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champagne, hairspray and double-stick butt tape
judging the miss iowa usa beauty pageant
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)
pop culture

Once upon a warm summer’s day, my husband returned from work to say, “I’ve been asked to judge the Miss Iowa USA Beauty Pageant.”

Suuuure you were.

The concept is not that far-fetched. Matt* and I have been asked to do a variety of things in a “professional” capacity. Dress up in an enormous Wisk bottle. Ride an ostrich. Kiss Harry Connick, Jr. Even emcee beauty pageants. You do what you have to do.

So it’s not that far off the asphalt to think he’d be judging the Miss Iowa USA pageant. I just thought Fantasy #3470 had slipped a reality cog. “No, really,” says he. “Well, that’s cool. Have fun,” I say.


A week later, he came home to say, “They need another judge, and wonder if you’d be interested, too.”

Beauty pageants. Please.

“Hi! My name is Candee! I’m studying to be a neurosurgeon. I clean out bedpans at nursing homes. I stay thin because I give food off my plate to underprivileged children. My teeth are capped, my hair bleached, my body Turtle-Waxed, but I believe in real beauty, especially if the Botox is all-natural and, like, you know, not tested on animals. Oh – did I mention I also want to be a model and an actress?”

The quest for the “perfect woman” still seems a bit unreal to me. Brazil, Venezuela, India – these countries have all made beauty pageants a veritable industry. Women are slotted into a conveyor belt and run through a cosmetic makeover assembly line to be molded, sanded, painted and waxed. They are tested in etiquette schools, and rebuilt with silicone parts if that will enhance the chance of winning a Miss World or Miss Universe seal of approval.

In America, what do we need that for? This is a country where arranged marriages are not the cultural norm, where women are more often promoted as equals, not display objects. Yet each year, more than 25 million people tune in to see who will be crowned Miss America or Miss USA. What draws us to this stack and rank system of female order?

Some say it’s a cultural quest for royalty. While the Miss America pageant started in the early 1920s as an Atlantic City boardwalk promotional stunt, Miss USA began shortly after the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 as a bathing beauty activity to draw more visitors to Long Beach, CA. The Miss USA pageant was considered a glamorous event custom-fitted for those with visions of crowns, fur robes and admiring throngs dancing through their heads.

There’s not much difference between the Miss USA and Miss America pageants. Both are heavily involved in promoting education and awareness on myriad charitable issues, such as AIDS, breast and ovarian cancer, and drug prevention for teens. Each contestant also has a personal benevolent crusade. Both pageants provide sizable prize packages that total well into six figures. While the yearlong promotional schedule is beyond grueling, it’s still not a bad haul for speaking well and looking better. The Miss America Pageant does have a talent competition; Miss USA does not. Not that she doesn’t have talent. It just doesn’t involve flaming batons.

So. Me? Judge? As scenes from Drop Dead Gorgeous and Miss Congeniality sashayed through my head, I said, “Of course!”

I made my plans. Retribution for all my gawky freshman days would be bitter, but sweet. My pen would be a sleek titanium nail file, slicing through tripped tongues and plastic smiles. I would not be afraid to weigh contestants on the one-to-ten scale, scraping their anorexic remains off the tray in search of real substance.

A great philosopher (no, really) emailed to say, “The collective self-esteem of a middling corn haven may ride on your decision.”

Little did I know.

We first met our contestants in the interview round. Judges asked a variety of questions in order to gauge a contestant’s personality. We had three minutes. For those of you who have participated in the phenomenon known as the Three-Minute Date, then you know just how hard this really is for both participants, but a quick thinker with a dazzling smile and a twinkling laugh could handle those three minutes as well as any bull rider and not get kicked in the head.

I, being congenial, accepted almost all answers – except the book question. When seeking a well-rounded representative of womanhood for my state, I want more than hip-to-shoulder ratio. I want a woman who ingests an occasional book for enjoyment: so much so that she can actually name, without hesitation, the last one she read.

I don’t care how aligned her ears were to her chin. If I heard crickets chirping in a hotel conference room as the 24-year-old contestant frantically mind-scanned her eighth-grade reading list, she lost a point…or two.

As much as judges talked about the contestants (sometimes like we were selecting USDA prime pork loin for Sunday dinner), we know for certain the contestants talked about us. Previous pageant winners rightfully held high esteem as judges, as did other industry-related notables, like models or heads of talent agencies. I became known as “that freaky judge who asks the book question” and titles of books were quickly tossed about prior to entering my zone. Matt* was instantly notorious for his hard-hitting journalistic attitude, and his ability to make contestants cry.

As I deliberated intellectual points of merit, others reminded me often, “It’s a beauty pageant.” Ah. Right.

Between the Miss Iowa USA and Miss Iowa Teen USA pageants (we actually judged both groups), over 200 young women participated, 141 of which applied the exact same shade of Clairol Sunshine Blonde #386. You really don’t realize what a relief a brunette or redhead can be until that many blondes have glazed you. At one point, there were six Clairol Sunshine Blonde #386s standing in close proximity. It was like staring at a solar eclipse without a piece of pinpricked cardboard.

Preparation H is used in uncommon places. In fact, the combined elemental properties of that tube-encased substance defy explanation, and I would love to design a revamped advertising campaign: “Preparation H – Where Do You Want to be Tight?” Using it for anything other than its intended purpose strikes me as one of humankind’s most peculiar achievements. Like the first guy who ever thought licking a toad would expand his mind.

There is a lot of boob and leg and, consequently, there is ample application of boob tape for uplift and butt tape so swimsuits rollick and roll in the same direction. There is hip thrust in high heels and catwalk attitude, especially during the swimsuit competition. It takes a lot to score a ten in a swimsuit…under florescent lights…skipping in Plasticine heels on a shaky plywood platform to the strains of “If I Only Had a Brain.”

There is much pouting. One contestant had us genuinely concerned that she had ingested pepper spray and couldn’t close her lips for the burning sensation on her teeth and tongue.

Turns out she thought it was a sexy smile.

For me, the hardest element of competition was the evening gown. Almost every single contestant truly looks like a princess. Why, you could give Joe Procopio an updo and slip him into a little taffeta, lace and dangling rhinestones, and he’d score at least a six. It had nothing to do with the cost of the gown, but everything to do with personal style, grace of carriage and eye contact.

While Matt* took great delight in staring at young women in bikinis with his wife in the same room, I surprised myself with comments I never thought I’d say. Comments like, “I’d kill kittens to have an ass like that” and “She really knows how to squeeze those inner thighs” and “Look how perfect the curve fits into the suit.”

I knew this would be a fun and interesting assignment, but had no idea I'd experience this kind of personal transformation.

“Personal transformation” is the key phrase to describe the entire event. There really were contestants studying to be doctors. One knew an extreme amount about dirt. Another was the women’s rights leader on her campus. There was a longhorn cattle expert. A state police officer. An aspiring singer with the voice to support her dreams and another woman who rebuilt a classic car …and yes, even one that posed nude for a certain cotton-tailed men’s magazine.

‘Cause, you know, it's modeling, after all.

We all desire the ability to transform. Once the chrysalis breaks, we want to believe –- especially women –- the entire world is full of possibilities and all are attainable if we put forth the effort. So maybe you really can be a beauty queen and a neurosurgeon at the same time.

One contestant who made the Top Five came up to me after the show, crying all over her taffeta and said, “You were the only judge who smiled all the time. That meant so much to me.”

How could I not smile? I had watched these young women grow just in the course of a weekend. I admired their courage, their moxie. As one former winner said, “Try having 500 people look at you in a swimsuit with 12 judges 16 inches from your bikini line...that’s guts.” While I still don’t agree with factory-issue contestants, I think within every woman is a little girl in her mother’s high heels, tablecloth draped around her shoulders, adorned with a feathered hat and a strand of pearls.

So who can fault a young woman for looking in the mirror each day and saying, “I’m pretty, I’m smart, and doggone it, I want a chance at $150K, a car, and a sparkling crown”?

If it’s there to take, take it, baby.

The Miss USA Pageant will be televised on NBC Monday, March 24th. Check local listings and see Miss Iowa USA, Linsey Grams, at Miss USA. The last Miss USA winner from Iowa was in 1956.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


lady madonna, children at your…
feet? breast? booksigning?
by tracey l. kelley
topic: pop culture
published: 3.26.03

they tried to make her go to rehab
what celebrity excess reveals about society
by tracey l. kelley
topic: pop culture
published: 7.27.11


jael mchenry
2.24.03 @ 10:32a

Was it you or Matt* who was asked to kiss Harry Connick, Jr.? That's what I want to know.

erik myers
2.24.03 @ 10:33a

Preparation H is used in uncommon places.

Like where?

tracey kelley
2.24.03 @ 11:15a

Eyes, thighs, backsides...you get the idea.

Me! I kissed him! Me! siiiiiggggh. Which makes me two removed from Eric McCormack. Tasty.

erik myers
2.24.03 @ 11:47a

No, I don't.

Having never used Preparation H, I'm unfamiliar with exactly what it does, I only have vague guesses revolving around.. well.. you don't want me to go there.

I'm also curious, as I think I've mentioned before, about the Butt Tape concept -- is it a brand name? Like Duck Tape? Because that's what the girls in theater used to use for the same purpose. That or gaffers tape. But double-sided butt tape! That's revolutionary.

matt morin
2.24.03 @ 12:23p

Preparation H - removes bags underneath your eyes. Don't ask how I know that.

Judging a beauty contest was one Fantasy #3470? That's in my Top 100 at least.

Joe would only score a 6 in taffeta and lace if 1)he waxed his back, and 2) I was really drunk.

heather millen
2.24.03 @ 12:26p

I love this, Trace! My aunt was always really involved in the Miss America circuit and so I grew up around this stuff. I was quite the starstruck little girl looking at the beauties and thinking "One day, I'll wear a crown."

But age and time let some of the qualms you started out with here dissipate that fantasy for me. Sure, there's butt tape and vaseline smiles, but some of those girls really are very well-rounded. They just held onto every little girl's fairy tale a little longer than some of us. And there's nothing wrong with that.


matt morin
2.24.03 @ 12:45p

...some of those girls really are very well-rounded.

Heh heh. I bet they are.

tracey kelley
2.24.03 @ 3:49p

Prep H is used for "shrinking tissue." So if you put it around your eyes, you minimize the appearance of wrinkles and bags. If you put it on your thighs, the cellulite seems less noticeable. And so on.

Butt tape sticks to your bum and to the edge of the suit so your suit doesn't ride up while you're prancing across the stage. The last thing you want is to be picking your suit out of your behind in front of the entire audience.

I don't know if it's a brand name. Could be a universal product moniker, like Kleenex.


erik myers
2.24.03 @ 5:56p

You know, this is the kind of thing that tempts me to buy Prep H and try smearing it places... like on other people.


kathy carlton
2.24.03 @ 6:33p

Great piece, Tracey. I guess I won't ever feel comfortable with the concept of beauty pageants. Even you felt that it was important to test the waters regarding whether women who are attractive are also intelligent and well-read. I find the whole concept of judging someone on the basis of their physical appearance distressing, but I recognize that it happens everyday. My concern is that the pageants perpetuate the importance of physical appearance. I don't doubt that the contestants can be both smart and beautiful, but it still gives me the creeps. The writing is first rate; whether your butt is taped or not!
P.S. I think that Joe could score a ten with the right make-up, hair style and gown.

matt morin
2.24.03 @ 6:42p

I think we talked about this on the boards, but why is being judged on your mental abilities OK and being judged on your physical appearance not?

With both you're born at a certain baseline. You have to work hard at both. So what's wrong with being judged on one and not the other?

tracey kelley
2.24.03 @ 7:10p

I suppose it's perception. Most of the young women I met were attractive and intelligent - however, there were more than a few self-centered pretty idiots. When it came to representation, I wanted to believe that, indeed, an intelligent and captivating young woman existed. Therefore, I set out to find her. I believe - though I know it's not the common belief - that finding a woman with both should always be the goal.

Matt also - whether right or not - used this standard. His attitude was if Miss USA was going to have a meeting with the President, he wanted someone that not only looked good in pictures, but could carry herself well and engage in intelligent discussion.

From what I witnessed, the pageant coordinators work really hard. While some things that can fixed cosmetically in a few months, they don't have the time to work on speech, mental gymnastics, dinner-table banter and so on.

Kathy - thanks. My butt is not taped, but it needs to be.

heather millen
2.24.03 @ 7:14p

I believe - though I know it's not the common belief - that finding a woman with both should always be the goal.

I completely agree, Tracey. I think the woman that holds these titles has a bigger responsibility than just looking good in the parades. Even when I was young around the Miss America Pageants, I looked up to a select few of the women, not because they were just beautiful, but also talented, poised and confident.

matt morin
2.24.03 @ 7:17p

So what's the intelligence version of "self-centered pretty idiots"?

"Snobby, know-it-all intellectuals?"

Yes, agreed - both intelligence and beauty should be the goal. I've just never understood why some people find it OK to judge someone based on their intelligence (SAT or IQ scores for example) but not judge someone based on their beauty.

I wonder if Kathy has the same adversion to colleges using SAT scores to judge students as she does pageants judging beauty contestants.

eloise young
2.24.03 @ 7:40p

All of what I know about Preparation H comes from the diagrams in Austin Powers III - which I just saw again in the cabin of a small boat. Coolness.

jael mchenry
2.24.03 @ 9:07p

People get judged on their beauty every day, Matt, don't be naive. Those of us who disapprove are in the minority. For heaven's sake, they put "Are You Hot?" on TV. It's like a game show for hot exhibitionists, and it no doubt gets better ratings than a game show would in that time slot. And don't try to tell me game shows are all about brains, even.

tracey kelley
2.24.03 @ 10:09p

You hot Jeopardy finalist, you.

If someone has the good fortune and good genes to look fabulous, that's just part of the process, in life or in beauty pageants. And, truly, there is only so much plastic surgery and exercise can fix. So while I admire someone who has great style, elegant poise and good cheekbones, I believe that improving your mind and awareness of life and others is more important.

Intellectual capabilities seemingly have no boundaries. Maybe not everyone is Stephan Hawking, but every day is a chance to learn something new. You can choose to be an 'expert' in one subject matter entirely, or continue to build knowledge in a variety of subjects. I think that more people -male or female- should dedicate themselves to improving their total being as avidly as some do matching finger and toenail polish.

Hence my pursuit of the "total package" when judging: one I strongly believe many women are more than capable of presenting in life or in pageants.

heather millen
2.24.03 @ 10:33p

"Hear hear" for the total package, Trace! I'm fine with the fact that people are judged on their looks. Everyone's guilty of it at sometime. I just have a problem with someone who is okay with working only to improve their looks. I don't care how hot you are, there is no excuse for doing nothing to expand your mind and become a better all-around person for it.

Men, women... everyone has the capacity to be the sexiest, smartest, most intriguing person they can be. I see no reason to weigh one over the other.

robert melos
2.25.03 @ 2:17a

Tracey, you made me laugh out loud. I loved it.

Um, I do know someone who could make up any guy to look so much like a girl you'd have trouble telling the difference from a foot away, and that would be in a backless evening gown. (Joe, you could stand a chance of scoring a 8 or 9. Live the dream!)

Tracey, were you surprised by any of the answers to the book question?

tracey kelley
2.25.03 @ 10:39a

Surprised? No. There wasn't a single book, even by the "older" contestants that I hadn't heard of. But again, the fact that some contestants could actually name something relatively recent or important (to them)was key.

Funny. One book mentioned a lot was "Tuesdays with Morrie"

Heather - exactly.

sarah ficke
2.25.03 @ 10:51a

Have you read "Tuesdays with Morrie"? I saw the play recently in New York and I am curious about how the book came off. I haven't read it yet, though.

erik myers
2.25.03 @ 11:00a

It can probably be seen as "deep" but more than anything it's just an interesting viewpoint of death from somebody (Morrie) who obviously really loved life.

More than anything, it's sad and it's funny, but it's nothing really profound or life-altering or anything like that.

adam kraemer
2.25.03 @ 11:36a

I think we're missing a very important point here. Did any of the contestants get it on backstage?

heather millen
2.25.03 @ 1:26p

"Tuesdays with Morrie"? Well, it does have a sort of mainstream intellectual stigma. And a pretty safe bet choosing a book with a movie as well. Not that I'd accuse beauty contestants of ever doing any such thing!!

Didn't love it. I think I liked it enough at the time, but until now really didn't remember reading it.

tracey kelley
2.25.03 @ 4:06p

We just received some pics from the coordinators. I'll see what I can do about creating a link. Some of them are interesting.

To answer your question, Adam, not scandalously interesting, but still.

kathy carlton
2.25.03 @ 6:45p

Matt, yes, I do object to using the SAT or anything as a single measure of a person. I am put off by any criteria that makes a snap, unilateral decision about someone.
Tracey, I think that you are right about the well rounded approach. I think that there is a definite bias toward physical appearance when it comes to judging women. That is too bad because most women have so much more to offer. And, yes, I do realize that men are judged unfairly as well.
Anyway, great article and mine isn't taped either, but could really, really use it at my age.

kathy carlton
2.25.03 @ 6:45p

PS Joe is a ten no matter what the outfit. k

tracey kelley
2.25.03 @ 10:03p

I think if Joe wore sky-blue flowing chiffon, his marks would increase considerably, yes.

I have a definite problem with the double-standard - yet, what do these pageants prove? If the women are willing to participate because there is a large reward for them, why not? Is it choice, is it capitalizing on that standard, or are they victims of an unfair society?

I find standardized aptitude tests somewhat necessary, but still unfair to force a student's abilities into a score. It doesn't truly prepare them for the real world.

robert melos
2.25.03 @ 11:37p

If the women are participating of their own free will and desire to "Win! Win! Win!", then there is nothing wrong with the pageants because the women are using the pageants just as the pageants are using the women. Yes, it is promoting the ideal of looks being more important than they should be, but looks are important. I've yet to hear a woman state "Forget Prince Charming, give me the frog." I have heard "Forget Prince Charming, I want the Big Bad Wolf!"

Our society is shallow when it comes to looks, and nothing will change that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


adam kraemer
2.26.03 @ 10:04a

Well, I think the point here is that to ignore someone's beauty in, you know, a beauty contest seems a bit misguided.

tracey kelley
2.26.03 @ 11:11a

Oh, you most certainly need to look for a knockout. But that doesn't mean her brains have to be knocked out as well.

Jokes heard on Whose Line last night under the category "Questions You Wouldn't Ask Miss America":

'Miss Illinois: Are those real?' and if you are an Intrepid Premium Member, you'd know just how funny this line is in correlation to this particular column.


'Miss Kentucky, can you pick up a quarter without using your hands?'

These are the typical stereotypes, are they not?

adam kraemer
2.26.03 @ 12:03p

Well, I'd argue that "airhead" and "stripper" can be two different things.

robert melos
2.26.03 @ 1:01p

'Miss Kentucky, can you pick up a quarter without using your hands?'

Answer: 'I can do a lot of things without using my hands, Sugar.'

The problem with being beautiful, is you often are patronized, while those who are beauty challenged are often put in the high pressure position of having too much expected of them. If you can combine brains and beauty, you are considered a deadly weapon. Given the current state of world affairs, I think, in a beauty contest capacity, contestants should be of weapons of mass distraction quality.

adam kraemer
2.26.03 @ 3:57p

And with the talent portion, they're a triple threat.

tracey kelley
3.10.03 @ 8:09a

Heh. Dave Barry's column on cow judging is udderly ridiculous.

Making Cow Udder's Attractive


tracey kelley
3.24.03 @ 10:24p

Okay, even though our Iowa darling didn't crack the top 10, I still want to make a prediction.

Top 5: Tennessee, Hawaii, Alabama, Mass., and South Carolina.

In a few minutes, we'll see what happens.

tracey kelley
3.24.03 @ 10:36p

Okay, I picked 3 of the 5 - Tenn., Ala., and Mass., not a bad record. The other 2 now are Michigan and Texas (who, technically, I should have picked instead of SC)

Texas is GORGEOUS, as is Alabama, and both have amazing presence. Tennessee also has wonderful poise, and Mass. is spunky and pretty. Michigan? Okay, but not stunning.

Right now, my money is on Alabama or Texas.

russ carr
3.24.03 @ 10:43p

You may be the only person in the nation watching this, Tracey.

Honestly, I don't think I've watched a pageant since I was 8 or so. Still, it would've been fun if Miss Iowa had made it into the last few...

tracey kelley
3.24.03 @ 10:49p

Actually, more than 13 million people watch each year.

I was disappointed Linsay didn't make it, because I know she's worked really, really hard. She's a member at my health club, so we've kept up with how hard she's been preparing. But she's still having a good time.

But once she didn't make it, and neither did another great young woman we met, Miss Wisconsin, I was curious what the national judges were looking for and what they decided on.

tracey kelley
3.24.03 @ 10:58p

Zounds. I lost money on Mass., Susie Castillo, but Alabama was 1st runner up, and Texas 2nd. So apparently I learned something last year.

Miss Mass.,was okay, but I really, really thought the other 2 had it all. Plus Miss Mass. had a -very- padded gown, which, to me, made her seem a bit out of balance.

But, she has a fresh, different look. That seems to be more important recently.
Miss USA 2003


russ carr
3.24.03 @ 11:19p

I see what you mean about the "different" look. I would have probably picked Texas instead, and certainly would have preferred Hawaii to Michigan. At least looking at the mug shots on the website, Tenn. comes across as least model-y. while Alabama looks destined for Baywatch: The Next Generation...

russ carr
3.24.03 @ 11:31p

For the record, Missouri's "delegate" is downright scary looking. Like the second coming of Margot Kidder.

Finally got Linsey's page up, too. Gorgeous gal. As is MN.

Best part about all these delegates' pages? Reading the bios and getting gems like this: "Later, while searching for her biological parents in Korea, she ate silkworm larvae, chicken rectum and clotted blood soup all in the same day." (Miss WI) Priceless.

russ carr
3.24.03 @ 11:42p

"Her strongest talents are vocal performance, piano (17 years of training), spontaneous alphabetization, ear music, Kermit the Frog impressions." (Miss SD)

Just what is "spontaneous alphabetization"?

matt morin
3.25.03 @ 12:20a

Russ - I'm watching it on west coast time right now and I just said "Ew...Missouri is BAD."

See, I like North Dakota.

juli mccarthy
3.25.03 @ 12:59a

Miss Mass. is just lovely. Did she win it? I'm having trouble parsing the posts above...

russ carr
3.25.03 @ 8:33a

Belatedly: Yeah, ND was (is) hot. I didn't want to go thru all 51 and single out my top 5, but she'd definitely make it.

And yes, Juli, Miss Mass won.

tracey kelley
8.12.03 @ 8:32p

Yay! So far, our Miss Iowa Teen USA is in the top 15! Matt and I both gave her quite high marks.

It would so rock if she won.

(Miss Teen Pageant is on NBC right now)

russ carr
8.12.03 @ 11:52p

Geez, I saw your post too late to switch it on...who won?

Miss Teen Iowa: Mercy!

tracey kelley
8.13.03 @ 2:42a

Miss Oregon. Who, when the top 5 were announced, I placed a bet on for the winner. Matt didn't like her -he thought Tennessee had it.

We're very, very surprised Alyssa (Miss Teen Iowa) didn't place higher than top 15 - but she did make that, and that's pretty great. You can see her on the same link I posted above.

russ carr
8.13.03 @ 10:25a

I'd let her climb my telephone pole any time.

tracey kelley
8.13.03 @ 10:36a

Yeah, she's a cutie. She's makes it all work to her advantage.

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