Identity It's not all crowns and gowns

Glitz and glamour, plus fire skills and push-ups

At niche pageants, women – and men – get their moment in the spotlight, and not just because of their looks. The underlying idea, some pageant experts say, is to offer contestants something more than a crown.

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The first Miss America beauty pageant was held on Sep. 8, 1921, in Atlantic City, N.J. Source: “American Experience”/PBS

Perle Noire debuted The Noire Pageant as a way for burlesque performers of color, such as herself, to celebrate each other. She wanted to counter the belief that beauty and glamour belong only to “beautiful blondes with blue eyes.” 

Noire’s career began in 2003 in New Orleans, when she auditioned for a part. “I found out about all of this rich burlesque Black history,” she said, adding that she discovered Josephine Baker who found fame in France as a cabaret performer.

“The first time I performed burlesque was the first time I truly felt accepted by others and by myself,” said Noire, who has been featured in many publications, including Cosmopolitan magazine. “For the longest time I was the only Black international headliner in the world.” 

Noire said the burlesque community dubbed her “Mama Perle,” the result of her work helping others find their own way in burlesque. She used her status and her name to get buy-in from 35 sponsors, such as MAC cosmetics, for her pageant. She invited contestants to enjoy an opening night party at her house with food provided by a private chef.

“I am proud and saddened to say The Noire Pageant made history being the first burlesque pageant for Black and brown people,” Noire said. Proud because she created the event. Sad because the first one didn’t happen until 2020.

The competition, open to men and women, at the House of Yes in Brooklyn, New York, included two showcases that featured fire eaters in drag and traditional Thai dancing. Contestants paid a $15 entry fee and submitted two videos. A king, a queen, a duchess and a princess were crowned, but the 15-city tour was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 pageant, Black and Brown Excellence, was held online March 12-13.

Sage Sovereign performs with fire during the talent portion of The Noire Pageant for burlesque performers held March 14, 2020, at the House of Yes in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Jane Kratochvil)

Not all pageants are beauty contests. Jas Boothe, founder of the Ms. Veteran America, said the event is less about pageantry and more about competition. Yes, there’s an evening gown competition but there is also a contest for the most GI Joe-style push-ups.

Boothe, a disabled Army veteran, said she created the Ms. Veteran America event because “women that serve in the military give up so much of their femininity to serve, which they shouldn’t.” The first competition was launched in 2012.

Boothe said she started the competition so women would have a support system. “I think women get different things from it,” she said. “Getting to know they do matter. Getting to see how amazing and how beautiful they are. Finding that person inside that they tuck away for a little while in order to serve.”

For every Miss America or Miss Universe pageant, there is a nontraditional competition such as Ms. Veteran America or The Noire Pageant. That makes for a lot of pageantry, so Steven Roddy started Pageant Planet, a global online database. 

The website is the pageant version of wedding site The Knot, with everything pageant-related in one space, from coaching contestants to makeup and gowns. Pageant Planet has more than 7,000 pageant directors and highlights traditional pageants and lesser-known competitions.

The Ms. Wheelchair America competition, celebrating nearly 50 years of crowning achievements in August 2021, honors women for their community outreach. 

TaLisha Grzyb from Delaware was born with congenital muscular dystrophy, but she has never let her condition slow her down. She’s a college graduate, mother to three kids and was crowned 2020’s Miss Wheelchair Delaware. “I would like to inspire others, just by me living my life. Everything is possible,” Gryzb said. (2020 photo by Marcus Cooper/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Ms. Wheelchair America is featured in “There She Is,” a 2020 documentary by Tracey Anarella, available on Amazon Prime. What the documentary doesn’t tell viewers, Shelly Loose is happy to fill in. 

“Our competition has never had a beauty factor,” said Loose, pageant president and the 2007 Ms. Wheelchair Michigan. 

“Physical beauty has never been judged,” Loose said. “Contestants are judged on advocacy, public speaking and their adjustment to their disability.”

The Ms. Wheelchair America entrance fee is $2,000. Loose said the fee pays for a week’s stay at a hotel, meals, workshops and daily activities, such as a welcome dinner. One year, pageant officials arranged a scavenger hunt in the host city and another year, contestants learned swing dancing.

Ms. Wheelchair America 2020-21 is Hilary Muehlberger, the first winner from Missouri in the pageant’s history.

At the virtual 2022 Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, scheduled for Aug. 9-15, contestants might be asked how they would design the perfect wheelchair, Loose said. It’s been one of the questions used in past pageants.

Ms. Wheelchair America contestants must use a wheelchair 100% of the time in their community, which means using a wheelchair in public. “Standing at your counter washing your dishes is not going to disqualify you,” Loose said.

Most national contestants are state winners but in states where there isn’t a Ms. Wheelchair pageant, contestants can connect with the program through the website. 

“I stalk women in wheelchairs,” Loose said. “I can say that because I’m one. If I’m out and about and I see someone in a wheelchair, it’s not uncommon for me to say something.”

In most pageants, traditional or not, the underlying idea is to offer contestants something more than a crown. Roddy, who deals with more traditional events, said it’s easy to poke fun at pageant competitions but “woe is the person who has to interview against” a pageant winner for a job. 

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Kathy Flanigan

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Episode It's not all crowns and gowns