You Go, Girls!

True glamour is something I achieved one night three years ago, when I accessorized a $15 silver evening gown from TJ Maxx with plaid Wile E. Coyote sneakers and a child's toy tiara. Although I have not worn the dress since, the tiara has proved a remarkably useful hair ornament, good at containing the end result of the three-part process I go through every time I remember my hair is turning gray. First it's panic, then a drastic impulse to experiment, followed by a deep sigh of what-the-hell--and the tiara.

Although the tiara is my only lasting bid for glamour, I have an innate understanding of the beauty industry, gained from the reading I do at checkout stands and from living through many Septembers, a month marked as much by beauty pageants as it is by turning aspen leaves.

One glance through Michelann Sweeney's front door and I know fall is right around the corner. She answers it--after first clearing two miniature schnauzers out of her way--dressed in a white mini-dress shot with gold lame, shimmering gold pumps, a heavily beaded choker, several layers of turquoise eye shadow, elbow-length gloves and big, big hair to which she adds, while I watch, a Scarlett-O'Hara-meets-Joan-Collins hat, in non-muted shades of silver and gold. Then she leads me past a sewing machine festooned with glitzy fabric and a table piled with head shots to a pair of straight chairs, where she sits down with her legs crossed at the accepted pageant angle.

Michelann is 46 and weighs nearly 200 pounds. For the first time in her life, she has the beauty thing completely figured out. On September 26 she will compete in her first contest judged on looks alone--the Plus USA Woman pageant. She is almost unbearably excited about this.

"Well. Okay. Well," she says, trying to compose herself. "In June, I got this letter: Congratulations, Michelann! You, out of 800 contestants, have been selected. Delta Burke to host! Evening gowns and career wear!

"We think Oprah's gonna stop by," she adds. "She and Delta are best friends. It's a whole new world opening up for me."

Of the seventy contestants, Michelann will be the only Coloradan, and she finds even this detail delicious. She didn't start out as a Coloradan, any more than she started out as a plus-sized beauty queen and "image consultant." In fact, the first few decades of her life were low on prospects and high on setbacks.

"I came out here from the Cleveland area in the Eighties," she recalls. "My husband at the time had gotten a job, and we uprooted. He left me to sell everything--the furniture, the riding mower--and bring our little son out here. And then he lost the job."

The marriage faltered. Michelann's husband was more of a drinker than a worker, and she promised herself that she'd stay wed to him only until their son, Shea, started school. After that, she remembers thinking, "Why chase a turnip?" So on Shea's first day of kindergarten, she filed for a legal separation, withdrew the last twenty bucks from her savings account and started an interior design company. Then she stepped on a scale for the first time in years, discovered she weighed 246 pounds and set about losing weight. With the help of Overeaters Anonymous and lots of diet soda, she got down to a size 12 and stayed there for ten years, the high point of which was writing an essay for the "Success Stories" column of Shape magazine.

"At that point I weighed 148, which was perfect, and I was very anxious that I never let that weight come back, no matter what," she says. "But this last year, I gained back forty pounds of it. And if you don't think I feel bad..."

What I don't think is that those forty pounds can be squarely pinned on a NutraSweet addiction, but that is what Michelann decided, and so she began investigating aspartame in that extremely thorough way that is her trademark. At the beginning of the year she gave up diet soda, cold turkey--and that made everything worse. Burned out on interior design, she folded her business and devoted most of her time to studying herbal medicine, looking for any cure, however vague.

"I was so pissed off," she remembers. "I thought, what is God doing to me? And then one day last February, I was walking through a supermarket--which, let's face it, I love to do--thinking how fat I was. And I walked by this Mode magazine."

Mode ("Style Beyond Size") contained stories on large-and-fashionable ways to look while snowboarding, eating pizza, sunbathing, going to work, dating--while living life in general. The models pictured in it, though twenty years younger than Michelann, reminded her of herself. So when she turned the page to the application for the Plus USA Woman pageant--not just a beauty contest, but an entire large-sized symposium with seminars on "Living Large and Loving It" and "Plus Modeling"--it seemed a perfect fit. Michelann fired off an application and was thrilled to receive an acceptance letter that told her she'd been chosen from "hundreds of applicants." (It also reminded her to send in the $300 entry fee right away.)

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