coach. I was hoping for lots of praise and encouraging words. That’s what coaches do, right?   Following the dinner we would be taken by van to a nearby auditorium, where the opening ceremonies would be held, followed by the aerobic wear and gown competitions.   I read through some of the material we’d been sent. Among other things, I’d had to sign a statement promising to be a good judge. Specifically, the affidavit promised that as a judge, I would:

  • Give the same enthusiasm and interest to each contestant regardless of race, creed, or religious beliefs.   (Like there was going to be a lot of racial diversity here on the plains of northern Minnesota.   It was an even bet they’d all be Lutherans. White Lutherans.)
  • Treat each contestant separately, and Judge on the individual and not by comparison to any other contestant. (That made no sense. A competition was, by definition, comparing the contestants to each other. How could you judge who was the best except by comparison?   See, I knew I wasn’t qualified to do this…)
  • Not be influenced by anyone on the balloting. (OK, so this was code for “if one of them tries to seduce you, you can’t mark them up or down for that.”)
  • Treat each section of competition separately and not judge on combination of any of the other categories. (So, for example, while I was judging them in a gown, I couldn’t secretly be remembering what they looked like in aerobic wear…)
  • Ask questions of substance during the interview, and avoid questions on politics or race. Elsewhere in the handbook was this phrase: “Your questions may pertain to any subject except the following: sexual habits, birth control, personal hygiene, drugs, religion, or politics. (Well, gee, what was left? “How do you feel about world peace?”)

I continued thumbing through the judges handbook, desperately trying to learn how to be a judge. Some of the information did not help:

“You hold the power to change the course of one woman’s life.   Please give the task the full complement of your experience and intellect.”

Yeah, my experience and intellect were going to be so useful when it came to judging the gown competition, for example…

Finally, there was a small clue as to why I had been chosen as a judge: “You have been asked to judge because of your achievements and success, coupled with your understanding of the rewards, demands, and public responsibilities of success and fame.”

I knew I would be very good at understanding the rewards of success and fame if I ever achieved them.   In the meantime I suppose I could sort of guess at what they might be…

One way to kill some time and offload some stress was to go to the hotel’s fitness center and workout for half an hour.   I was a little worried about doing this. Obviously the other contestants were staying in this hotel, they were probably all in pretty good shape, and no doubt some of them would be visiting the fitness center today as well.   I knew that any contact between judges and contestants is frowned-upon if not prohibited outright, during the pageant. It could be awkward for both me and them if contestant and judge were, say, beside each other for thirty minutes on treadmills. As it turned out, I was the only one in the hotel’s fitness center at the time.

But it wouldn’t have mattered. The prohibition against judges and contestants even seeing each other was so severe the contestants actually were not staying at this hotel. They were in another, across town.   This ensured there would be no midnight trysts between judges and contestants.   Of course, the fact that the contestants were all here with their husbands probably minimized that as well.

Finally it was time to get dressed and head down to the orientation dinner. The next night, Sunday night, was a black tie affair but tonight was merely semi formal. As has become a tradition when I’m traveling and going to events like this, I called my wife in the middle of trying to get dressed to ask for advice on which tie to wear, which shirt, and so forth.

We settled on a blue suit, white shirt, and conservative yet stylish tie. I had to remind myself that at the gown and aerobic wear competition, probably no one cared what the judge was wearing. But if I couldn’t dress myself properly, it would be a clear statement of my inadequacy to judge how someone else was dressed.

At 5:30 we met at the orientation dinner, held in one of the hotel’s small, elegant, wood-paneled, private dining rooms.   There were seven of us.   The two remaining judges were Andrew and Jodi O’Brien. Jodi was last year’s Ms. Iowa, another attractive blonde, with short-cropped hair.   Also in the room was Victoria Terry, our coach. Victoria was Ms. Minnesota 1994.   She possessed a very refined beauty and reminded me vaguely of Winona Ryder, the actress; a mature version of Winona Ryder. The seventh, I learned, was Susan Hoffman, the legendary Ms. Minnesota from 1995, who’d gone on to win the Ms. USA International event, competing against women all over the world.   Susan Hoffman was a Renee Russo look-alike.

OK, so everyone in the room was either a state beauty pageant winner, or the spouse of one. Except me. I was the “single guy,” since my wife wasn’t here.   So the pressure on me to be charming to all the various “Ms’s” was enormous. I tried my best. Victoria seemed a bit serious—perhaps because she was responsible for so much, and was trying to keep things under control. But Ms. Universe, or whatever her title was, warmed up rapidly. She had no formal responsibilities here, and was just around to help out, she explained.   Ms. Iowa and Ms. Utah were in nonstop party mode. Ms. Iowa’s husband could have had a career in standup, so fast did he get the jokes going.   Soon we were all laughing and enjoying each other. But I could sense an undertone here. The two female judges, Stephanie and Jodi, were relaxed and comfortable. They had prior experience judging events like this. It was familiar turf and they were seasoned pro’s. Not so for Steve, Edward, and I. All three were exhibiting signs of nervousness.

Victoria later explained how the judges are chosen. There are always five judges: three men, two women. At least one of the women has to be a Mrs. State somebody winner herself. Always there is a husband and wife team, perhaps in recognition of the “married” theme at this event. Apparently this was the first time both women were state winners, and also the first time that there had been two husband and wife teams. One of the male judges must have a background in fitness, exercise, that kind of thing. Also, one of the male judges must be someone distinguished, very accomplished in their field. Andrew, Ms. Iowa’s husband, was a personal fitness trainer. It eventually dawned on me that I must be the “accomplished” one in this lineup. At least I knew I wasn’t the fitness expert. Geez, talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Also, none of the judges could be from Minnesota. That was an obviously necessary requirement, once I thought about it.   There was too great a chance they might know a contestant, or a relative of a contestant, or be from the same geographic area.

We took our places around the table and dinner was served to us elegantly.   Victoria ran through all the rules.   There were many rules. Judges couldn’t talk to each other during the competitions. And they were never supposed to discuss any of the contestants—much like a jury before it began deliberations.   Victoria also warned us about the possibility of being approached, as judges, and influence sought.

“If anything like that happens,” explained Victoria, “tell me about it immediately. It’s very serious.”

“So after we tell you about a bribe attempt, do we have to give the money back?” asked Andrew.

That finally made even Victoria laugh.

We also ran through the rules about how the interviews would work, and what types of questions we could and could not ask.

Susan and Victoria began reminiscing about a pageant several years ago. Apparently one of the female judges was mentally unstable, and as the pageant progressed, she slowly went nuts. She started asking all the women about their views on abortion, and getting increasingly upset.   The other judges had to literally lock her in the restroom for the final events. She was screaming and pounding the door and trying to escape. This sounded frighteningly similar to the movie Miss Congeniality and Drop Dead Gorgeous where in both movies various contestants and officials went crazy. Maybe it wasn’t so unusual after all. Heck, if even I was feeling the pressure, what must it be like for those actually competing?

Victoria explained some additional items.

“After the pageant is over, if you talk to any of the contestants, you must be very neutral in your remarks. Don’t say something like they were your favorite, or anything of that nature. Sometimes that can cause problems. If they think they were a favorite, why didn’t they win? Maybe the ballots got screwed up, were tampered with, etc., etc. We don’t want to go there.

“Also, don’t encourage them about trying again next year.   That often sends the wrong signals, and may give them false hopes.   Just keep it neutral. Say they were a great contestant. Because they were. Anyone who can get up on stage and compete like this is being extremely brave.”

Certainly I could believe that.

Victoria passed out our ballots for the various events. These were a series of little booklets, each with twenty pages. Each page carried a number, and that number corresponded to one of the contestants. Also on each page was a series of numbers going either from 1 to 10 or 1 to 20. Different events had different scoring.

For example, in the gown competition, contestant #1 would come out, do her thing, and in about thirty seconds be replaced by contestant #2. We had only that long to decide on #1’s score. We’d circle a number between 1 and 10, flip the page, and then be ready to score contestant #2.   We also had to sign each page, and Victoria had us do that here, at the dinner table.

After we’d covered the orientation issues, conversation lapsed back into the social and soon we were all chatting away pleasantly and laughing frequently.

Victoria leaned over to Susan and I heard her say “This is a really great group of judges this year. This is going to be a lot of fun!”

It made me wonder what some of her other judges had been like—strict authoritarian types perhaps, women with heavy-framed eye-glasses and their hair in a bun, focusing on things like whether the gown really did split precisely at the top of the shoe.

“I get the easy job, the fun job, explained Victoria. “I get to hang out with the judges and have a great time. Allison has a much larger staff. They’re all over at the other hotel, working with the contestants who are totally stressed out. People are crying, getting scared, etc.

“And tomorrow night it’s kind of sad, explained Susan. “There is only one winner. Everyone else is someone who didn’t win. There are many more sad people than there are happy people. There’s really only one happy person.”

That was an interesting point. At a competition like this, there was by definition only one winner. It did seem very sad, somehow, but it was difficult to think of a solution. Anyway, those entering knew that only one would win.

At six thirty we were taken in a van several miles to the Ritchie Auditorium.   Our driver was another guy who was married to another former Ms. Minnesota.   This was getting tedious. Every guy I’d met up here was married to a beauty queen. Of course, I was married to a beauty queen too. Derry had just never condescended to formally compete for a crown. She didn’t need to.   Yet once, when Allison had suggested to Derry that she enter the Mrs. Colorado pageant, it had made Derry’s week.

At the auditorium I was surprised to find that the Entrance of the Judges was itself a quasi formal event. Several former Ms. Minnesota’s surrounded us and marched us briskly to our positions at a long table at the front of the room, facing the stage.   The chairs at this table were not close together, and I remembered that the judges were prohibited from talking to each other during the competitions. I also realized that we’d been escorted without delay, to our seats, so as to preclude any contact between a judge and someone in the audience.

It began to dawn on me that Victoria Terry wasn’t so much our coach as our “bailiff”. We were being kept in a state of perpetual quarantine.

That was OK except for one problem. How was I supposed to go to the bathroom? I’d consumed endless quantities of iced tea and Perrier over dinner. Now I was beginning to regret that fact. Certainly nothing could be done about it now. The lights were dimming and the event was about to begin. Damn! I really had to go.

The auditorium itself was about the size of a typical high school facility, and the seats were filled.   Who was filling them? I did some calculations. There were twenty contestants.   Probably the family, relatives, and friends of each contestant would come to the event. Certainly close friends would. Maybe ten such people per contestant. 200 people in the audience. Yes, that’s about what there were.   On the other hand, in tiny St. Cloud, Minnesota, perhaps this state-wide beauty pageant was the event of the year, and the whole community had turned out to see it. I felt very important, as a judge. Especially so because of the seating arrangements. I was in the middle, flanked by Ms. Utah on my left, and Ms. Iowa on my right. Their respective husbands were at the outer edges. Clearly, I was the important judge, the one in the middle: Chief Justice of the Ms. Minnesota Supreme Court.   Life couldn’t get much better. Actually, life was going to get a lot worse if there were no restroom breaks.   I wondered if I, as Chief Justice, could order one.

Lights appeared on the stage, and here came Rich Stavrakis, already dressed in his tuxedo.   Rich was Allison’s husband, and was serving as the Master of Ceremonies: the Burt Parks of St. Cloud.   In real life he was a retail jeweler, and a long-time Polygon customer. Rich and I went way back.   It was odd seeing him in the role of Master of Ceremonies at a beauty pageant.   Of course it was probably odd for him, seeing me in the role of Chief Justice of a beauty pageant.   I was quite certain that if, at the moment, a clock had struck twelve, both of us would have gone “poof” and reverted to our real selves.

He said all the right things, thanking everyone for being here, telling some jokes, introducing people in the audience amidst applause. Half a dozen former Ms. Minnesota’s were in the audience as well, and each of them was introduced, and stood, and waved. They were all lovely.   Finally, the judges themselves were introduced, and their backgrounds described briefly.   I was dreadfully self-conscious when it was my turn, but here it came:

Jacques Voorhees is the CEO and founder of Polygon, the jewelry industry’s online marketplace with over a billion dollars of loose diamonds listed for sale daily. He has been profiled twice in Forbes magazine, and named one of the jewelry industry’s most influential people of the twentieth century. He serves as a member of the International Executive Council of the Gemological Institute of America, and as a Governor of the Jewelers Education Foundation of the American Gem Society.   His passions include skiing, snowboarding, roller-blading, white-water canoeing, mountain biking, sailing, and scuba diving. He was formerly a ski-instructor, a yacht builder, and an executive pilot. His wife, Derry, is a Jazzercise instructor and formerly an Arthur Murray dancer.   He has three children, and lives in Keystone, Colorado.

That sounded well and good, but it would have been just as accurate for Rich to have added at the end:

“…and so as you see from this resume, Mr. Voorhees has no experience or credentials whatsoever when it comes to judging a beauty pageant. Hmmm. By the way, who picked this guy, and is it too late to find someone else?”

Thankfully, Rich chose not to raise the question of relevant expertise, and at the right moment I was cued to stand and wave broadly to the audience, while turning and looking at the TV cameras. Victoria had made sure we rehearsed this part. Of course it wasn’t like these TV cameras were providing live coverage of the event on network news channels across the globe. Well, maybe some were. But my impression was that the event was being filmed for publicity value. Perhaps a few Minneapolis TV channels would pick up thirty seconds of it for their own nightly news casts. But I doubted that the judges waving to the cameras would be the parts they’d show.   Even so, I smiled broadly and tried to look confident. And distinguished.

Next on the agenda was a very elegant and stylish young woman who appeared on the stage in a long, tight-fitting, sleeveless dress. She sang for us, and her voice was actually quite professional. This, I realized, was the reining Ms. Minnesota, Kelly Byrne, another blonde beauty. I was feeling overwhelmed by blonde beauties. In Minnesota they were everywhere. There were more blonde beauty queens in this room then you could shake a stick at. Not that you’d want to.

Kelly Byrne, after her song, joined Rich at the podium and for the rest of the evening she served as a co master-of-ceremonies. They played off against each other well, exchanging jokes, introducing the next events, and such. I realized that this must be awfully fun for Rich. How many guys get to play Bert Parks each year?

Finally it was time for the contestants to show themselves. The curtain rose and I saw that the set was nicely done, with flowers and props and a little raised dais in the front and center. Music began playing and one by one the contestants appeared. Or I should say two by two. This was, after all, the Mrs. Minnesota event. Each was here with her husband. I hadn’t realized the spouses would appear on stage with them.

Each couple would walk across the stage, the woman would ascend the little stand and make some comment like:

“I’m Debbie Smith, from Anytown, Minnesota, this is my husband Bruce, and the three words that best describe me are giving, gracious, and sometimes gullible. And my favorite saying is ‘A house is built of wood and beams, but a home is made of love and dreams’”

Yeah, whatever.

Then they’d walk off to the side of the stage and join the others on two sets of raised steps.

None of them were wearing gowns or aerobic outfits. For this “introduction” segment they were all in cocktail dresses. But I could see they were heavily made up, and probably hours had been spent on their hair, nails, and, everything a woman spends hours on in the bathroom.

Speaking of bathrooms, I was becoming increasingly worried.   I was OK for the moment. But if we had no restroom breaks in here somewhere, I was going to have to issue an injunction of the court and declare a temporary halt to the proceedings.

The women themselves were not quite what I’d expected. Well, some of them were. I’d expected gorgeous beauty queen types. Six of the twenty were gorgeous beauty queen types. The rest were spread out between borderline attractive and, to be honest, women who had no business entering a beauty pageant. One was overweight. Two others seemed on the elderly side. And many were just plain—well, plain.

I’d had time to read more about this pageant, and it was clear from the Judges Handbook that this was not like the Miss USA competition where everyone was competing solely on looks. These women all had something called “platforms” which was a word that meant their preferred “cause”. For many it was a particular disease, but other popular causes included child abuse, the importance of volunteer work, family togetherness, and the like. The concept here was that if you became Mrs. Minnesota, you’d have an opportunity to go around the state, appearing on programs and so forth, and promoting your cause.

In short, this really was more than a beauty pageant. And for some of these women, it wasn’t a beauty pageant at all. Or at least they had to hope it wasn’t. Yes, there were the gown and aerobic wear competitions, but 50% of the entire score was the interview. Tomorrow, each judge would have ten minutes alone with each contestant where we would be judging them on things like intelligence, ability to converse, self-confidence, commitment to their platform and so forth.

After the introductions were made and all the women and their spouses were properly stacked up on the little step things, Kelly sang another song, and then the curtain came down and the contestants presumably were now off changing into aerobic wear.   I really wished my wife could have joined me for this next event. As a Jazzercise instructor, she was an expert on aerobic wear, or at least I assumed she was. I knew less about aerobic wear than I knew about gowns.   But of course we weren’t there to judge the aerobic wear itself, but the “woman in the aerobic wear”.

I found it interesting that exercise outfits had been substituted for a bathing suit competition. More politically correct, certainly, and also many of these women might have found it hard to look good in a bathing suit. Some would have found it hard to get into a bathing suit. The truly gorgeous contestants, of course, would have looked good in anything.

Rich and Kelly kept us entertained, with music and jokes and little vignettes. And soon it was time for the aerobic wear competition to begin. Here was where I actually had to perform as a judge. I stole a quick glance at the judges handbook, to remind myself what to look for:

This category is designed to establish a contestant’s level of physical fitness. It accounts for 25% of the overall preliminary score. Your focus should be on beauty of face and figure, muscle tone, proportion, body language, poise, eye contact, and grace. No consideration will be given to height. Each contestant will be wearing uniform aerobic wear. This will give you a chance to focus on her physical fitness. She had to choose from two styles, and from five colors. Thongs and bare midriffs are prohibited. Aerobic wear should not have any rhinestones, sequins, glitter, studs, or beads. Earrings worn should be no larger than the size of a quarter. Earrings may have Rhinestones….

It went on in this vein for awhile.   So there was a host of technical details we were supposed to watch out for, such as whether any earrings were larger than the size of a quarter. Plus there were some clinical issues, such as muscle tone and proportion. But we were also required to focus on “beauty of face and figure.” In other words, the Michelle test. Did we find them physically attractive?

OK, here they came. The curtain was up, the music was playing, and one by one (‘sans husband’ this time) they paraded onto the stage. The pattern was much as before. Emerging from behind the curtain, each would walk to the front left, pose, walk to the front right, pose, walk to the center, pose, and then end up at the raised step area, and wait for the others.   About thirty to forty five seconds per contestant.

I decided to ignore all the technical issues, such as earring size. I was certain all that had been screened by pageant officials ahead of time.   I wasn’t quite sure how to evaluate clinical factors like muscle tone and proportion, so decided to merely keep an eye out for anything that looked out of balance, or weird, or something. That left the relatively easy, aesthetic factors. I could certainly judge beauty. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder and I was the authorized beholder in this case. My eye was the only one that counted, at least on my ballot. I was also very focused on body language, poise, and grace. Those were as close as one can come to personality factors in an aerobics wear competition, but they were important to me.

As each contestant posed at the center of the stage, she would take time to make eye contact with each judge. Each of the judges got their own private smile, their own private wave, their own private eye contact.   This of course was scripted. They’d been told to do this. They had their orders, just as we judges had ours.

One of our orders was that we’d been told not to look at a contestant who was walking away, while a different one was in front. We were only to look at the contestant being highlighted at that moment. We were not to make any movements of our head, or send body signals, that would imply we were disinterested, or that would telegraph our thinking.

“Smile at each of them,” Victoria had coached. “If you smile at them, they will be more assured. Remember, they’re scared to death. They really, really need a smile.”

I found I couldn’t just hold a smile continuously through the whole evening, even if some of the contestants could. If I tried it would look forced, and come out lopsided, or end up that way. I tried instead to look friendly, and warm. And another thing. When each of them was in front of me I was determined to look only at their eyes. When they looked at me they would see me looking back.   They would not see me looking down at their bodies. No way. That would be a sign I was evaluating them as a piece of meat. Wait a minute. We were supposed to evaluate them as a piece of meat.   That’s why they were dressed in skimpy aerobic wear—aerobic wear from Victoria’s Secret, in some cases it seemed.   We were supposed to be looking at their bodies and judging muscle tone. If that’s not judging them as meat, what is?   This was so hopelessly confusing.   I’d been brought here from out of state specifically to look at, and judge, women’s bodies and faces. My brain was going haywire. All my instincts as a mature adult male were in conflict with all my instincts as a non-mature adult male.   And my role as a judge was in conflict with both of those, and also allied with both of those.

Most of these women must have known they had no chance to win. They weren’t here to win. They were subjecting themselves to being judged like this, even knowing they had no chance to win. It must be about the hardest thing they could ever have done. There was a strength of spirit here. A determination. What might seem on the surface an event that symbolized narcissism and ego, was in many ways a selfless willingness to face a cruel and thankless competition—a competition without hope.

The women who couldn’t win, why were they doing it? They’d come from all over the state. Each was a winner in her respective county. Perhaps those county-level competitions had been entered into just for fun. Maybe on a dare. Maybe because it sounded exciting and different and well—what else did one have going on next Tuesday evening?   But then they’d won, and they were going to “state!” Too late to back out.   They were going through with it—no matter the odds. I respected that on some level. I could never have competed in something so personal. What was the one theme surrounding all of these women? I finally placed it. Guts. They all were incredibly gutsy. Some had very pretty faces.   But they all had guts.

I discovered later that one contestant had dropped out, before the weekend.   Maybe the pressure had been too much. Maybe she’d come down to state, seen the level of competition, and been unwilling to face it.

After an intermission, where—thankfully—there was a restroom break, we were ready for the gown competition. I much preferred judging the women in gowns. Gowns are designed to flatter the wearer, they can cover-up or at least shift emphasis away from certain areas, or highlight features if that is the goal. Most importantly, gowns are designed to be looked at, it’s their mission statement. Aerobic wear has a different mission.

During the break I’d glanced at the instructions for the evening gown competition.   “Don’t judge the gown. Judge the woman in the gown.”   It was an interesting subtly. It was important to remember that this was the opposite of a fashion show, where the models are merely clothes racks. Here it was the contestant being displayed, and the dress was mere decoration.

“Your attention should focus on the contestant’s overall appearance, poise, stage presence, confidence, the manner in which she carries herself, her fashion sense, eye contact, and her ability to project comfortable elegance. Gowns must be full length all the way around, breaking just above the toe of the shoe, and shoes should be formal, allowing the contestant to walk gracefully. Slits in the gown, trains in back, and embellishments are allowed, so long as they compliment and do not distract from her personal beauty.”

There we were again. Despite the gown, it kept coming back to personal beauty.   Some of those other factors (poise, stage presence, ability to project elegance) would all be easier to judge in a gown than in aerobic wear. But how was I to judge the contestant’s “fashion sense?” I had none myself. It would be unfair to judge it in others.

At least “eye contact” would be easy to evaluate.

The gown competition began, and I began stressing over whether my smile was still sufficient to be “reassuring” or whether I would come across as cold and mean-spirited. I was also paying more attention this time to what kind of smile I was receiving back. Flirtatious? Sultry? Neutral? Forced? Contestant after contestant came up to the spot, looked at the audience, looked at the judges, and then looked… at me.

In most cases there was no mistaking the look in their eyes. It was not flirtatious, not sultry, not forced. It was sheer terror. Lambs led to slaughter. Even in their elegant gowns most of these women were terrified. I could sense it. Even some of the really beautiful ones were scared.

I wondered again why they were doing it. But none of the contestants looked at me seductively.   Except for one. One made eye contact and there was no mistaking the message. Her eyes said it all, screamed it all: “I want to have sex with you because you’re so…hot!”   She locked eyes with me, and kept them locked, beyond the point where she needed to move on. Finally she disengaged, reluctantly…

Damn. She must have had one helluva coach. She was even one of the six really stunning ones. I tried to decide if I should score her high or low, my pen poised, moving between 10 and 1, certain she deserved one or the other for that performance. I finally decided to score her on the strength of her gown, and gave her a 7.

Then I looked up and noticed she was giving the very same look to Ms. Utah on my left. What a tramp.

As we were leaving the auditorium I came across Allison, the director of the pageant. She squealed, rushed over and gave me a big hug.

“See you tomorrow night, at the party!” she exclaimed, and then rushed off. It hurt my feelings a little bit. Allison was a good friend. I knew she was busy but the event tonight was over. Couldn’t we have chatted for at least a moment?

“What party is she talking about?” I asked Victoria.

“The Director’s Party. It’s private. It’s just Allison, Rich, former Queens, the judges, and the new Mrs. Minnesota.”

“I won’t get a chance to talk to Allison before then?”

“She shouldn’t even have said ‘hi’ to you just now. There’s not supposed to be any contact between the State Director and the judges during the event.   That’s why she rushed off.”

“But why is that rule necessary?”

“It’s the same issue. Anyone the judges talk to might be trying to influence them in some way. That can’t be allowed.”

“But Allison wouldn’t be biased. She’s a neutral party like we are.”

“Of course she’s biased.”

“How do you mean? Why?”

“She knows who she wants to win. All of us involved in this pageant know.”

“What! There’s already a chosen favorite?”

“Well, there is, but it doesn’t affect anything. The judges choose the winner. We don’t. And the judges choose whomever they want. But that’s precisely why the judges have to be kept so isolated.”

“But I don’t get it. Why does Allison care who wins?”

“Because the winner goes on to nationals. Allison’s an expert at this stuff. She knows who will do best at nationals. The person who will do best at nationals is the one she wants to win, because that could bring a lot of good publicity to this pageant.”

I tried to digest this. We, the judges, could choose whomever we wished. But if we didn’t choose the right person it would actually hurt the pageant when it came time for nationals. We’d disappoint Allison, and we, ourselves, would have essentially failed in our responsibilities. We would have been “bad judges.” This knowledge did nothing to lessen my apprehension.

Back in the van, the judging over for the night, Stephanie began commenting on the gowns. “Some of those gowns were just incredible! She said. Could you believe those gowns?”

“You see,” I explained to Victoria. “This is my problem. I don’t know which gowns were incredible or not. I have no clue. Stephanie knows gowns. I don’t know anything about gowns!”

“But that’s why you’re a better judge for the gown competition than Stephanie is,” explained Victoria. “Stephanie knows gowns. You don’t. She’s looking at the gown. You’re looking at the total overall impression—because you don’t know anything else to look for. That’s why men make better judges than women.”

Victoria certainly knew how to make a judge feel better. So—ravishing Ms. Utah Stephanie was scum as far as judging, precisely because she was an expert at everything going on here. I was an ideal judge because I knew nothing about any of it. I began to realize that if that were the criteria, there were many things in life I’d be very good at judging.

“Some gowns were definitely better than others,” noted Matthew.

“Well, yeah, sure,” I agreed. “I knew it wasn’t a good gown when I had to wonder whether it was a gown or aerobic wear. Some of them were so bad it was like, hey, you dressed for the wrong event! This is the gown competition!”

Back at the hotel we adjourned to our rooms, changed into more comfortable clothing, and reconvened at the hotel bar. Victoria stayed with us.

“I usually leave at this point,” she explained. “But I’m having a great time. I’d rather stay with you guys!”

That made me feel good on some level. We were obviously cool judges. Our Winona Ryder lookalike was starting to relax.

Someone else who was here was Candace, Susan’s 19 year old daughter. That would place Susan’s age as late thirties/early forties. Well, that fit. Renee Russo was in her forties, too. Candace was a tanned, wild-eyed, blonde beauty, with high cheekbones, pouty red lips, flashing, sultry eyes, heavily made up, lots of mascara and eye shadow, and wearing a slinky, low-cut, cocktail dress. Sheena the Jungle Sorceress. Scary.   One could imagine her on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, snarling into the camera. A man-killer from hell.   Daughter of the former Ms. USA International, she was in training, perhaps, for the Miss Universe pageant.

Candace did not talk much, but sat with us, sipping her drink, and flashing her eyes with devastating effect at judges, and others around the bar.   Bedroom eyes, yet her manner was aloof, sophisticated, and unapproachable. She was Jungle Sorceress and Ice Queen, both—infinitely desirable, exquisitely sensuous, yet very touch-me-not.   I knew she was unsettling to all the men in the bar. They kept stealing glances at her.   Even radiant Stephanie was being upstaged.

Jodi (Ms. Iowa) changed tables and suddenly I was sitting next to Sheena Ice Queen.

I led with a question about the weather.

“So what’s with all this snow?

“Omigod! Do you believe it?”

“I’m from Colorado, and I think this storm hit us first a few days ago. Dumped a foot of powder in my driveway.”

“Where in Colorado?”

“Keystone. It’s up in the mountains.”

“Keystone, the ski area?” I detected some real interest.

“Yeah, do you ski?”

“No, I’ve never skied. I snowboard. I live for snowboarding. How ‘bout you?”

“I do both. I’ve skied all my life, but I started boarding four years ago. I’m not very good. I can handle blue runs, but I fall apart on moguls.”

“You snowboard?”

“Yeah. What kind of board do you have, by the way?”

And suddenly the ice queen melted. Sheena came out of the jungle. The bedroom eyes and aloof manner evaporated, replaced with eyes alight with excitement and enthusiasm.   The conversation had turned to snowboarding, her passion, and there was no stopping her.   She loved talking about it, and was endlessly fascinated with any stories or advice I might have about snowboarding in the Rockies. It was her dream to go there.

As I talked snowboarding with Candace, I reflected on how easily men can be put off by appearances in women, so easily intimated by appearances. It’s hard to remember that whatever is on the outside, there’s a real person on the inside. This Victoria’s Secret model waiting to happen had dropped her outer shell, and was no longer intimidating.

Perhaps this ability to “intimidate by beauty”, or at least project beauty, is one reason women like to dress up, like to put on make up, have their hair done and so forth. They know it gives them power, covers up whatever insecurities they have, makes them something they’re really not, perhaps, but enjoy pretending to be. And it works. It does give them power over men on some level. Yet down deep they’re still the same person, insecure perhaps, but very real. Once Jungle Sorceress started talking about something she was interested in—snowboarding in this case—the act dissolved and she reverted to her real persona: enthusiastic young kid. The makeup, the hair, the skimpy dress–they were still there   But suddenly she didn’t care about them.   She was no longer trying to use them as weapons. That game was over. A more mature or experienced woman might have kept both personas intact. But a 19 year old? No way. Sheena was gone for the night. Discarded. Suzy Snowboarder was now sitting beside me. And I realized in some small way that it gave me not exactly a power over her, but a defense against her, that I could draw her out—snowboard wise— and have an intelligent conversation while the rest of the men in the room were still drooling (give me a break) over her breasts.

Yet it was only luck that let me know something about her particular interest. If it had been something else, bird watching for example, I’d have appeared an idiot. Sheena would have remained aloof and kept the shell intact.

As a beauty pageant judge, I was finding myself interested in such concepts.

Victoria was now getting ready to leave and plans were being discussed for the morning.

“I need you all back down in the private dining room for breakfast at 7:30,” she declared.

We all looked at our watches. It was late.

“7:30?” asked Edward. “Does it have to be so early?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Aren’t we the judges? We can make the rules. We can issue an injunction of the court anytime we please. Breakfast can be at 8:30 not 7:30, if the judges sign an injunction. Maybe we should do brunch at 10:00.”

“Oh, right,” said Edward. “I can just see it now. ‘Uh, ladies and gentlemen, the pageant is being delayed by exactly twenty four hours, as we need to obtain new judges. The earlier batch were summarily dismissed….’”

“Allison can’t dismiss us!” I insisted.   “We’re the judges. We can dismiss her! We rule! We’re like Gods! Isn’t that so, Victoria? By the way, do you mind if I call you Vickie?”

“Allison can fire the lot of you anytime she wishes,” said Victoria, flashing her eyes with a smile.

“What! Are you telling us a mere ‘Pageant Director’ has more power then all five judges put together?”

“Much more power.”

“How can that be?”

“She owns the pageant. She’s not just the Director. She’s the Owner.”

“I see…”

“Hmmm,” said Steve.

“Interesting…” said Andrew.

“7:30 would be a great time for breakfast,” I decided suddenly.

“Sounds perfect to me,” said Steve.”

“Not a problem,” said Matthew.

“7:30 it is,” intoned Ms Iowa and Utah.

Victoria left with a look of satisfaction about her. Beauty Queens love the thrill and power of sovereignty.

“So, when I come to Colorado, you’ll take me snowboarding in some of that deep powder, right?” asked Candace.

“Of course!”

My son Erik would go nuts over Candace.

The next morning I was up at six, desperate to study for what would be the hardest and most important competition to judge: the interviews.   The contestants were stressing over whether they would come across as witty, charming, and intelligent.   The judges were stressing over whether the contestants would think them witty, charming, and intelligent. At least one of them was. As a judge I’d been given background information on each of the twenty contestants, their full application sheet actually. This included name, address, phone number, education, background, platform, favorite quotes, the three words that best described them, interests, favorite family tradition, and so forth. With this to go on, Victoria had explained that we could prepare for each interview with a specific list of questions appropriate to that contestant, if we wished. I worked away, with the help of strong coffee, on developing such questions.

The applications contained a wealth of personal data, but it was difficult to know what to do with it.   My eye drifted over one application.

Taught religious education…

Favorite Saying: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Three words that describe you: “Friendly, energetic, caring.”

Interests: “Softball, volleyball, snowmobiling.”

Favorite family tradition: “home made potato sausage.”

Hmmm. Here was another one:

Barbizon school of modeling graduate.

Hobbies: Fitness, Enjoying sporting events, cake decorating.

Words that describe you: passionate, perseverant, promising.

Yesterday I’d been puzzled at the mystery of why these women had chosen to enter this competition—especially the ones who had little or no chance of winning. Finally I realized it didn’t have to be a mystery. I could ask them directly. I had five minutes alone with each. More then enough time.   I was very curious to see how this “alone with them” thing worked. All weekend the overriding imperative was that a judge was never to be alone with a contestant. Hence the two hotels, among other things. Yet this morning that was the whole agenda: for the judges to be alone with the contestants.

When we met for breakfast it was more a working meal. The judges had their heads buried in notebooks, pens and pencils out, making notations, reviewing data. We were driven to another building, and this one seemed more a conference facility with meeting rooms and such.   Once inside, Victoria escorted us to a large room, several hundred square feet, and now I realized how everything worked. There were five tables in here. Each table had two chairs, one on each side. The tables had been set around the periphery, and as far apart as physically possible. That was quite far apart in this large room. Anyone sitting at Table A would not be able to overhear what was said at Table B.

So the judges would be alone with each contestant only in a manner of speaking. We’d interview each one at our own table, and the contestant would then go on to the next table.

We took our places, the judges facing both the center of the room and the open doorway through which the contestants would arrive.   I was extremely nervous now, but I was calmed by realizing that the contestants would be even more so. Yesterday they didn’t really have to do anything other than parading around on a stage, and (if they wished) making sultry eye-contact with the judges.   Unless you tripped or sneezed or something, you couldn’t screw it up much. Today was different. Now their brains had to be engaged. They were going to be judged on their personalities.   We all like to think we have a nice personality but rarely are we formally judged on it; especially on a 1 to 20 scale. I wondered where I’d rate.

Victoria had pleaded with us to spread out the scoring.

“There’s a temptation to cluster everyone around the middle,” she explained. “That can make it very hard to track the scores. Do us a favor and grade on the curve. Rank the very best near the top, and vice versa.”

One interesting aspect of scoring is that, for each event, a contestant’s highest score and lowest score are thrown out. It’s only the three in the middle that are counted. This helps minimize the chance of a renegade judge distorting the overall score. Of course it would also minimize the chance of an incompetent judge distorting the score. I found that reassuring.

I glanced again at the guidelines for judging the interview competition.

This is your chance to seek out each contestant’s inner beauty, personality, and character. All those qualities combined will give us a Mrs. Minnesota who is outstanding, can communicate on many levels, and is secure enough to manage her responsibility.

Your questions may pertain to any subject except the following: sexual habits, birth control, personal hygiene, drugs, religion, or politics. You may ask about current events, but not if such questions pertain to those areas listed above. In addition to the content of the answer, you should also consider her self assurance, grammar, body language, eye contact, and attire. Each contestant has been directed to wear a suit or dress that would be appropriate if she were the guest of honor at a luncheon.

The doors opened and five professionally-dressed women entered the room.   Our tables were marked 1 – 5, and each contestant knew which table she was to go to first. There was no uncertainty or apprehension on any of their faces. They walked briskly, with assurance and poise. Each of us judges stood up and shook the hand of the contestant as they arrived. Then we sat down and turned to business. I had no idea how the other judges were handling these conversations. This was pretty much my style:

“So, are you having fun?”

“I am. This whole event is so fascinating. And the people are so kind to each other. I was a little concerned they might be catty, but there’s none of that. We’re all having a wonderful time.”

“That’s great. The judges are having fun to, but we’re all a little nervous this morning.” (That always earned a smile.)

“So, I’m curious, how did you decide to enter this pageant? And what are you goals this weekend? Other than winning, of course.”

(Those were broad questions, able to be answered from many directions.)

“Well, I really am hoping to become Mrs. Minnesota so I can promote my platform. But even if I don’t win, I knew I’d learn a lot this weekend and it would be an unforgettable experience.”

“I see that your platform involves the fight against breast cancer. What led you in that direction, if I can ask?”

(Actually, I wasn’t sure if I could ask. That might touch on a personal health issue. But the platform was important, and it seemed valid to ask any questions about it that I wished.)

“My sister almost died of breast cancer, but it was caught in time. It made me realize how important early detection is. The breast cancer fight isn’t just a medical challenge, it’s an education challenge. We need to get the word out to all young women…”

And so forth. After five minutes, a chime would sound, we’d quit chatting instantly, shake hands again, and the contestants would rotate. After five rotations had occurred, they’d all leave the room, and we’d have a short break. Then five new women would enter, and the cycle would be repeated.

During one of the interviews, I asked my question about how they’d decided to enter the pageant. I was actually quite curious in this case, as this contestant was one of those with the least chance to win. I couldn’t imagine why this woman had entered a beauty pageant.   I was astonished at her answer.

“Let’s be honest,” she explained. “It’s ridiculous for me to enter a beauty pageant. I know I’m not beautiful. I know I have no chance to win. That’s not why I’m doing it.”

“Tell me more…”

“I’m doing it for my husband. He thinks I’m the most beautiful woman in the world.   That’s silly, isn’t it? Because I’m so beautiful, at least in his mind, he wanted me to enter this pageant. So I’m doing it for him. He’s really thrilled. That’s the only reason.”

Wow. I was very impressed. And touched. So far every contestant had used my lead-in question as an opportunity to stress their platform, and emphasize how important it was to them. Perhaps that was the safe answer, but it seemed scripted, rehearsed. Here was another answer entirely. A very honest, revealing answer. This woman had just earned high marks in selflessness, integrity, and good communication style.   I graded her accordingly.

“I think your husband is a very lucky man,” I said at the end of the interview.

As the interviews progressed I felt I was getting better at the process.   It was a skill, really. You had to find a way to make the woman feel comfortable and relaxed, and establish a friendly environment for the interview. I was budgeting about eight seconds for that. Then you had to get her talking. Asking the questions was only a means to and end.   Even the content of the answers wasn’t the most important thing. Primarily you were judging articulateness, ability to put sentences together, poise, professionalism, self-assurance, and overall demeanor.   One key was not to let a contestant talk too long on any given subject.   Monologues indicated nervousness. The best contestants had a good sense of timing. They’d allocate about 20 seconds to answering any given question. And then find a way to stop and let you ask another one.

With the one exception, the answer to the mystery about why they were doing it became clear. These women really were passionate about their causes, or at least most of them were. This pageant was a platform upon which to advance, well, their platform. A woman who cared deeply about the problems of, say, foster children, and wanted to help their cause, would not think twice about parading on stage in an ill-fitting aerobic outfit if by doing so she had to the chance to focus attention on foster kids. That made sense. And in fact it was precisely because this pageant based half the score on the interview, it tended to attract those who were serious about their cause, regardless of how they looked.

Unfortunately, the pageant winner needed to posses both inner and outer beauty. One without the other wouldn’t cut it. Despite how the scoring was weighted, a ‘beauty’ pageant was the wrong venue for those with no chance to win.

I wished I could have met with some of these women afterwards and said: “Look, you don’t have to win this pageant to advance your cause. You can advance your cause just by being a charming speaker, and going around getting speaking dates at Rotary clubs and the like. Writing articles in the paper. Arranging town meetings. You could probably advance your cause better without your title, because you’d be a free agent.”

I’d been to enough Rotary and Kiwanis Club meetings to know how desperate they are for speakers. They’d be happy to invite a Ms. Minnesota. But they’d be equally happy to invite anyone who wished to speak passionately on a subject.

Among those who had a chance to win, the truly beautiful ones, I knew the motivations might be very different. The “platform” could be merely one of convenience, and represent to them almost an inconvenience—something they had to have to enter the pageant.

One question I often asked was whether they’d ever done anything like this before. In other words, was this their first pageant? In many cases it was not. One of the best contestants, one of the really pretty ones, had entered this pageant three times before. Erica Shaw. She was the one who’d made such provocative eye contact with me last night.

Another one of the best, Amy Dorsett, had been first runner-up in the Miss Minnesota pageant two years ago, the state-level event for the Miss America contest. I asked her about the differences.

“The Miss America system is completely different,” she explained. “Everyone focuses on looks, and perfect makeup, and gorgeous dress and so forth. This competition tends to draw more the intellectuals—more the ones who could never win a beauty contest per se.”

The wisdom of having us judge the aerobic wear and gown competition before meeting them in person was now very obvious. After even a five minute interview, suddenly you knew the person a little bit. And each of us was developing favorites. If we’d known them as people before judging them as meat, it would have been impossible to judge them as meat. We would have adjusted our scores to help out those we liked.

It was an interesting concept. A variation on “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Once you read the book, the cover is irrelevant. Before you read the book, the cover is everything, because it’s all you see. So if you’re trying to get someone to judge both the inside and the outside, you need to show them the outside first.

I was horrified to discover that many of the contestants who had chosen a disease to champion, were actually suffering from that disease themselves.   One of the most interesting of these was a woman who was suffering from something I’d never heard of, and even now can’t remember. Her cause wasn’t that disease. Her cause was basically people who suffer from diseases no one’s ever heard of.   She had some interesting points. If you suffer from AIDS, or breast cancer, or Alzheimer’s, for example, you can take comfort in the fact that whole sections of society are at work trying to find cures for those, and provide support systems for the victims and their families. But if you suffer from (and here she named several mystery diseases), you have no such support. No one’s hard at work to find a cure. No one’s heard of your disease so you don’t get the same level of sympathy. There is no support infrastructure.

I found all this fascinating. She was right, of course. The popular diseases get all the press, and thus all the funding. Someone did need to be a champion of those lesser diseases.

I was also surprised to find that most of these women were doing extremely well in the interviews. I was impressed with their poise, their intelligent answers to questions, and their clear commitment to a platform.   Perhaps not surprisingly, the truly beautiful ones also tended to be the most confident and self-assured, which itself was an important quality we were supposed to consider. Yet there’s an exception to every rule, as I was about to find out.

Of all the attractive women competing in this pageant, in my opinion the most visually impressive of all was Sara Nolan. Blonde, of course. Beautiful, of course. Young and slender, of course. She was absolutely stunning. In fact I wondered why Hollywood hadn’t discovered her.   She could have been Michelle Pfeiffer’s twin sister. In truth, this whole competition was beneath her. If she hadn’t been married, she’d have been a shoe-in for Miss Minnesota USA at the least, and might easily have won a national title.

I knew I’d be nervous in the interview with Sara. I didn’t want to look like an idiot. I wanted to ask brilliant, insightful, questions – questions tinged with humor, perhaps, yet deep and probing even so. I didn’t care at all what her answers might be. I just wanted to come off as a charming judge. Of course this was silly. I was supposed to be judging her, not vice versa.   But judges are human too.

I could handle Candace, in the bar. A nineteen-year-old Jungle Sorceress didn’t scare me. But Sara Nolan was something else entirely. Unless she was into snowboarding, I was going to be putty in her hands.

Here she came. It was the beginning of a new round, so I’d be the first judge she’d encounter. OK, I was nervous. But I was going to get through this. I stood up as she approached, smiled, and we shook hands. It wasn’t much in terms of physical contact but her slightest touch was delicious.

I led with the “are you having fun?” question.

“Yes I am. I’m a little nervous, but I’m having fun.” She smiled, or at least tried to.

“Well of course you’re nervous. Anyone would be.   Have you ever done anything like this before?”

“No.”

Hmmm. I’d expected more than a monosyllable. Obviously I wasn’t being as charming as I was trying to be. She didn’t like me. Of course she didn’t like me.   Why would she? I was some middle aged, boring, average-looking-at-best, stupid judge. All my insecurities rushed to the fore. I retreated to the least controversial, most puff-ball question of all: “So, tell me about your platform…”

This was akin to suggesting she recite her canned speech. I’d learn nothing from this, but I was making no connection with her anyway. I shouldn’t have been a judge. They should have chosen witty, interesting, stud-like judges. I was completely out of place here. I didn’t even know how to evaluate a gown, for chrissake. How was I supposed to evaluate Miss Sara sex-appeal, here? Excuse me. Mrs. Sara sex-appeal. And her husband was—where? Not here, obviously. Not so committed after all, perhaps. Let’s face it. Sara was about to be dumped. At least she was about to be dumped if my fantasies had anything to do with it. Sara was likely to be competing in next year’s Miss Minnesota pageant. Not that she wouldn’t win. In a heartbeat. Not that she wouldn’t remember her friends from the Mrs. Days.

I forced myself back from these thoughts as Sara launched into her canned commentary about her program. She was several sentences into it when I realized—to my horror and incredulity—that she really was nervous. Very much so.   How could this platonic ideal of female sensuality be nervous talking to the likes of me? But she was.   She was pausing awkwardly, not completing sentences properly. The body language was screaming “I’m scared to death!” Finally she just stopped.

“Look, I’m really nervous,” she said. “Is there any way we could just start over?”

Everything changed. Now my heart went out to her. Seriously. It wasn’t sexual anymore. I felt really, really bad for her. But I still didn’t understand how the most beautiful woman in Minnesota, a state filled with beautiful women, could be nervous in a situation like this.   Didn’t she realize I was mesmerized by her on a physical level, and that she thus held the upper hand? No, she didn’t realize that. If she had, she might well have relaxed. I contrasted her with Candace in the bar last night. Candace knew completely the effect she was having on the men in the room. She was doing it deliberately. She was enjoying it—at least up to the point where her façade collapsed and she morphed into Suzy Snowboarder.

Sara Nolan was either not aware of her beauty, or was not aware that it should give her confidence.   The one woman in St. Cloud who should have been the most self-assured was actually the least self-assured. Amazing.

In the meantime, the male hormones at the table were still going haywire. Now that I realized how vulnerable she was, I wanted to reach out and comfort her. I wanted to take her hands in mine, reassure her, give her a hug, stroke her scintillating blonde hair, whatever…   OK, maybe kiss her lightly on the forehead as I drew her body to me tenderly and—

STOP IT! I was a judge, damn it! This was serious business. Let’s get some professionalism going around here, for chrissake.   I was going to roast in hell for these thoughts.

Collecting myself with an effort, I smiled and tried to put her at ease. She’d asked if she could start over.

“Of course. Let’s start over! What was your name again? What event is this? I can’t remember!”

That, at least, earned a smile. A real smile this time.   And she tried to tell me about her program. Yet it was a weak performance. Sara Nolan was almost paralyzed with fear. How would she do at a Rotary Club breakfast? A Kiwanis luncheon? She would cast a spell on the men as soon as she walked into the room, but would that be enough? I compared her mentally to Kelly Byrne, the reigning Mrs. Minnesota – a woman who was not only very attractive, but someone who could have eaten Katie Couric for lunch. Despite her physical assets, Sara was not ready to be the next Mrs. Minnesota. Not based on this interview. I recalled a key instruction in the Judges Handbook:

It is understood that Mrs. Minnesota must be more than a “pretty face.”   She must be articulate, intelligent, and possess a balance of inner and outer beauty. Poise and self confidence are essential.

I had to mark her down, and it killed me to do so because the interview was fifty percent of the total score. One to twenty. I gave her an eight. She probably deserved less. Even so, I hoped my score would be the lowest, and would thus be thrown out and would thus not matter. I didn’t want to be the one to drive a knife in her back.

The contestants rotated counter-clockwise, and Ms. Utah would be Sara’s next judge. She’d probably do better talking to someone so like herself.   Ms. Utah could make anyone feel comfortable.

After the event, as we were driven back to the hotel, we discussed not the contestants themselves, which would have violated the rules, but how we each had scored.

Ms. Utah had been the most lenient. She’d given out three “20’s”, the highest possible, and nothing lower than a 12.

“I didn’t give out anything higher than an 18,” noted Ms. Iowa. “My low score was a 2.”

Stephanie freaked. “A 2! You gave someone a 2! Do you know how bad that is?”

“She deserved it.”

“But a 2! What are you, like, the judge from Hell?”

As it turned out, other than Stephanie, I was the only one who’d given out a 20.

I’d given it to one of the contestants who’d possessed incredible self-confidence, poise, professionalism and intelligence. If I could, I’d have given her a thirty. She wasn’t among the real beauties, but she was certainly attractive and, based on how well she interviewed, probably had at least a shot at winning.   My low score was a 5—given to a woman who made even Sara Nolan seem poised and confident

By three pm we were back in our hotel rooms with orders to be dressed formally (black tie) and meet in the lobby at 5:15.   When the hour arrived I headed to the elevator and when the door opened I was surprised to see the other four judges in this same elevator. There was a shy teenage couple here as well, dressed in jeans. Ms. Iowa and Ms. Utah, in elegant evening gowns, were glorious and finally one of the teenagers spoke up.

“Uh, what are you guys all going to, anyway?”

“A beauty pageant,” explained Matthew. “We’re the five judges.”

“A beauty pageant. Wow!” said the guy.

“They’re the judges,” said his date.

“Wow, the judges!”

They stared at us with wide eyes as we left the elevator, all of us smiling at this adulation from the two teenagers.

I turned back to them. They hadn’t moved. They were still in the elevator, staring.

“We judge both inner and outer beauty,” I explained. “Remember that.”

And then we were gone.

The final evening was largely a repeat of the first. Kelly sang more songs. Rich told more jokes. The contestants were once again paraded out for all the see, and took their places on stage. I’d made sure I used the restroom immediately before taking my place at the judges’ table. In other words, all of us were becoming more adept with the program.

There was a panel of accountants here, brought in to independently tabulate and record the scoring. I always consider that humorous, that at events like these you needed someone with CPA training to do a job that consists of simple arithmetic. But it was impressive and gave the proceedings an aura of authority and due process – having outside experts compute the results. At least they weren’t from Arthur Anderson.

With great ceremony, the names of the ten finalists were read. Of course with only twenty contestants, everyone had a 50-50 shot, at least mathematically.

The names were read in no particular order, and there really was some drama to it. Perhaps this was a provincial and unimportant competition, by world-class standards. Yet to these women, tonight, it was extremely important.   As the judges handbook had noted, one of these women’s lives would be changed by what happened here tonight. Some sense of drama was appropriate.

As each finalist was called, she would transform from waiting stoic to thrilled and excited contestant, often with her head pressed momentarily against her hands, in thanks and relief. Then she would walk across the stage amidst loud applause to where the ten were assembling.

When the last name was called the others quickly left the stage. Of course they did. They were all mortified and probably wanted to just go back to their rooms and cry. This was very sad, but it was going to get worse. By the end of the evening, there would be only one happy contestant.

Only four of the six really attractive women had made it into the finals. Sara Nolan was not among them. This made me a little sad, even though I knew it was for the best. On another level, I was pleased that it wasn’t just the ten most beautiful who became the finalists. That would have been devastating to the less comely women—it would have implied this pageant really was just about “outer beauty,” despite what they’d been told.

By this time I had my favorites.   There were three women, out of the entire twenty, who I’d be happy to see win. Two of these were among the beautiful ones, but they’d also shown a great deal of poise and intelligence in the interviews: Amy Dorsett and Erin Kaminsky .   The third was the one I’d awarded the 20 to: Judi O’Donnell.   In my opinion she had the most “inner beauty” of all, and wasn’t that bad on the outside, either. Fortunately, all three made it into the finals.

So did the woman with the sultry eyes, who had entered this pageant three times before.

The woman who’d entered just as a kindness to her husband had not made it.

I wondered who the “preferred” contestant was, the one all the insiders were rooting for. Was she even a finalist? I would not find out until it was over.

All prior scores were now discarded. These ten were starting fresh. There would be a repeat of the aerobic wear and gown competitions. Then each contestant would be asked a question, on stage, and would have one minute to reply. The scoring was weighted as before. The 1-minute answer counted for 50%. The other two were 25% each.

The problem was that by this time I knew who I wanted to win. I was biased, and while I was willing to judge these events, and try to do it fairly, I also knew I’d be deliberately elevating the scores of my chosen three.   I didn’t think that was improper. While the mathematical scores from the interviews had been discarded, the impressions left by those interviews had not been, nor should they be.

Aerobic wear was first. Then the questions. I was glad that my chosen three had each done well on the questions. Very poised, very articulate, very organized and effective in presentation. Amy had probably done the best of anyone, and I graded her accordingly.   Perhaps her experience as 1st Runner Up in the Miss Minnesota event was helping her now. This would seem not nearly as intimidating.

At last we’d come to the final event: the gowns. My nemesis. But I was an experienced pageant judge by this time, and I was ready to tackle even gowns if I had to. Here they came. Hmmm. They were all quite lovely. And they were very different from each other.   Hmmm.   Yes, some were clearly better than others. My problem was I couldn’t tell which ones those were. Then I remembered I wasn’t supposed to be using my left brain here. This was a right brain activity. I was looking for the overall effect, the “woman in the gown, not the gown on the woman.” Good heavens, I’d already forgotten that most important rule for judging gowns. I was starting to become like Stephanie, a judge who actually looked at the gowns themselves.

Finally, I decided to use the Michelle test. If we were to judge the woman in the gown, the overall effect, then it was really just a question of which woman up there on stage seemed the most attractive to me. Well, that was an easy call. With Sara eliminated, Erin Kaminski, stunningly attired in a long, flowing purple thing, had to be ranked in first place. The fact that she was already one of my three favorites didn’t hurt either. I scored the rest of them using this same technique.

After a few more songs and jokes, and other deliberately time-consuming parts of the program had occurred, the accountants were ready to reveal the winners.

Now the drama was real. We were about to find out who would be the next Mrs. Minnesota. They started with 5th runner-up, which meant a total of 6 names would be called.   OK, here was the first envelope. Rich opened it with appropriate ceremony.

“5th runner-up is… Judi O’Donnell!”

Well, I thought she’d had a chance to actually win, but 5th runner-up wasn’t too bad.

“4th runner-up is… Erin Kaminsky!”

OK, so two of my three favorites were out of the running. This was not going well.

“3rd runner-up is… Erica Shaw!”

You see, Erica, flirting with the judges will get you a long way, but it won’t get you to the top. Better luck next year. Actually, I was very glad Erica hadn’t won. I sensed she was more interested in Erica than she was in her platform.

“2nd runner-up is… Sandy Molina”

I didn’t like Sandy, although I had no basis for that. She was very pretty. At least this meant she wasn’t going to win.

Now things had reached the ultimate drama.   Whoever was named next would come in 2nd, leaving only one more spot, and that would be the winner.

“1st runner-up is… Teri Anderson”

I had no opinion about Teri, neither good nor bad. She hadn’t shown up strongly on my radar scope.   Probably she’d had a really impressive gown, and I hadn’t noticed it.

“And finally, the new Mrs. Minnesota. The woman who will wear the crown for the next year, and who will represent our state at the national competition, the new Mrs. Minnesota is:

AMY DORSETT!!!”

The room erupted in applause. Everyone was on their feet, cheering, clapping, whistling. It was just like what one sees on TV. Amy broke into tears, and the other contestants gathered around, hugging her. Someone offered a bouquet of roses. Kelly appeared with her crown, and amidst all the commotion this somehow was placed on Amy’s head, and affixed to her hair.

I realized, at last, that Amy probably was my first choice of my three favorites. If the goal was to send someone to nationals who had the best chance of winning, that seemed clearly to be Amy. Beautiful, poised, and very sincere. Apparently the other judges felt the same.

An hour was consumed as photographs were taken, flowers were exchanged, people cried and hugged, and as the judges were at last able to talk among themselves.

“Well, what do you think,” I asked Stephanie and the others.

“She was my first choice,” said Ms. Utah.

“Mine too,” said Andrew.   The others agreed. Amy was the first choice of all the judges. No wonder she’d won. We’d probably all been pumping up her scores in the final competitions.

Here came Rich, and he took me aside. We were finally able to talk.

“I just want to say that you guys did good,” he explained. “We were hoping you’d choose Amy. There were a couple of the others who would have been OK, but Amy was the one Allison really was hoping would win.”

“So I earned my keep?”

“That you did. Now we go party.”

There was a Coronation Reception back at the other hotel, the one we’d not been allowed to go to before. This was a coffee and cake event, where everyone was allowed to mingle. Only about half the contestants bothered to show up. The rest, obviously, were off somewhere in tears. It was really sad. Even the ones who were here didn’t look like this was the greatest day of their lives. Some of the more poised and professional ones came up to the judges and thanked us for judging.

“You were a great contestant,” we dutifully said to each.

Here came Judi O’Donnell, the one contestant who actually looked happy and bubbly, even after not winning. Her inner beauty was definitely showing through, and I was again pleased that I’d given her a 20. I hoped she’d enter again next year, although I wasn’t allowed to say that.

“You were a great contestant!” I said to Judi. “Let me rephrase that. You were a really great contestant!”

“Oh, thank you so much. And I just want to say that I had so much fun talking to you in the interview. It was so relaxed and comfortable. You really put me at ease!”

Aha! So maybe I wasn’t such a bad judge after all. Maybe next time I could just do the interviews and skip the gowns…

The private party in Allison’s suite began at 10pm. We’d all had a chance to go back to our rooms and change into comfortable clothes: jeans and such. After two days of intense formality, we were ready for jeans. Pizza boxes were piled high. The fridge was filled with beer. We were famished and thirsty. Judging, and being judged, was hard work.

There were a total of maybe twenty people here. Again it was so odd. Every woman at this party was the winner of a state beauty contest. It was like some kind of Hugh Hefner, Playboy Mansion fantasy. On the other hand everyone in the room was married, and a large part of the theme of the Mrs. Minnesota pageant was a celebration of marriage, and marital values.   OK, so maybe it wasn’t exactly like a Playboy Mansion fantasy.

But it was a wonderful party, even so. There was so much to talk about, so many notes to compare with other judges, and with those who were curious how the judges had felt about the different contestants. Kelly, the outgoing queen, kept the room in stitches with more stories of past pageants and funny things that had happened. I realized that, with the anecdotes here in this room, producers could spawn a dozen beauty pageant movies like Drop Dead Gorgeous.

We stayed until well after midnight, giving everyone a chance to talk in depth with everyone else. I finally got the quality time I wanted with Allison and Rich. Allison couldn’t thank me enough for choosing Amy.

“Not only is she very poised and beautiful,” explained Allison. “But out of all the contestants, Amy is the one who really cared the most about her platform.   She was absolutely the right one to win.”

“I was afraid I was going to skew the results,” I explained. “I was afraid I was going to botch up the scoring and the worst contestant was going to be selected.”

“JV, you shouldn’t have worried,” she said. “You obviously have what it takes to be a beauty pageant judge. You did great!”

The judges were even given little wooden plaques to commemorate the event.   I wasn’t sure if this was something I should put on the wall back in my office, or hide out of embarrassment in the darkest drawer. I’d decide that later.

Amy, adrift in a sea of happiness and disbelief, was here as well. She was in jeans but was still wearing her diamond tiara.

“There’s no way I’m taking off this crown!” she told everyone.

Finally I had my own time with her, one on one, on the couch. She’d actually called me over.

“Jacques, I just wanted to thank you for judging, and for giving me this crown.”

She was being extremely sincere. Her eyes were moist.

I mumbled something appropriate.

“You know, it was so interesting talking to you in the interview. You asked the most fascinating questions. It was really fun. I really enjoyed it.”

OK, so Amy had just made my year.   Maybe I wasn’t a “stud like judge”. But at least I was an entertaining one. That had to count for something.

More to the point, she was very adept at flattering judges.   That, I hoped, could only serve her well at Nationals.

I’m reluctant to end this story on a sad note, amidst all the partying, and gaiety, and lovely women. But the truth was that Amy’s platform, her cause, was the disease known as Lupus. And she’d chosen that cause not because she had a relative or friend who’d contracted Lupus. It was Amy herself.   It was not necessarily fatal. But mostly it was. Amy was not unique among the contestants in this regard. As mentioned, several of them were actually battling serious diseases at the time.

I found all this in such contrast to what might otherwise seem the hedonistic frivolity of a beauty pageant. You had the most unimportant and petty issues (who won the pageant) juxtaposed on serious matters of life and death.

“This is the happiest night of my life,” Amy said to me, as we sat on the couch, and looked out over the others in the room drinking beer and inhaling pizza.

Yet I could not help wondering: How many more of them does she have left?

There were many women in this hotel right now, down in their rooms in tears.

Up in the penthouse suite, beauty queens were partying.

Somehow, Amy Dorsett seemed to represent them all.

We had chosen well.

AFTERWORD

I had to leave early the next morning for business meetings in Munich, Germany and the fairy-tale world of the Ms. Minnesota pageant soon came to seem dream-like—something that could never actually have happened.   Yet it came back to me in a rush, six months later, when I received this email from Allison:

DEAR J.V.

JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW THAT YOU DID GREAT AS A JUDGE!!!

AMY DORSETT, MRS. MINNESOTA, WAS 1ST RUNNER-UP AT NATIONALS OUT OF 54 LADIES!! GOOD JOB!

ALLISON

OK, so the only question now was, with all my experience and skill, when would the Miss America officials be contacting me for some serious judging assistance? I wanted to let them know that, among other things, I was very good with gowns…

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