Judging Miss Minnesota

[In this story, names of contestants have been changed.  The photo is not connected to  the event described.]

A tall woman, with long black hair, stood with her back against a pillar near the luggage carousel at the Minneapolis airport. Her cheekbones were high, she was heavily made-up, and the clothes looked expensive. She seemed over-dressed for travel, and ignored the luggage pieces as they dropped off the conveyer belt and slid down to the rubber railing. Instead, she gazed out over the sea of faces, as if hoping to meet someone.   Beside her was a pleasant looking, fair-haired man, probably in his thirties.   And in front of the two was a luggage cart piled with the largest collection of matching red suitcases I’d ever seen.

“That has to be her,” said my wife Derry. “That has to be Mrs. International.”

I wasn’t so sure. Three years ago at this same airport I’d rendezvoused with Stephanie Vincent, the reigning Mrs. Utah, and her husband Steve. Stephanie was the kind of glamorous, blonde beauty one might expect would win a pageant. This tall woman by the pillar looked more like the rock singer Cher, albeit very striking.

“She’s not going to do anything to help my insecurities,” said Derry. “She’s over six feet tall!”

Derry was 5’ 2”.

“You really think that’s Tammy? I don’t know…”

“Look around the room. Do you see any other candidates?”

There was an easy way to find out. I dialed a number on my cell phone.

The tall woman reached into her purse, extracted a phone, and I heard the words “Is this Jacques?”

We introduced ourselves, and found that Tammy and her husband David were as warm, friendly and charming as is to be expected of pageant winners.   One thing my vast pageant-judging experience had taught was that women who aren’t friendly and charming don’t win pageants, although they may enter them.

And that’s why judges are so important. In fact, this was why Derry and I were here: to be judges at this weekend’s Miss Minnesota pageant.

Three years ago, our friend Allison Stavrakis, who owns the Mrs. Minnesota pageant, had solicited my help as a judge for that event. My fellow judges and I had performed so well that our winner, Amy Dorsett, went on to be 1st Runner Up at the Mrs. International Pageant. [See: Judging Ms. Minnesota.] Since then, Allison had acquired two more pageants: Miss Minnesota, and Miss Teen Minnesota.   Her need for competent judges was outstripping the supply And so I was invited back—the first ever to be invited back, I learned later—yet this time Allison wanted Derry as well.

When the invitation arrived nine months ago we’d discussed it.

“I’m not sure,” said Derry. “Is it really something we should spend money on?”

With two kids in college we were counting pennies.

“The pageant pays for everything,” I explained. “All we have to do is show up.”

“But we’d have to get someone to watch Alex, “ she added, mentioning our 14 year old son. She was running out of good excuses, and beginning to get desperate.

“We can do that. Look, you’d love it. It’s incredibly fun.”

Derry finally came clean. “OK, maybe I’m shallow, but how am I going to feel, surrounded by all those beautiful women for a whole weekend?”

“Like the one to beat! Trust me, many of them aren’t all that beautiful.”

Comely Derry, in her mid forties, could easily pass for someone ten years younger. Allison herself had once urged Derry to enter the Mrs. Colorado pageant, which of course she’d never have done. But she lived off the compliment for years.   And as an experienced pageant judge, I knew that many of the women were really not all that young and beautiful. Or at least that was true with the Mrs. pageant.   For the Miss, the age limit was nineteen to twenty-seven, so, OK, maybe they would be young.   Whatever.

Derry finally surrendered and agreed to do it.   Since we were arriving the same time as fellow judges Tammy and David Wyatt, we arranged to rent a car and the four of us drive to St. Cloud, about ninety minutes away.

Allison informed us later by email that Tammy Wyatt was the reigning Mrs. South Carolina, had won the International event, and was now also the reigning Mrs. International.   The fact that we were to spend ninety minutes in the car with an international beauty pageant winner did nothing to calm Derry’s nerves.

If only it had been ninety minutes.   I’d forgotten about rush hour.

Despite the traffic, Tammy and David were in good moods, and as excited as little kids. What was exciting them was the snow. They’d only seen snow a few times before, and were enchanted by it.

“What we’re really hoping to see,” explained Tammy, “is actual frozen water. You know, like a frozen lake or something. Do you think that’s possible?”

Hmmm. A frozen lake. In Minnesota. In the winter.

“It’ll be tough, but I’ll do my best,” I promised.

“You’ve never seen a frozen lake?” asked Derry, disbelievingly, seeing the scales balance a bit between her and Tammy.   OK, so maybe Tammy was the reigning Mrs. Whatever. Fine. But Derry had seen plenty of frozen lakes in her day.

By the time we arrived at the Radisson Hotel in St. Cloud, Tammy and David had seen their fill of frozen lakes. Not that they were in Derry’s league yet.

After checking in, we reconvened in the lobby for dinner. The concierge told us of several places, easily reachable on foot. But when one hears that, it’s necessary to take into account the foot itself, and the weather. Tammy had changed clothes but was still over-dressed, this time in an exotic, matching, pantsuit-and-top combination, with high heels completing the look. The moment we walked out the hotel’s front door it became obvious why all the lakes in Minnesota had frozen.

The twenty-knot wind was trying to do the same thing to our blood.   After two blocks Tammy was nearing frostbite and we retreated back to the elegant restaurant at the Radisson itself.

“I can’t believe I have to wear these ridiculous outfits,” said Tammy, as we sipped our drinks.

“Have to?” I asked, surprised and curious.

“When you win the Mrs. International pageant the good news is they give you a $10,000 clothing allowance, spendable at any of half a dozen top name-brand clothing designers. The bad news is that when you attend any official pageant event, like the one this weekend, you have to wear those clothes the entire time, including traveling! I know it looks ridiculous, but jeez, I don’t have a choice!”

No wonder she seemed overdressed at the airport, wore high heels on the streets of St. Cloud in the winter, and carried more luggage than six ordinary people.

By the time we finished the last of the wine, and split a couple of desserts, it seemed we’d become the closest of friends.   Derry was relaxed, enjoying herself, and no longer intimidated by anyone.

It was best she didn’t know that tomorrow she’d be meeting Ms. North Dakota.

We slept in late the next morning, had pancakes and eggs at a nearby Denny’s, and saw a movie in the afternoon.   Pageant duty didn’t begin until 5pm, and this was our way of acclimating to a slow, Midwestern biorhythm.   If we were to properly judge the young women this state produced, we needed to get on their wavelength.

By 4:30 Derry was working on her hair in the bathroom. I was in my underwear, using the iron and ironing board, trying to get some final wrinkles out of my white shirt.   There was a knock on the door. I wasn’t too concerned. This was probably a hotel worker determined to do that most ridiculous of things hotel workers do everywhere: “turn down service” for the beds.

It frightens me, the strange opinion hotel managers must have of the capabilities—or lack thereof—of their guests. As a frequent traveler, a world traveler for that matter, I rarely encounter things that stump me for too long in a modern hotel room. For example, I’m adept at using hotel ironing boards. I’ve managed to figure out the impossible-to-understand controls on TV remotes. I’ve met, and triumphed over, every conceivable type of problem trying to hook up a laptop to the Internet.   And if all that weren’t enough, I’ve even mastered the hot-cold controls on hotel showers.

So what do they expect of me when it’s time to climb into bed?

“Oh my God! It’s, it’s…a bedspread! Now what am I going to do?   I’d better call someone from the hotel staff to help me sort this out.”

You have to wonder what these people are thinking.

Or maybe the knock on the door wasn’t the highly-skilled turndown service expert. Maybe it was someone to check the mini-bar. Or a housekeeper needing to replenish our supply of towels.   It didn’t matter. I couldn’t open the door in my underwear, and with Derry no doubt in similar disarray. I’d just tell them to come back some other time.   I looked through the peephole.

Looking back was the face of Susan Hoffman, the legendary Mrs. Minnesota who’d gone on to win the Mrs. International crown.   I knew her from three years ago. Another woman was with her.

“Um, just a minute…” I said, plaintively, and then set a record for fastest time a person can throw on a shirt and pair of jeans. Opening the door I smiled, and tried to look like I’d been calmly re-reading the pageant rules.

“Oh, we apologize for bothering you,” explained Susan, clearly suspecting I’d been ironing in my underwear. “We just needed to drop off the notebooks for the judging tonight. Plus we have these little name badges… “

“Wonderful!”

“And this is Kay Boyd, she’s the other judges’ coach.”

Susan was over six feet tall. Kay was barely five. But she had charming red hair and an engaging smile.   Probably she was the former Mrs. Michigan or something.

At five we met the others in the private dining room, just off the Radisson’s main floor—a room I knew well. Three years ago we’d been all but locked up in here: a gilded cage but a cage nonetheless. Judges simply couldn’t be allowed to roam freely, once the pageant began.   Did they think we could be bribed? Seduced? Manipulated in any way? Of course they did. Did they think a contestant might stoop to such a thing? Of course they did.   The best way to minimize the problem was to keep the judges in hermetically-sealed environments.   We were to eat every meal in the private dining room, be escorted directly to the events, kept away from everyone else, and then be escorted back to our hotel.

The idea of a judge breaking loose from the rigid confines of this program was enough to strike terror into the heart of any pageant official. Fortunately they never learned what happened that night.

Derry was looking exquisite in her brown, sueded-silk sarong dress, as the others trickled in.   Everything was conforming to pattern: I’d gone through all this three years ago: meeting some of the judges at the Minneapolis airport, meeting the rest of them in this private dining room, being chaperoned by Susan Hoffman.   Because I knew precisely what was going to be happening over the next twenty four hours, I was very relaxed about it.   Several of the others had judged pageants before. I was the only one who’d judged pageants in this very town, and was accustomed to taking my meals in this very room.

Thus I fancied myself the “senior judge”.

But there were differences as well. There were two pageants occurring simultaneously, so the stable of judges was twice as large.   The “Mrs. Team”, as I called them, had the harder job, needing to process a full twenty contestants. The “Miss” Team only had to deal with twelve.

Tammy and Dave, who could now claim to have seen plenty of frozen water, were judging Mrs.   Another “pageant-winner-and-spouse” set were paired with them: Renae and Wayne Ham from Fargo, North Dakota.   Renae was last year’s Mrs. North Dakota—and looked the part: tall, blonde, slim, vivacious, buxom and beautiful.

And young. She was twenty-something. Late twenty-something, maybe. She was the kind of woman any other woman would appraise and say: “Fine, let’s see how you look when you’re forty and have kids.”

Later, Derry discovered that Renae was forty and had three kids.   Worst of all, you couldn’t even hate her properly because she was so friendly.

Rounding out the Mrs. Team was Ron, the fitness expert.   Each team had to have a fitness expert. That was one of the pageant rules.

The Miss group was headed by Derry and me (at least that was my perception), included Tony, a fitness expert (did I mention that each team had to have a fitness expert?), and two others. One of these was an elderly woman named Gooch. None of us had any idea how to pronounce Gooch. Was it Gock? Guck? Gook? Jootch?   My personal theory was that Gooch rhymed with Pooch, as in a dog. Anyway, Gooch was a former flight attendant, had various other credits to her record, and had judged many beauty pageants and speech and debate tournaments. She was very interested to learn that our daughter Kristen was the reigning Colorado High School debate champion.   Although I don’t think they use the word “reigning” with high school debaters.

She was even more interested to learn that I was “the diamond guy” as she put it.

“So, Jacques, what do you think of this ring? My last husband gave it to me…”

I pulled her hand into the light, and pretended to examine the diamond from close up.

Once word was out that I was a diamond expert, there was no stopping anyone. Ron came up to me later that night, and recounted his story of buying a diamond ring for his fiancée. After explaining it all to me, he asked me that most predictable question: “So, do you think I got a good deal?”

Ron asked this with a straight face, apparently not realizing that I’d not seen the diamond, he’d told me nothing about it’s reputed quality or size, and he’d yet to tell me how much he’d paid.   Even so, he expected an informed response on the question of whether he’d received a good deal.

I’ve become adept at fielding such questions, and I took this one in stride.

“Sounds like you got a steal,” I said.   Ron carried his smile for the rest of the night.

Tammy had a number of questions about colored stones.

And so forth.

I never have the heart to tell such people that I know nothing about diamonds or colored stones or jewelry. It’s only my customers who are knowledgeable. I’m just a computer guy.

Of course when I’m with computer people I pose as a gemstone expert so they won’t be surprised how little I know about computers.

I’ve managed to keep this up for twenty years, and no one’s caught me yet.

The final member of the “Miss” team was not a beauty pageant winner, not a fitness expert, not an ex-flight attendant, and not even a diamond guy. He was…a government bureaucrat. And no, he wasn’t a young, hunky George Stephanopoulos type government official who might have fit in well at a beauty pageant. He was a sixty-something, grey haired, short, and heavy government official.   “Assistant to the Director of Minnesota Department of Aviation” was his title, according to the pageant manual.   And unlikely as it seems, he apparently had some experience judging beauty pageants and was taking his role very seriously.   When Susan asked us all, during dinner, if we had any questions about the pageant rules, the bureaucrat had this to say:

“Yes, I do have a question. A serious question.”

Long pause.

“And what would that question be,” asked Susan, realizing she needed to play along with the drama.

“It says here in the manual that we’re not supposed to ask the contestants any question that pertains to politics, religion, personal hygiene, or sexual habits.”

“Ah, and your question is ‘what’s left’?”

“No.”

This time we all waited, letting the suspense build.

“My question is, what do we do about Contestant number 11?”

“And what is our problem with number 11?”

“According to the information sheet, #11’s platform is about abstinence before marriage. True Love Waits, it says here. How am I supposed to ask her about her platform if I can’t discuss sexual habits?

I cleared my throat.

“Actually, Susan, if you don’t mind…”

Susan looked at me, and raised her eyebrows.

“There’s an exemption to the what-you-can-talk-about rule,” I explained with scholarly aplomb, “if the contestant herself either brings up an issue on her own, or her platform is about that issue.”

“Is that right?” asked the bureaucrat.

“Yes,” confirmed Susan. “That’s exactly right.”

I basked in the glory of being the Senior Judge. Yet I found it frightening that I’d retained such trivia for three years. What more important things had my brain not remembered, so as to provide space for this one? It was a line of thinking best left un-pursued.

Dinner was served as we talked, and I found it interesting to notice they’d solved the problem of what type of food to serve by providing a pair of staples: chicken and steak. Each plate contained a chunk of steak, and a slab of chicken. Plus vegetables. I’d recently returned from three weeks in Thailand and I was suddenly seized with longing at the thought of Thai salads, Thai soups, and Thai curries.   Culinarily-speaking, the plains of northern Minnesota have never been known for their cuisine. One rarely hears the phrase “Hey, let’s go to a Northern Minnesota restaurant tonight!”   In this case the steak had been medium rare three hours ago. I sawed off a small piece, placed it in my mouth with caution, and twenty minutes later was still gnawing away at it. Looking around the table, I realized that conversation had lapsed for a reason. Everyone, even ultra-glamorous Ms. North Dakota, was worrying their steak in their mouth.

Light-as-a-feather Kay had neatly solved the problem, wrapping the steak-cum-superglue chunk into a napkin, and hiding it deftly in her purse. “For my dog!” she whispered to me, and winked.

So Rover would get his chance at chewing the un-chewable. I wished him well. He’d probably still be enjoying it six months from now.

The chicken, by contrast, was very moist, having been drowned in an excess of mushroom sauce.

But the food was unimportant. These meals in the private dining room were working meals, and always presaged a judging activity of some sort. We generally spent the time reviewing the various pageant materials and trying to cram for the next event. But at this first meal, it was the pageant program itself we were studying.   Most interesting were the typos found in the judges bio’s. For example I was listed as living in Denver.   Derry apparently lived in Keystone. That had to be raising a few eyebrows.

But the most serious was how they’d presented the name of the bureaucrat: Steven Hurvitz. They’d misplaced the “t”, rendering it as Seven, like the number. The nickname stuck instantly.

The most important lesson I remembered from judging previously was to minimize fluid intake during this Saturday evening dinner.   Once the event begins, the judges have no opportunity to take a restroom break. They are stuck up in front, seated at a high profile table, and even if they could sneak away unobtrusively during a lull in the pageant (which they can’t), it’s strictly against the rules.   Judges can’t just walk around like normal people, even if they have to use the bathroom like normal people.

The solution lay in not drinking any water at dinner. I’d made sure Derry knew this.

A fleet of two large SUV’s had been procured, along with drivers, and our entourage piled into these for the several minute trip to “Ritchie Auditorium.”   The judges were solemnly marched in, very much to the fascinated and nervous stares of those in the audience, who were mostly the friends and relatives of the contestants themselves. .

We took our places at the long table up front. As before, Rich Stavrakis and his co-host Kelly Byrne got things rolling. Introductions were made, participants and sponsors were thanked, past pageant winners were introduced, and reigning queens from other pageants were all applauded.

As the judges were presented, we were each required to stand up and wave to the audience and wave to the television camera. Our ‘coach’ had made sure we understood this, and understood where the camera was located.   A one paragraph bio of each coach was read, and I was proud of Derry’s:

Derry Voorhees is a Jazzercise instructor and owner of a Jazzercise franchise in Keystone, Colorado. She was formerly an Arthur Murray dancer, and was the senior instructor at Arthur Murray’s flagship dance studio on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. She has attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and graduated from New York University with a degree in Television Production. In the corporate world, she has been employed by a variety of companies, serving in the positions of bookkeeper, accountant, treasurer and Chief Financial Officer.

I’d written this myself, hoping to demonstrate that Derry was more than qualified to judge any provincial beauty pageant, and also hoping to deflect the spotlight from me, who had no qualifications whatsoever.

Following introductions, the curtain was raised and the contestants themselves were paraded out, amid much applause, background music, spotlights and so forth. It was a zoo this time, with 20 Mrs. contestants, 12 Miss contestants, and 20 Mrs. husbands.

Tonight we were judging the aerobic wear competition and the gown competition. I detested the one and adored the other. Aerobic wear is simply not attractive. At best, it can make a woman look no worse than she really is. It does nothing to make her better.   Derry explained to me later that the purpose of the aerobic wear competition was not to judge how they looked in the aerobic wear, but rather as a way to see as much of the actual bodies as was permitted. This enabled us to judge muscle tone, body fat, and the like. As a Jazzercise instructor, Derry was knowledgeable about this, and had no trouble grading them 1 to 5 on the little score cards.

We had 20 seconds with each contestant, from the moment they would walk downstage, parade about in very formulaic poses, and then pass on to stage left or stage right. We were supposed to (a) study them and notice all the muscle tone issues and so forth, (b) decide what grade to give them, (c) circle the appropriate number on the score card, and (d) add free-form comments to help explain our decision.

Were they nuts? In 20 seconds?   I knew there were judges here, like Derry and the fitness experts, who could manage it. The best I could do was not screw up the scoring.   Mathematically, I decided I should give everyone a 3 (precisely the midpoint) unless for some reason I was quite taken with how the contestant looked in aerobic wear, or was quite grossed out. Then I’d go to a 4 or a 2, respectively.

Pageant officials had pleaded with us to spread out our scores, and not group everyone in the middle. But I resolved to do this only during the private interviews tomorrow, where I’d come into my own. And the interviews accounted for 50% of the total pageant score. I use this same technique when I vote for politicians. If I don’t know or care, for example, about the Regents at the University of Colorado, I simply don’t vote for or against them. Those who do know should do the voting.

The gown competition was much more interesting. I’d been intimidated three years ago. Men rarely see women in beautiful pageant gowns. So we’re a little scared of them. At least I was. But this time I understood. We were supposed to judge not the gown, but the “woman in the gown.” Translated to guy-speak that meant: How hot does she look?

And I could judge that. If a woman/gown combination took your breath away, you graded them high. And vice versa. What was important here was to not obsess over precisely why your breath was taken away. Once you started thinking about the gown intellectually, you’d already de-railed the process. Gown judging is a pure right-side-of-the brain activity.

Throughout the evening, I was wondering if I’d spot any contestant who had the “Amy Dorsett look.”   Amy, our winner of three years ago, was tall and blonde and beautiful. But that’s not what I meant by “The Look.”   A contestant with “The Look”, quite simply, had the look of a winner. You could sense it. Three years ago there had been other tall, blonde, and beautiful contestants. Only Amy had “The Look.”   She’d gone on to not only win, but become first runner up at the Ms. International pageant.   So I was tempted to jump to the chase and see if there were any Amy Dorsett’s among the contestants.

As soon as I phrased the question this way, one jumped out at me. Yes. She definitely had “The Look.” She had not just the poise, the elegance, the glamour, and the self-confidence of the winner. She had an aura about her: impossible to describe and futile to ignore. I checked her name in the handbook: Tracy Hilton.   I didn’t find her especially beautiful, although she was clearly winning the gown competition. However I considered that largely the fault of the gown itself. This wasn’t a case of the “woman in the gown.” This was a case of “the gown.” It was breathtaking. A bodice of crystals, and gold thread, atop deep black velvet, with a modest train. You could have put this gown on any of the contestants and they’d have immediately won the gown competition.

The real question was how Tracy would do in the personal interviews tomorrow. Was she truly the “Amy Dorsett” of this pageant?

But finding the “Most Like Amy” contestant wasn’t the only thing I was looking for. Extra awards are always given out at pageants, in addition to the final rankings themselves. Thus there is always a “Miss Congeniality” award. There is a “Most Photogenic” award. A “Best Platform” award. And so forth. These are generally bestowed by either the pageant staff, or voted by the contestants themselves.

Well and good. But I decided to give out my own awards, based on things I found interesting. For example, I knew I would give out the “Most Attractive To Me” award. I always fell head over heels in love with somebody at these kinds of events. You could set your watch by it.   I was sure this time would be no different.

I also found a surprising divergence between how the contestant looked in their official pageant photo, in the handbook, compared to how they looked in person.

Thus I created the: “Hottest Pageant Photo Award” and the “Pageant Photo Doesn’t Do Her Justice” award.

And there is always the classic cliché: the tall, beautiful, blonde. I’d be giving out the “Blonde Cliché Award” as well.

Perhaps I’d create more as the pageant continued, but those would do for now.

A great disappointment about the judging on Saturday night was that they’d scheduled an intermission. Judges were allowed to take a restroom break after all. I hadn’t needed to forgo water at dinner. I could have consumed gallons of the stuff.   I felt like an idiot, having made such a big deal about this with Derry.   Well, I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake tomorrow night .

The SUV’s returned us to the Radisson hotel, where, according to the program, the Judges’ Coach would buy us a “cocktail” and we could “socialize” with our “fellow judges.”

How exciting!

We sat in the bar, almost the very seats where once I’d chatted with Susan’s stunning and dressed-to-kill daughter Candace, about…snowboarding of all things. Then we’d had a smaller group: Ms. Utah, Ms. Iowa, and two past Ms. Minnesota’s.   Now we had Renée, the reigning Mrs. North Dakota, Tammy, the reigning Mrs. International, and Susan, a past Mrs. International.   And we had Derry, who’d recently won the Ms. Inter-Galactic pageant (at least in my mind), and petite Kay Boyd. We were not allowed to share our opinions of individual contestants, but were allowed to talk generally. As “the cocktail” began taking effect, opinions started to flow.

“I’m still in shock,” said Renée, “about that one gown. I’m sure everyone knows which one I mean.”

“Which one do you mean?” I asked. Except for Tracy’s, the gowns had largely been a blur.

“I know which one,” said Tammy.   “I couldn’t believe it.”

The rest of us were puzzled.

“You know,” explained Renée. “The one with the slit that came up way, way too far.”

“How far did it come?” I asked, with nothing more than professional interest.

“You could see her crotch,” said Renée, already developing a reputation as the blunt one in the group, and pretending to be scandalized.

All of us who hadn’t seen it were both shocked and disbelieving.

“C’mon,” said Susan. “You don’t really mean you could see her crotch! You’re exaggerating.”

“She’s not exaggerating,” added Tammy. “And that’s not the worst of it.”

Her statement hung in the air, all of us trying to imagine what might be worse, until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“And the worst would be…?” I asked.

“…That she wasn’t wearing any panties!” whispered Renae loudly, shocking and scandalizing us all over again.

Susan wasn’t buying it. “Oh, right. I’m sure that a Mrs. Minnesota contestant wore a gown with a slit so high up you could see her crotch, and she was naked underneath!”

“Susan, let me put it this way,” said Renée. “She’s not a natural blonde.”

Susan’s jaw dropped. She was speechless. I was still trying to decipher what the implications were of not being a natural blonde.   Then I got it.

Seven, the sixty-year-old, Department of Transportation bureaucrat, had joined the conversation. “You’re telling us you could see her pubes,” he asked matter-of-factly, as if recording the necessary facts for a report on traffic flows.

“We could totally see her pubes!” confirmed Renée. “And this is really sick, but my first thought was ‘Wow, I’m surprised she isn’t shaved!’”

The conversation was plummeting downwards and I was racing to catch up.

“Why were you surprised, Renee?” I asked.   “Are contestants supposed to shave their pubic hairs?”

Somehow I’d missed that in the manual. Must have been right after that section about the gown needing to split just above the shoe.

“It’s not a requirement,” explained Renée. “But most contestants shave completely.   Everything is so tight in that area, you just don’t want anything extra if you can avoid it, if you know what I mean. With me, it’s all off!”

“Same here!” added Tammy.

This was now in the category of “too much information”, and it was unclear what the proper response might be. I wasn’t at my best, conversationally, talking to beauty queens about such things. Even more shocking, their husbands were sitting with us as well, calmly nodding their heads sagely, as if this were a very typical conversation, covering a subject well known to everyone.

In any case, Susan was buying the drinks (apparently that “cocktail” was the bottomless-glass variety), and all of us got louder and, one hopes, funnier as the evening progressed. Yet Derry and I were eyeing our watches as eleven p.m. came and went, preparing to find the right moment to sneak away and try to get some sleep. We needed to be up at six.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” noted Renae suddenly, “but I’m in the mood to go dancing.”

Derry and I looked at each other in horror. We were already half asleep.

“We checked it out earlier,” said David, Tammy’s husband. “There’s a club just a block away.”

Tony and Ron, the two body builders, had already retired for the evening. They were fitness experts, and knew the value of a good night’s sleep, and the importance of using alcohol only in moderation. The rest of us, apparently, were unclear on these issues.

Renae turned to Derry and me.   “You two are coming with us. I just want to make sure there’s no confusion about that.”

“Um, sure,” said Derry, looking at me pleadingly.

“Love to,” I echoed, ignoring my wife’s desperate glance.

There was a brief intermission, to permit changing into jeans and appropriate attire.   And soon the nine of us, four men and five women, were queuing up at the door to the Red Carpet, St. Cloud’s answer to Studio 54 in New York.   There was a cover fee, but it was only $2.00 each. Susan paid for all of us.

“This may be my last pageant,” said Susan. “If Allison discovers we left the hotel, I’m toast.”

It had been a long time since I’d entered a Midwestern dance club on a Saturday night.   In fact, it had been many, many years.   In fact, to be honest, I’d never done such a thing.   Once inside, I took in the scene immediately. It was very large, and I sensed there were multiple rooms, and perhaps multiple levels. A plethora of small round tables provided islands around which bar stools were set, and universally filled with beer-drinking patrons.   It’s usually difficult to judge people’s exact age, but not at the Red Carpet in St. Cloud. I was reasonably confident that of the several hundred customers, the youngest was twenty-one and the oldest was twenty-two. Everyone else was somewhere in between.

Except for our group, of course. Then I looked at our group. In the soft lighting, the women—all of them fit and slender—seemed to have lost a decade or two in age. Drop-dead gorgeous Ms. North Dakota, in particular, looked like she must have used a fake I.D. to get in. Tammy and Renée’s husbands were equally trim and—in jeans and t-shirts—effortlessly fit into the college-scene age bracket.   Susan, Derry, and Kay were forty-something’s but they, also, were attractive women and looked far younger.   As we walked through the crowds, interest perked up among the men at the tables.

That left Seven—the short, heavy, gray-haired bureaucrat—and me.

“This is what’s known as a target-rich environment,” he whispered in my ear, eyeing the many young women in the club.

Ms. North Dakota led us unerringly to the one empty table—up on the balcony hovering over the dance floor. Renae could have walked into any club, anywhere in the world, and have found the empty table immediately.   If one hadn’t been empty, it would have become so for her benefit.

Diminutive Kay, a pretty but not young featherweight, was over at the bar trying to order drinks.   Kay’s fiery red hair was gloriously alive, she was heavily made-up and had the body of a young ballerina.   In the soft lighting of the Red Carpet, rendered nearly opaque by the cigarette smoke that wafted among the tables, Kay looked to be about twenty-four—probably half her actual age.   While twenty-four made her a bit elderly for the Red Carpet, the men at the bar didn’t mind. They were hitting on her in a frenzy.

“Jacques, rescue me!” she whispered urgently when I arrived at the bar. I could see that two, possibly three, hunky guys were already in advanced stages of courtship with Kay. By which I mean they’d probably all three, sometime in the last few moments, moved close to her and mumbled “zup”.

“Zup” is a relatively new word in the English language. Its meaning is heavily dependent on context. Etymologists may dispute its origins, but most agree it’s a contraction of the English interrogative “What’s up?” which itself is an idiom for “What’s happening?” or “So, what’s going on?” or expressions of that nature. Rendered in the abbreviated “zup” mode, it has evolved into being little more than a grunt or acoustical form of body language, translating best as: “Hello”

I swaggered up to the bar and put my arms over the shoulders of the two men most infatuated with Kay. “So, I see ya’ll have met my purdy little wife, here. Ain’t she the purdiest thing?”

“This is your wife?” asked twentysomething #1, obviously disappointed with how the evening was going.

“Well, she’s the mother of our six kids, so I guess she’d better be!”

“Wow,” said twentysomething #2, shocked that a twenty-four year old could have six kids, and trying to do the math.

They were still friendly, and one of them helped me get the bartenders’ attention so we could order another round.   But they’d put their Kay-lust on hold for the moment.

I’d just paid for the drinks when the bar fight broke out.

It wasn’t much of a fight. One guy near the dance floor pushed another. Then he got pushed back. There was more pushing of this kind—reminiscent of male mountain goats vying for dominance, but not trying very hard. Their friends tried to restrain them, which wasn’t especially difficult.   Then two bouncers arrived and escorted the warring factions out onto the street.

In the Texas panhandle they wouldn’t even call that a fight. More like: getting to know each other.   But I found it exciting and wished I could embellish it, with fists flying around, a chair being hurled against a mirror, and women screaming. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

Instead, the dance floor began exerting a magnetic force which eventually pulled Derry and me down to it. Eschewing the outer edges, we positioned ourselves front and center, directly across from the band. But we weren’t quite sure what to do. The dancing here at the Red Carpet wasn’t very structured.   Everyone was just gyrating to the music.   Derry, a professional dancer, could have out-danced anyone in the room, or in the state, if it had been a Tango or Rumba or any kind of ballroom thing. But she’s always been uncomfortable with “just wriggling around” as she calls it. She was doing her best to wriggle and I’d had enough beer to not care whether I was wriggling competently or not.

Yet it wasn’t just the dancing. Derry didn’t fit into this scene. For one thing, she was better looking than most of the other women here, Ms. North Dakota and the two Ms. Internationals being her only real competition in my opinion. For another, she was the only one who hadn’t changed out of her semi-formal attire. Derry was still wearing the sexy cocktail dress from Jones New York that she’d worn as a pageant judge. In this grundge crowd, Derry shone like a diamond dropped onto a coal bin.   And in the world of loosely-defined relationships so endemic to a dance floor, the wolves were already circling.

But I, foolishly-confident husband, hadn’t noticed. Renae pulled me aside and made it clear she wanted to dance with me, which we proceeded to do. Suddenly I realized that Tammy was here as well, dancing just behind me, and then I was dancing between the two of them—two reigning beauty queens. Kind of a ménage a pageant. Well and good, until I noticed, on the other side of the dance floor, a guy had his arm around my wife. And they weren’t even dancing.

I dropped glorious Tammy and Renae in a flash, and rushed over to rescue my wife, who didn’t seem to think she needed rescuing.

“He’s really nice,” she explained, as if that had been my main concern. “No, he wasn’t trying to pick me up,” she whispered.   “Are you crazy? He just wanted to talk.”

Yeah. Saturday night on the dance floor at the Red Carpet with a live band playing, and he wanted to talk. Must have had something pretty important to say, probably beginning with “zup.”

“And I’m sure the Jones New York dress had nothing to do with it!”

“I’m twice his age!”

“You don’t look it! That’s the problem!”

She winked at me, and I knew I’d said just the right thing.

When the alarm went off at six, the last thing I wanted to do was peruse the application forms.   But I had no choice. This morning we’d spend five minutes alone with each contestant, asking them pointed, tough questions, and scoring them in a competition that accounted for 50% of their final grade. It was important to become familiar with who they were, their interests, and so forth. The application forms provided all the inane and meaningless trivia that we were required to use in developing a mental image.

Favorite Saying: He who laughs, lasts.

Favorite Family Tradition: Singing Johnny Cash songs on New Year’s Eve.

Favorite Charity: 4H Club of Winona County.

It wasn’t fair to judge them all as airheads based on these answers. I wondered how I myself would respond:

Favorite Saying:

Much Can Be Learned From Life, But Life Can Be Learned Only Once.

Or perhaps:

“It is better to be wise than hungry.”

Or my all time favorite:

“Darkness is as darkness does.”

I’d developed these back in high school, during a competition for most apparently-profound saying that is actually meaningless.

Favorite Family Tradition:

Going to sleep early on New Year’s Eve.

Favorite Charity:

The IRS.

OK, I could sense I was becoming cynical. I had to snap out of it. I made a few notes, underlined a few things, and jotted down a few questions on each of the application forms. All I needed were conversation starters. We only had five minutes. These weren’t dinner dates.   I could fill up a half hour, if required, with a question as simple as:

“So, the 4H club of Winona County is your favorite charity. What kinds of activities are they involved with?”

Or: “You clearly appreciate the importance of laughter and having a positive attitude. So, what kinds of things tend to make you laugh? And when do you find it hardest to laugh?:

Or: “Johnny Cash on New Year’s Eve? Are you nuts!!”

As it turned out, the two hotels were connected by an enclosed walkway, which I found a bit surprising until noticing a sign to the effect that the walkway was closed after 10pm. I wondered if it only closed when there were judges on one side, contestants on the other.

The judges were ushered into the same large conference room I remembered from before. Five tables were set around the circumference, each table far enough from its neighbors to ensure conversations wouldn’t overlap.   Each table had a judge sitting behind it, and a chair in front. The contestants would come in, walk directly to their assigned judge, sit down, and spend five minutes in conversation.   Then a timer would ding, and they would all leave. We’d have a few moments to make notes and consider our score, then the door would open and they’d come in again, this time rotating to a different judge. This regimen would continue until all twelve Miss Minnesota applicants had been interviewed by each of the five judges.

During a break, I was surprised to hear Tony, the fitness instructor, comment on how difficult this was.

“The aerobic wear competition was easy!” explained Tony. “I could really see a difference between the contestants, and I could really spread the scores out. Jeez, on these interviews, what do you look for? They all seem kind of the same to me.”

I found that amazing. Up on stage in skimpy aerobic wear, they all looked like a bunch of indistinguishable female bodies. In the interviews, they transformed into distinct personalities, exhibiting broadly diverse levels of intellect, charm, wittiness and—the most important of all—poise.

“Feel free to group your scores around the middle if you want to,” I suggested to Tony. I’m spreading mine out to such extremes it will more than offset yours.   Last night my gown and aerobic scores didn’t have any extremes.”

“No problem,” said Tony. “The extremes I gave last night will make up for your scores.”

It was a good synergistic relationship I had with Tony. He was scared of the interviews. I was terrified of the aerobic wear. We covered for each other.

In truth, I did fancy myself a talented interview judge.   I knew what I was looking for. My questions were meaningless, and I wasn’t interested in the content of the answers. These were mere foils, to allow me to judge articulateness, ability to carry on an intelligent conversation, eye contact, self-confidence, appropriateness of answers, and ability to toss the conversation back to me when appropriate, rather than ramble on nervously. Perhaps it’s all those things together that make up that impossible to define concept of “poise.”

Thus I would ask things like: What made you decide to enter this pageant? I see you enjoy camping. Where’s your favorite place in Minnesota to camp, and why?   How did you choose this particular platform? Do you have a personal connection in any way with this issue? How has this pageant compared so far to your expectations—what surprises have you had?   And then I’d sit back and listen.

Unlike last time, I wasn’t quite as mesmerized by the beauty of the women themselves.   I’d come to accept the fact that reasonably-attractive women can become quite stunning when perfectly and heavily made-up,   I’d first noticed this phenomenon with our friend Taylor Miller. Originally a model, she’d come to New York looking for an acting job, and had landed the ingénue spot on All My Children.   When on-screen, she was heavily made-up and gorgeous. When off-screen she wore zero makeup, kept her hair pulled back in a pony tail, and donned unflattering clothing: thus transforming into a plain-looking librarian.   Although only a minor celebrity, she was enough of one to make crowds gather when someone would spot her in a grocery store, for example.   Her lack of makeup was a disguise.

The point being: beauty really is only skin deep, and sometimes shallower even than that. With the right eye shadow, mascara, hairstyle, and makeup women can transform themselves into goddesses. Last time I was intimidated. This time I was immune.

Or not. Out of the corner of my eye, I’d caught a glimpse of one of the most breathtaking women I’d ever seen. She’d been interviewing at Seven’s table. Next she’d be with Gooch. And then with me. I was puzzled. She’d not been among the Official Pageant photos in the book, nor had I noticed her on stage. If she’d just been with Seven, she must be—I checked the names—Kathryn Fallon.   I looked again at the photos in the handbook. OK, here was Kathryn. Hmmm.   The woman I’d glimpsed out of the corner of my eye looked very different from this photo.   She was just leaving the room, and I noticed the light scintillating off her long auburn hair…

Forcing myself back to the job at hand, I studied the application form of my next interview.   Contestant #11, Kristi Pederson, was championing the “abstinence before marriage” platform. “True Love Waits.”   A cold-shower platform was probably just what I needed, after my glimpse of Kathryn. Adding to the effect, Miss Pederson had the personality and warmth of a cold, wet dishrag.   Actually I knew something about this abstinence before marriage subject—not from personal experience, one hastens to add. A year ago I’d judged a Speech and Debate tournament in which one of the Original Oratories was on this same subject: the True Love Waits movement. So I was able to toss some reasonably intelligent questions at her and… she answered them. Yawn. I resisted the urge to glance at my watch. Each interview was only five minutes, but this one was taking hours.   The question wasn’t how long true love could wait. It was how long this judge could wait… before falling asleep.

Pamela Gershwin, the next contestant, woke me up quickly. There were many blondes in the Miss pageant, But Pamela won my “Blonde Cliché Award”.   Tall. Gorgeous. Blonde. That was Pamela.   Yet there was more here than a pretty face. In the interview I learned that her day job was newscaster for a local television station. Her platform was the “Big Sister” program which she’d been heavily involved in for almost a decade—not a last-minute charity chosen for purposes of the competition.

When I asked if this was her first pageant, she confessed that she’d competed in the Miss Minnesota USA event, and also Miss Teen Minnesota, placing third and second respectively. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” she laughed, dismissively, but I sensed she took the words to heart and really hoped to win some time, not just “place.”

Too bad. If she were looking for sympathy, and expected me to grade her higher in the hopes of breaking the bridesmaid/bride cycle, she was going to be bitterly—   Well, OK, maybe it was working a little bit. I gave her a fairly high score, but she deserved it. Pamela was the one to beat, based on the interviews so far.   But there were many to go.

And the next was Kathryn herself. Here she came. If she’d seemed beautiful from across the room, she became more so with each step closer. Well, this had happened three years ago. Yet in that case the woman whom I’d found physically the most attractive and intimidating, turned out to be less impressive in other ways. She couldn’t put a coherent sentence together, and had all the poise and self-assurance of a panicked deer in the headlights. She’d actually “frozen” during the interview itself. I expected something similar this time. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Judge both inner and outer beauty. That kind of thing.   Looking as glamorous as she did, Kathryn was almost guaranteed to be vacuous, and would probably ramble on about world peace.

Walking confidently up to the table she graciously shook my hand, smiled, and took her seat. I was mentally recording all my impressions: perfect face, perfect makeup, perfect hair, and probably dressed to kill as well, although I wasn’t noticing her clothes.

Guys notice different things first, about women. Some focus on breasts. Some on legs. For me, it’s the eyes. One look at Kathryn, now seated across from me, and I felt caught in a tractor beam. This time I was the deer frozen in the headlights. I tried to snap out of it, but with no success. I’m sure there was a rule somewhere: Judges aren’t allowed to fall in love with contestants—especially at the beginning of an interview.

Realizing I was spell-bound and almost tongue-tied, Kathryn took control of the conversation.

“So, what an exciting event!” she exclaimed, helping me with a neutral observation I could take in any direction.

I began recovering, and managed to toss out some get-acquainted, soft-ball questions. She handled these perfectly, and on the third one nicely segued to her platform. These interviews were supposed to be heavily focused on the platform, and Kathryn was helping me get there, subtly reminding me that that’s what we needed to be talking mostly about. I couldn’t believe how smoothly she’d done it.

So we talked about her platform. It had to do with autism and the need for early detection. She explained how autistic kids are often creative geniuses in some areas—in short, there was a silver lining to the condition that most weren’t aware of. Kathryn had two autistic brothers, so there was no doubt she knew her subject, and cared about it sincerely.   The more she spoke, the more I realized I was in the presence of someone highly intelligent, deeply committed, and utterly gracious. Poised? This woman could make Paula Zahn look like a nervous Chihuahua.   Inner beauty?   It was spilling out of her, she had so much inside. Outer beauty? Bestowed in unfair quantities. And did I mention her hair was a rich auburn color and probably smelled delicious? Was there anything about this interview that was even slightly less than ideal? No, not a thing. A timer dinged and Kathryn quickly brought her last answer to a close.

This contestant had just blown away all the others I’d interviewed so far, and all nineteen of the ones from three years ago.   I had yet to interview Tracy Hilton, of course. But Kathryn had set the bar so high it seemed unlikely anyone else had a chance.

As for the other contestants, some were proving quite good, some OK, and some not very good at all. I couldn’t imagine how it was possible for Tony not to appreciate the extremes so apparent in these interviews.   But of course he felt the same about muscle tone.

Julie Livesey, recipient of the “Hottest Official Pageant Photo” award, was moderately cute in person, but no more than that. And she seemed distressingly young and immature, with little if any poise, and no particular enthusiasm for even being here.

Amber Holmes won my “Official Pageant Photo Doesn’t Do Her Justice” award. This very plain woman, or so it seemed from her photo, was hauntingly beautiful close up. And she interviewed well.

Kimberly Yashek was another whom I’d not really noticed before, but who was a contender based on the interview. Well, contender for second place. No one was in Kathryn’s league.

Jennifer Devlin, during the interview, caused me to immediately create—and bestow—the “Worst Reason To be in the Pageant” award. Her father had promised her diamond earrings if she entered and made it through the whole thing.   She almost didn’t make it through the interview. She arrived at the desk giggling somewhat hysterically. A joke had occurred just before the girls came in, and poor Jennifer couldn’t get herself under control. This was very bad. Only one chance to make a good first impression, and Jennifer wasn’t succeeding. If Kathryn had been here, she’d no doubt have said something calming and helped Jennifer get back on track. Kathryn’s “inner beauty” would have been focused on rescuing Jennifer and salvaging the interview for her. But Kathryn wasn’t here, more’s the pity, and I wasn’t an especially sympathetic judge. We had five minutes.   The first was nearly consumed before oh-so-gleeful Jennifer could re-establish her composure. And then I found out she was doing all this for the promise of diamond earrings. Apparently no one had explained that the politically correct answer to why you were in the pageant, was because you cared deeply about your platform and were looking for an opportunity to advance it. Diamond earrings for yourself? I don’t think so.

Tracy Hilton was my second-to-last interview out of the twelve.   This was the one who on stage had seemed the most “Amy Dorsett-ish” – the most poised, confident, and destined to win. Yet last night for some reason I hadn’t even noticed Kathryn. Maybe I needed glasses.   It’s one thing for justice to be blind, but the judge himself—at least at a beauty pageant—shouldn’t be.

Well, anyone can look nice in a gown. Let’s see how Tracy interviewed. If she hit one out of the park she might tie with Kathryn.

Here she came. The first two things I noticed were her smile, and her confident walk. I suddenly had misgivings about Kathryn. Tracy was ten feet away when I felt her presence wash over me. I wasn’t physically attracted. She wasn’t my type: dark hair, features a bit sharp. On a physical level she didn’t touch me at all. Yet there was something about her. What was it?

Of course all the obvious things were perfect: hair, makeup, professional business attire. (That was the dress code for this event: professional business attire.) We covered the get-acquainted topics quickly, and then launched into the platform issues. Tracy’s platform was dyslexia—a defect she suffered from herself.   But she didn’t suffer from any others. I noticed that Tracy was doing the same thing to the conversation that Kathryn had done: deftly and subtly controlling it. She was doing it the way a skilled female dancer can make an inept male like myself appear to be doing a good job of “leading”.   It was something most wouldn’t notice, but I did. To pull it off, especially to pull it off with me, her poise, self-confidence, and underlying intelligence had to be off the charts.   Was she as good as Kathryn? I couldn’t believe the answer but it was undeniable. She was better.

Where had this woman come from? I wasn’t sure, but I knew where she was going.   If the other judges had the same reaction, she’d win this pageant and go on to become Miss International.   I felt very sad. Kathy Fallon deserved to be the next Miss Minnesota. In any normal year she’d have won hands-down. Kathryn was the best contestant the state of Minnesota could produce. Tracy, I suspected, had been created on a divine level, and injected into these proceedings in some supernatural fashion. One could easily imagine the gods of Mount Olympus peering down to the earthly plain, cheering on their chosen daughter in St. Cloud, Minnesota.   How do you compete with that?

When the interviews were over, all the judges spent considerable time reviewing the scores they’d given, and making a few changes here and there. Mistakes could be accommodated with the other events, but the interviews were 50% of the contestants’ total scores. And it was judged on a 1 to 15 scale, not 1 to 5.

There was no danger of me grouping the scores together too tightly. These contestants were so so far apart you couldn’t have brought their scores together with a vise.

Kathryn and Tracy both got 15’s. That was a no-brainer.

Kimberly and Pamela got 13’s.

Amber earned a 12.

The others were all below that, with my lowest score a 3, going to Jennifer the giggly one. She wouldn’t be giggling when she saw that score.   Giving Jennifer a 3, even though I was only one judge, was probably a death knell to any hope she had of placing in the top five.   And that was as it should be.

Beauty pageant scoring wasn’t about protecting anyone’s feelings. It was about making sure the best contestants ended up in the top spots. Any wishy-washy judge who couldn’t make these hard calls shouldn’t be here.

And if I considered the interviews to be my turf—and it wasn’t my fault I froze up with Kathryn, how could one not?—then it was particularly incumbent on me to make a big statement mathematically. I probably should have given Jennifer a 1, but the 3 was a heavy enough anvil to tie around her neck. Anyway, the diamond earrings from dad would suffice as a consolation prize.

It was not easy, being so callous and judgmental. But I knew how important this was—or at least how important it was seeming in the heat of the moment. I dimly recalled that there was another world out there, a world where U.S. troops were fighting insurgents in Iraq, where genocide was occurring in the Sudan, and where tsunami victims were still trying to put their lives back together in Southeast Asia.   Yet here in St. Cloud we were mere hours away from crowning the next Miss Minnesota, and the important issues were lip gloss, hairspray, eyeliner, glittering gowns, bright lights, and poised interview skills. Anyone who couldn’t take this seriously was, well…

…not fit to be a judge! So there.

The judges and their escorts walked back to the private dining room at the Radisson, where we found Susan deperately curious. She couldn’t ask outright about individual contestants, but could at least pick up vibes.

I was happy to share.

“Here’s a predication, Susan. The woman who wins this Miss Minnesota title is going to go on and win Miss International.”

“No kidding?” said Susan, surprised at my conviction.

“Wow,” said Seven, the experienced pageant judge. “You have one contestant here who totally blew me away.”

“I have no idea how the other judges feel,” said Derry. “But there was one who I consider hands down better than the others. It’s not even close.”

Susan was astonished. This kind of unanimity and certainty of judges was unheard of.

And of course everyone in the room, especially the judges, was desperate to ask: “So which one is it? Are we all talking about the same one?”

I knew it had to be Kathryn or Tracy. Or did it? Three years ago I was amazed not at who won, but how everyone else placed. None of the five runners-up should have placed in that group at all, in my opinion, which was an important lesson to remember: I wasn’t necessarily seeing the contestants the same as were the other judges.

We had the afternoon off, until five p.m. Most judges spent those hours power napping, given their lack of sleep from the night before.   Derry and I decided to go see Minnesota. I brought along a Chamber of Commerce brochure on St. Cloud and the surrounding area. Coming from Minneapolis, we’d seen what scenery there was in that direction: frozen lakes. We chose, instead, to drive northwest.

“It says here,” said Derry, reading the brochure, that St. Cloud is known as “The Granite City.”

“How fascinating.”

“It gets better.   Apparently there was a wall built of granite on some government building. And in 1922 it was declared ‘the largest granite wall in the world.”

“So that’s where the largest granite wall is! At least we’ve cleared up that mystery.”

As we drove contently through commercial retail sprawl, a sign caught my eye. “Granite City Rotary” it said, along with posted times and location.

“There’s a lot of granite stuff in here,” continued Derry. “There’s a Granite City Food and Brewery. The tagline says ‘It’s about People and Food.”

“And granite,” I added.

“Can’t forget the granite,” Derry agreed.   We were warming to this subject, and should have known it was going to get dangerous.

At a stoplight, I read some more of the brochure. Inside the front cover was a big photograph of a yellow forklift truck, holding up a large block of granite.

The text began with: “The Granite City of the World Bids You Welcome.”

“And certainly that would be a warm and inviting welcome indeed,” added Derry.

The story kept me riveted as I read aloud.

“When granite deposits were found along area rivers and in land nearby, the granite industry began to develop. Granite was everywhere, and even today, as you drive through St. Cloud and Central Minnesota, you’ll find buildings, houses, churches, and monuments of all kinds made of granite. One of the largest granite companies in the world is in nearby Cold Spring. At one time the area claimed 19 granite companies, and the granite industry provided thousands of jobs. Most recently, a plan to expand tourism related to this fascinating industry was created, so be sure to watch for details in the future! Call the St. Cloud Visitors Bureau at ……”

“They’re hoping to attract tourists with granite,” noted Derry, non-judgmentally.

“It might work. Consider a young couple looking for a romantic getaway…”

“Or for those who’ve done the beach thing…”

“And been to Europe…” I added.

“They could develop some really enticing travel posters,” said Derry. “Instead of a white sand beach and swaying palm trees there’d be…”

“…a yellow forklift truck, and a big block of granite!” I suggested, completing the obvious vision.

And you know what the best thing about this is?”

“What?”

“Once it catches on in tourist circles, there simply won’t be any competition.”

“Yeah, like someone is going to go visit the world’s second largest wall of granite? How exciting would that be?”

Now that I was driving again, Derry read from page two of the brochure.

“Welcome to Granite Country USA! For many years, the Central Lakes area has been one of the world’s leading producers of granite, and do we have granite for you! From the granite trio of statues in downtown St. Cloud, to the Cold Spring granite quarries, we offer you a look at the beauty of granite and its fascinating history.”

“You know, I’d have guessed granite didn’t have all that exciting a history,” I interrupted. “I just assumed granite more or less stayed in the ground, and didn’t do much, until someone dug it up.”

“Hey, they don’t call it the party rock for nothing,” admonished Derry, who kept reading.

“In addition to granite…”

“Oh, like they need something else?” she noted, as an aside.

“In addition to granite, St. Cloud and the Central Lakes area offer much to residents and visitors alike. We enjoy a superb quality of life here…”

“Well of course they do,” I interrupted again.   “With all that granite, they’re probably in a constant state of euphoria…”

When Derry and I get on a roll, we can keep it going a long time. Soon we were in tears of laughter, building on this granite obsession.

“I have to stop,” she said. “I can’t show up for judging tonight with eyes red and bloodshot.”

“Especially if you have to confess the tears were about…”

“Granite! “ she said.   “They’d probably decide I was too unstable to be a pageant judge.”

“You know, after this Miss Minnesota thing is over, we could roll right into the “Miss Granite USA competition,” I suggested.   “Kind of a consolation prize.”

“Let’s see,” pondered Derry, “for the interviews we could ask them: “Name the three things you like most about granite.   Or maybe: “How has granite changed your life?”

“And the gown competition would be interesting…” I mused.

“Let’s not go there,” implored Derry.

We budgeted an hour to get ready for the black-tie gala event that evening. Derry took meticulous care with her makeup, trying to erase signs of puffy, red eyes. This was the final round of judging, and we had to be serious. We promised each other not to mention the “G” word.

For the judges, tonight’s agenda began with hor’s d’oeuvres in the private dining room, the men in smart-looking tuxedoes, and the women in glorious gowns of their own—not quite pageant-class, but stunning in their own way. Renée’s, perhaps predictably, wasn’t stunning it was scandalous. She’d managed—just barely— to cover up everything important with only a yard of total fabric.

“My boobs won’t fall out, they’re taped in,” she explained to Derry. “I just hope the opaque parts are long enough to do the job. Wouldn’t want a repeat of what we saw last night.”

No, we certainly wouldn’t want that.

SUV’s can surmount most any weather condition. They do well on or off the road. Their size and weight offer protection in the event of an accident.   But they are the worst possible choice for transporting elegant women in formal attire.

Kay, in particular, found it challenging to climb into a vehicle, the floor of which was the same height as her waist, and to do this in high heels. Note to pageant staff: next time, minivans.

We arrived early and the authorities weren’t quite ready to majestically escort us down the aisle to our seats. Nor, of course, could we be allowed to mingle in the lobby and fraternize with God knew whom. So they sent us upstairs, to a private area where we could stay out of trouble.

This interlude proved useful, for someone realized this was the best and last chance to take pictures of our fellow judges. The cameras came out and a photo frenzy descended on all of us.   Since this was a formal pageant event, not merely another round of judging, Tammy Ms. International was required to be in full regalia: gown, sash, and tiara.   The tiara was so large and heavy it had it’s own box, and Tammy preferred keeping it in the box whenever she could get away with it.

“If you have to wear that thing all evening, you’ll get a headache,” she explained.

Since now we were curious, each of us took a turn at placing it on our own heads.   I understood Tammy’s plight immediately. Not only was it heavy, it wouldn’t stay on. The last time I’d tried to keep something on my head—a basket of vegetables in Sierra Leone—a disaster had occurred. Not wanting to be the cause of the crown’s demise, I quickly gave it back.

I was tempted to say: “What’s that thing made of, granite?” But I didn’t want to ruin Derry’s makeup. She tried it next, and it looked much better on her. But we all realized how uncomfortable it was. Quickly the crown changed from being a fun prop to a hot potato. It was finally returned with little dignity to the tiara box.

Soon we took our seats, ready to judge the final competition. There would be no heavy lifting here for the “Miss” team. While our contestants would come back on stage for a final gown review, it mattered not. All that was left to judge was the on-stage interview.   Each contestant would be asked a single question by co-host Kelly Byrne. They had thirty seconds to answer.   The question always pertained to the platform, and was chosen by the pageant staff.

The Miss judges were then to score the performance on a 1 to 5 scale. And that was all we had to do tonight. It was almost too easy. Yet despite the light agenda, the concurrence of the Mrs. and Miss Teen events meant it would be a long evening. Of course I wasn’t worried about the length of the evening because of the intermissions the staff was now providing in the schedule. I’d had plenty of water at dinner, and hadn’t even bothered to use the restroom before entering the room.

We were half an hour into the program when I began to be curious—just mildly so—regarding tonight’s intermission, and precisely when it occurred. I scanned the printed agenda. My God. I’d been tricked. There was no intermission in tonight’s schedule. Were they nuts? Tonight was longer than last night!   How could there be an intermission for one and not the other?

This was serious. I’d had way too much water at dinner to make it through. Dammit! After learning the lesson so well three years ago, and taking all the precautions yesterday, now I was in the same predicament. Well, there was nothing for it. There would come a time when I’d need to leave my seat and, bending down so as not to obstruct the view, sneak over to Susan’s chair and ask for an escort.

The minutes ticked by. Aha! Here was a pause in the action. They’d scheduled kind of a comic relief session: the husbands of the Mrs. contestants were brought on stage to answer questions themselves. This had no impact on the scores. It was merely for fun.

Well, judges have no interest in fun.   I left my chair, and—as unobtrusively as possible—made my way to where Susan was sitting.

“Susan,” I whispered.

“Need a restroom break?” she whispered back.

Susan escorted us through a side door, which was not nearly so noticeable as walking back up the aisles. Seeing what we were about, half a dozen other judges snuck out with us.

“Thank God. I didn’t think I could hold it much longer,” said Susan with relief, after we were out of earshot. “I can only take a restroom break if I need to escort one or more of the judges.”

There were similar relieved comments from others, and several thanked me profusely for initiating the break.   I dismissed their gratitude. As the Senior Judge, these things were expected of me.

This mission accomplished, all of us could now focus much better, which was good as it was time for the on-stage interviews.

This section of the pageant—on-stage questions—has been parodied often, in movies like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Miss Congeniality. This is where you ask “If you had one wish, what would it be?” And the vacuous blonde smiles sweetly, tilts her head, and responds “World peace.”

But pageants have moved beyond that, and the questions now pertain to something specific, in this case, the contestant’s platform.   For example, if your platform was about breast cancer, a typical question might be: “What is the single most important thing people should know about breast cancer, and why?”

They weren’t softball questions. But they weren’t rocket science either. Anyone well versed in her platform would have little difficulty answering extemporaneously. On the other hand, someone inexperienced being on stage might easily freeze and not know how to respond at all.

This happened with two of them. Julie Livesey, winner of the “Hottest Pageant Photo Award”, simply had no idea what to say, and froze. It required all the poise and tact that Kelly Byrne could summon—which was a lot—to help Julie mumble even a few words that might be construed as an answer. As soon as she was able, Julie fled the stage, probably in tears.

A similar thing happened with Jennifer Devlin, still trying to earn those diamond earrings.   She got half her answer out—quite coherently—and then her brain shut down. She mumbled a few incoherencies, and mercifully the thirty seconds was over fast enough to save her further embarrassment.

Pamela Gershwin (“always the bridesmaid, never the bride”; winner of the “Blonde Cliché Award”) was thrown a curve ball. Kelly Byrne read her a question that made no sense to Pamela. Or to me either.

“In addition to the normal ways a big sister can help, what other opportunities are available within your organization?”

Huh? Opportunities for what? Job opportunities? Opportunities to help others?     And which ones are to be considered “normal” for purposes of this question, so I can list the apparently “abnormal” ones you’re asking about?   I immediately created the “Dumbest On-Stage Interview Question Award”, and bestowed it on whomever had dreamed up this doozy.

Meanwhile, Pamela—much more poised and mature than Jennifer or Julie—still had no idea how to answer the question. Nor did I.

“I’m sorry, can you clarify the question please?” asked Pamela, which I thought a wise tactical move.

“Sure,” said Kelly, who proceeded to read the question out again, precisely as she had before.

It made even less sense this time.

Pamela was better on her feet than I’d have been, and simply reviewed the opportunities available in the Big Sister program.   Since no one understood the question, no one could say definitively that she hadn’t answered it. Nice work, Pamela! I gave her a high grade, and wrote a veritable essay on the score card, about how dumb the question was, how I didn’t understand it either, and how well Pamela had done to maintain her composure and respond coherently.   Yet I feared the other judges had only noticed the obvious: that she’d had to ask for clarification, and had paused uncertainly before answering. It wasn’t fair, but when was a beauty pageant ever “fair?”

Not surprisingly, Kathryn Fallon and Tracy Hilton had so much stage presence that even glamorous Kelly Byrne was over-shadowed. They seized on their questions with skillful confidence, delivered well-organized and fluent responses, and managed in the process, to keep smiling continuously at the judges and the audience.   Kathryn’s performance was drop-dead perfect. Tracy’s, unfortunately, was just slightly better.

The final contestant, Carrie Lewis, posed a moral dilemma for me. I already knew whom I wanted to win, and even whom I wanted to see in the top runner-up positions. I wanted to give Carrie an “average” grade in the on-stage question, because I had her pegged as deserving to place somewhere around the middle.   In short, I was improperly using this final competition not to judge fairly, but to help my chosen favorites with more points.

The only problem was, Carrie delivered a stunning performance in this final round. If I was to be honest, she’d handled the onstage question as smoothly and with as much poise as either Kathryn or Tracy.   Yet if I gave her a perfect score, which she deserved, I might tilt the rankings. I’d already circled a “3”, which was the midpoint.

No, I couldn’t do that to Carrie. At some point, one’s integrity kicks in. I crossed out the 3, and circled a 4. That was much better. Yet for some reason I couldn’t turn the page. Finally, inevitably, the hand holding the pen moved very much against it’s will, crossed out the 4, and circled the 5. To hell with the rankings.

“OK, OK, you karma gods!” I wanted to yell. “Are you satisfied now!! Jeesh.”

At last, and inevitably, the big moment arrived. Miss Teen Minnesota was crowned first. For this first year she’d been chosen by selection committee, not by running a judge’s gauntlet.   I found Miss Teen extremely attractive, and decided my son Erik should look her up. If, with my connections, I couldn’t obtain her phone number and email address I was a pretty sorry excuse for a judge.

“Miss” and “Mrs.” were read off next. The runners-up were identified first, and then the final winner—in both Miss and Mrs. categories, were announced almost simultaneously. I was surprised that throughout this pageant, I’d been utterly uninterested in the Mrs. competition, a phenomenon which continued through the end. The “Mrs.” women were strangers.   All I could see, up on stage, were the contestants I’d come to know. And I felt I did know them now; knew their strengths and weaknesses, their mannerisms, their favorite sayings, and even their gowns.   I really, really wanted Kathryn Fallon to win. But Tracy was better. And my own scoring reflected that. If there were no other judges, my scores would guarantee Tracy the winner, and Kathryn as first runner up.   Second runner up, I’d decided, should go to Pamela Gershwin. Third to Kimberly Yashek. And fourth to Amber Holmes.

Here came the announcements. To maximize the drama, and borrowing a page from the Academy Awards, Rich and Kelly took turns opening actual sealed envelopes containing the names of those who placed, as computed by the accounting firm which tabulated the results.

Everyone in the audience was on edge. The contestants were emotionally wound to a fever pitch. And the judges were basket cases.

Fourth runner-up for Miss Minnesota 2005, intoned Rich, is…Kimberly Yashek!

The audience went crazy and Kimberly came down and took her appropriate position on stage. So far so good. I had Kimberly as 3rd runner up. 4th was close enough.

Third runner up for Miss Minnesota 2005, said Kelly into the microphone, is…Kelsey Burdette!

Huh? Who the heck was Kelsey Burdette? I recognized the name, but knew she was in that large pool in the middle, neither the worst nor the best.   She had no business being in the top four. Were the other judges crazy? Were they going to crown Jennifer as the winner? A tiara to go with her diamond earrings?   I was going to be furious with Derry if she’d had any part in such a travesty.

Second runner up for Miss Minnesota 2005 is…Donna Gunson!

What! This was a disaster. Donna was in Kelsey league—average on a good day. The evidence was clear. Someone was bribing the judges. I just hoped Derry had sold her vote for a respectable amount. With two kids in college, we could use the money.

And now…First Runner up for Miss Minnesota 2005 is…Kathryn Fallon!

The room went crazy again, for this resolved everything. With only one slot left, it had to have gone to Tracy. It was simply not possible that Tracy could not have placed in the top five. So clearly she was the winner. Or was she? A panel of judges that could give the second and third runner up positions to the likes of Donna and Kelsey was capable of anything.

Ladies and gentleman, will you now all please rise for the new Miss Minnesota International…   Tracy Hilton!!

Pandemonium.   In the midst of the chaos and celebration, I tried to think coherently. First and second had come in as they should have. Maybe the judges hadn’t been bribed after all. But…where was Pamela? Pamela hadn’t even placed? Always the bridesmaid, never the bride? Poor Pamela wasn’t even a bridesmaid at this pageant. I wondered if it were that onstage question from hell which tripped her up.   Well, Pamela was the most beautiful of them all. She didn’t need a stupid gown, a stupid sash, and certainly not a stupid tiara. At least that’s how I’d be feeling if I were Pamela. In fact, she was probably already planning to change into jeans and head over to the Red Carpet and pick up any guy she wanted, or any combination, just to ease her wounds. I could imagine her slithering up to some hunk at the bar, lowering her eyelids, and whispering in his ear…”zup?”

Meanwhile up on stage, Tracy Hilton was kneeling down while the tiara was affixed to her hair.   She wore a look of disbelief, and an expression of “Oh my God I can’t believe this is happening to me.” In other words, she wore precisely the look a modest yet deserving pageant winner should wear.   Not for the first time, I wondered where in the heck Tracy Hilton had come from. Then I remembered she was divinely sponsored, and owed her success to the deities back on Mt. Olympus which most likely had created her out of one of their ribs or something.

The crown, the sash, the bouquets of roses—all these had been lavished onto Tracy, and she floated elegantly back and forth across the stage, smiling, waving, and blowing kisses—precisely what a pageant winner should be doing.   I felt so bad for Kathryn I couldn’t stand it.

It was milling around time now, up on stage. The winners, the runners up, the pageant officials, the judges, everyone was now up on stage hugging, and smiling, and crying, and hugging some more.   Sigh. I supposed I needed to go up there myself. This was a photo opportunity so lavish my video camera was starting to shake and vibrate in anticipation.

Yet here was something interesting.   First some background. There is a rule, in pageant land, that if you’re a reigning Ms. Anything, from Anywhere, you are obligated to wear your sash and tiara at any formal Ms. Anywhatever event.   Thus it was that throughout the two evenings, Miss Nebraska, Miss Teen Nebraska, and Miss Teen South Dakota, were seated together in the second row, their tiaras glistening, their makeup perfect, and their sashes draped just so – looking like royal princesses condescending to make a brief appearance at a debutante ball in London. Yet as was true of the newly-crowned Miss Teen Minnesota, it was likely they were all farmers’ daughters, coming from those rural Midwestern states. It was possible they’d milked cows yesterday and would milk cows tomorrow. But they weren’t milking anything tonight, not even their status as beauty queens.   I’d watched them out of the corner of my eye since the pageant had begun on Saturday. Priceless little jewels, their backs rigid, staring straight ahead – it was simply not possible to imagine that the natural state for these three very young women would be anything other than laughing and giggling and skylarking around, trying unsuccessfully to hold still in their seats. The lesson seemed to be: put a tiara crown on a very pretty teenage girl and she transforms, magically, into a dignified, elegant, and regal sophisticate.   Or at least tries to.

They can only pull this off, apparently, by staying utterly rigid and motionless. If any of those three had so much as twitched an eyebrow in the last 24 hours, I’d certainly not seen it.   Now, here they were milling uncertainly about the steps leading up to the platform. It looked like they wanted to go on stage and congratulate the newly-crowned winners, but weren’t quite brave enough to do so.

“Do you girls want to go up on stage?” I asked them, being very conscious of my almost limitless plenipotentiary powers as a Pageant Judge, and also having gotten over my reluctance to call young women “girls”. Everyone did, at these pageants.   Girls or Ladies. Both terms were acceptable and used frequently. No one called them women.

“We really want to,” said Miss Teen South Dakota. “But I think we’re supposed to wait until all the photography is over.”

“Let me check,” I assured them, deftly ascending the steps. I found Allison on the far side.

“Allison, you’ve got three reigning queens down there who’d like to come on stage. Can they come up now?” My rapidly increasing fluency in Pageant English was paying off. The phrase “reigning queen” meant they were decked out in gown, sash, and tiara. They weren’t commoners. They would add to the glamour occurring up here, not detract from it.

“Well, the photography’s going on, but if they just want to come up and kind of hover, that’s fine.”

I was tempted to rush back and tell the girls it was OK, but instead I walked back very somberly, not wanting to detract from the awful dignity surrounding a judge, in any circumstance, especially one in a tuxedo.   There they were, the three little princesses, and now they were looking up at me eagerly and hopefully.

“It’s OK,” I announced, as if reading the majority opinion from the bench at an Appeals Court proceeding. “All three of you may come on stage.”

There were actual monitors, one might say well-dressed guards, at each of the two stairs leading on to the stage. When this one heard my pronouncement, he stepped back and waved the girls through. They each looked up at me adoringly, with an expression of infinite gratitude. Or at least I fancied they did.

“Thank you soooo much,” said glamorous Miss Nebraska as she wafted past, expensive perfume lingering in her wake.

I was tempted to wink at the guard and say “It’s OK, they’re with the band,” but I wasn’t sure he’d get the joke.

Soon I was mingling up on stage myself. And the first person I mingled with, making a beeline straight for me, was Amy Dorsett herself. She gave me a big hug. Everyone was giving everyone big hugs.   Amy was not here as a reigning queen, but as pageant staff, so she didn’t have a sash and tiara. But her bright red pantsuit outfit was dazzling. A crown on Amy would have been gaudy.

“So,” I whispered. “How’d we do?”

I knew from experience that there is one contestant the pageant officials themselves are hoping will win. Yet they can never express that before hand…and can do so afterwards only discretely. The judges make the decision, not the pageant officials. Yet the officials know the contestants better than the judges do, and they know who will do best at nationals. That’s who they want to win.

“You guys nailed it!” said Amy gleefully. “You nailed the winner, and the first runner up. You got it exactly right.”

“So I’m two for two?” I asked, smiling.   Amy herself had been the chosen favorite of the officials, three years ago, when I and the other judges had given her the crown.

“Yep! You’re two for two. Nice job!”

Then she leaned close and whispered in my ear “I just wish you guys had judged the Mrs. competition.”

“Why?”

“I don’t think they did as well.”

“Ahhh…. “

So the “Mrs. Team” had essentially screwed up. They’d not chosen the best contestant.   Probably they’d gotten confused with the gowns. It can happen.

Amy drifted away, and here came Kathryn Fallon. I knew it was breaking a cardinal rule of pageant judgeship to say anything to a non-winner except the canned phrase “You were a great contestant.”   But I couldn’t stick to the script.

“I just want you to know,” I said, “that choosing between you and Tracy was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done.   I wish we could have given out two crowns. You were magnificent.”

Kathryn put her arm around my waist, pulled me close, and whispered in my ear.

“Jacques, you made the right choice.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yes, I do. Tracy is unbelievable. You made the right choice. I’m very happy to be first runner up. She deserved to win.”

“Thank you,” I finally said, looking at her intently. “Thank you for saying that.”

Then the photographers came, and we got our picture taken. Before the night was over, every one of us was photographed in every possible mathematical combination with everyone else. I was even photographed in loving embrace with Seven—not that I’ll probably hang that in my office or anything.

There were two more parties to attend, to complete the evening.   I was dreading the first one. It was the “Awards Event”. Here they gave out all the meaningless trophies like Miss Congeniality and so forth. Coffee and ice cream were served, and a few mind-numbing speeches were given. I hated this no less than I’d hated it three years ago.   The winners, and the runners up, had all been chosen. They’d been chosen by us, the judges. And there were ten of us judges in a room full of two hundred or more contestants and contestants’ family and friends.   Everyone could be friendly with everyone else—except no one was friendly with The Judges. We were the reason their precious-little-Susie or oh-so-deserving Monica hadn’t won. Perhaps we were imagining it, but I sensed nothing from this room but hostility. We sequestered ourselves of our own accord this time, in a private ten-person round, up near the stage in the ballroom at the Kelly Inn.

“Does this suck as much as I think it does?” I asked the others.

“Totally,” agreed Renée. “It totally sucks.”

“When can we leave?”

“Not yet, but soon. When the last award is given out, we’re gone.”

The next party was the fun one.   As before, it was held in Allison’s multi-room suite. And the only people invited were pageant staff, judges, former queens, and the newly crowned winners.   Dress code was very strict: jeans, jeans, and only jeans. And all they served was beer and pizza. We could finally relax.

I spent quite a bit of time at this party with Amy, confiding secrets.

“Kathryn Fallon is a real class act in my opinion,” I said to her. “You know what she did?”

“What?”

“After the judging, she told me we’d made the right decision, and that I shouldn’t feel bad for her. She said Tracy deserved to win. Was that incredibly gracious or what?”

“It was incredibly gracious. That was a really nice thing to say.

“I was very impressed.”

“She didn’t mean it of course.”

“She didn’t mean it? Are you serious!”

“Jacques, you are sooo naive…”

Amy wasn’t going to break my obsession with Kathryn that easily. If Kathryn had really not meant it, yet had made me think she did, that was even more impressive.

Amy wanted to explore the possibility of me becoming a professional pageant judge.

“Surely,” I said, “Pageants must be awash in volunteers to be judges.”

“They don’t need judges,” she explained. “They need good judges. You may not believe this, but by choosing two winners correctly, you’re in an unusual position. The pool of good judges isn’t that large.”

“So, how do I break into this field?”

“Allison can break you into it. She’s on the inside. She can circulate your resume. You can judge as many of these as you want.”

“It could get addictive, couldn’t it? I mean, on some level, it’s a totally shallow, pretentious activity, which means nothing. But on the other…”

“But on the other,” interrupted Seven, suddenly appearing in our midst and intruding on our private conversation, “…you get to be surrounded by beautiful women for a whole weekend! Isn’t that right, Amy?”

“You’re pathetic,” she said, tossing a pizza crust at him, which he seemed to take as a form of flirtation.

I spent much of the rest of the evening talking with Kelly Byrne, Rich’s poised and elegant co-host.   She’d changed into a relaxed jogging suit, and kept me entertained with stories of past pageants, of which she’d seen many. Kelly was a very talented singer. After winning the Ms. Minnesota pageant in 2001, she’d begun serving as co-host for that event, enjoying the spotlight of being a medium fish in a tiny pond, as it were.

And the more she talked, the more I realized something about these pageants. The glamour, which we all thirsted for, was home-grown.   There were no television or film producers here from New York or Los Angeles.   In the midst of frozen lakes, wheat fields, and a tourist economy based on granite, these men and women, pageant officials and contestants, judges and reigning queens, had spontaneously generated their own glamour, their own elegance, their own meaning.

It was quite an accomplishment, the more I thought about it. On the one hand, it was so easy to trivialize. This whole thing was a provincial competition of no real significance.   On the other hand… it was a provincial competition of no real significance. But for those involved it was exciting.   Anyone could get caught up in it, and feel their pulse race when the winners were announced.

The next day, all of us would turn back into pumpkins and revert to our normal lives. Even Allison was not a beauty pageant director in real life. She was a brake mechanic for Northwest Airlines.   Miss Teen Minnesota got up each morning and worked on her parents’ dairy farm, milking cows. Seven would return, tomorrow, to his bureaucratic cubicle. We all knew it was make believe. It was temporary. And the glamour was synthetic. But then, what other kind is there?   Anyway, the evening was young and it would be many hours yet before the pumpkin transformations would begin.

I’d scheduled a late flight out of Minneapolis the next day, precisely so we wouldn’t have to get up early. When we finally did, we packed leisurely and then headed off for a final encounter with the Denny’s restaurant, and another episode of eggs and pancakes.   We were part way through it, when Derry realized—to her horror—that one of the contestants was seated in the booth right behind ours.

“It’s Tracy Hilton, and her mom,” explained Derry, in an urgent whisper.

“Don’t worry,” I whispered back. “I don’t think you need to be nervous around Tracy this morning. Anyone else, maybe. But not Tracy!”

That proved to be the case. They finished before us but, as they were leaving, realized who they’d been sitting next to.

“I’m still in shock,” said Tracy, acting the part of a slightly insecure young woman rather than a glamorous pageant queen. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.”

She even performed the dismayed “morning after” scene perfectly.

“Here’s a suggestion,” I said. “Go out that door, and spend the next year being Miss Minnesota. You’re going to be very good at it.”

She smiled broadly, gave me a hug, and then did precisely that.

When she was gone, Derry looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, smiled with pride, and said:

“We are such good judges!”

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