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.)
"A whole weekend of big women coming out of the closet," she marvels. "It has changed my life. I now do image consulting at $75 to $150 per hour, I have Lancome on the back burner as a sponsor, I'm in a national pageant, I'm a valued commodity. That weekend, people from New York and Beverly Hills will be flying in to meet with me. I get to meet with Delta Burke. I want to work with her and teach young women about eating disorders, and I want--"
On a smaller scale and a few subdivisions away, Elizabeth Lowey and Nancy Larson also are warming up for pageant season. This September 19, as they have every third Saturday in September for the past 23 years, they will sit together in front of the TV, their own tiaras firmly in place, watching the Miss America Pageant and trying to guess who will be our ideal.
"We critique outfits and make fun of the big hair," Elizabeth says. "And we do it because this is glamorous. It's fun to watch the bathing suits and evening gowns. Also, I'm pretty good at picking the winners."
"We don't take it seriously," insists Nancy.
"Although it is hog heaven," Elizabeth admits.
Nancy and Elizabeth discovered their mutual love of beauty contests as next-door neighbors in Denver, back when Elizabeth was fifteen and Nancy was twelve. Almost immediately, in a moment of heavy foreshadowing, Elizabeth entered Nancy in what she remembers as a "silky hair contest," coached her through the necessary shampooing and conditioning, and watched her blow-dry her way to victory.
For many years after that, however, their dabbles in the beauty business were limited to Miss America-watching, except for one time in college when Elizabeth entered a pageant in Southern California and placed in the top five. "We're testing the memory here," she says. "I think it was called the Miss Teen Something or Other Contest, and that's about all I remember." At the time, she had a job driving semi-truck loads of horses up and down the California coast, and that didn't leave much room for glamour. Then, after moving back to Colorado, Elizabeth got into real estate and was too busy to even consider pageantry.
Nancy, meanwhile, went to Smith College, got a degree in clinical social work and set up a private practice in Boulder. (She also works part-time as the Westminster High School social worker.) By last year both women were married, with one toddler and one demanding day job apiece.
Clearly, some serious escapism was in order. So in June 1997 they attended their first live pageant: Mrs. Colorado, held at the Denver Auditorium Theater. "We sat there, and let me tell you, it was bliss," Elizabeth recalls.
"Twelve hundred people in the audience," Nancy offers. "They narrow it down, the tension builds, you're on the edge of your seat, watching for that I've-got-this-pageant-sewn-up look, or the Oh-my-god-ME? look of genuine surprise."
By the time the pageant ended, Nancy had decided she needed to get involved either as a judge or as a contestant--and since she had no judging "credentials," she made a momentous decision. "It was time," she recalls, "to be a glamour-puss. I had always focused on the intellectual part of my life. I had been a size 14 at Cherry Creek High School, which is the kind of place where if you don't look like Buffy, forget it. I had had a baby, and she was three, and it was time for me. It was time, at last, to play dress-up."
If dress-up this grueling can be considered play. Coached by Elizabeth, who became pregnant during the pageant-training period, Nancy hired a personal trainer, went from a size 14 to a 6 and began researching such va-va-voomish subjects as evening gowns, makeup and hair. "It turned out I was a closet beauty queen," she says.
"And I," Elizabeth adds, "was a closet agent."
On a trip to New York, during which Nancy wore her tiara everywhere "and got treated like a princess" and Elizabeth talked in taxicabs on her cell phone, the two met up with makeup artist/clothing designer Julio Albelo, who happened to be working behind an Estee Lauder counter at the time. Sucked into their vortex, Julio performed a five-hour makeover, designed an evening gown on the spot and recruited his brother-in-law to sew it, and agreed to come to Colorado for the pageant.
"Then he rolled up his sweatpants, put on a pair of four-inch heels and taught me how to walk," Nancy says. "It was the time of our lives."
When pageant weekend rolled around this summer, Elizabeth was nine months pregnant and Nancy was ready to roll. Fifty of the women's friends and family members, each of whom had shelled out $15 for a ticket, arrived for the show. Nancy's husband was among them, "mystified by the glamour thing," she says, "but supportive of people who follow their dream." From the very beginning--a production number in which the contestants sang and danced to the strains of John Cougar Mellencamp--Nancy was in her element. She loved the audience, the judges and her fellow contestants, "who were 42 of the nicest women you'd ever want to meet. It was Mrs., as opposed to Miss, so there wasn't too much ego going on. People shared their pageant secrets, and yes, someone sprayed something on my butt to keep the bathing suit from riding up."
A cloud falls over the conversation at the mention of this fateful garment. "We made a bad bathing suit decision," Elizabeth confides.
"It was brown and modest, with a high neck," Nancy says. "It didn't show enough boob."
According to a pageant muckety-muck, who spoke with Nancy confidentially after the weekend was over, that bathing suit was the sole reason why she'd placed thirteenth in a pageant whose first cut narrows contestants down to twelve. "I wasn't trying to be a sexy mama for my man, or any man," Nancy now realizes. "The whole weekend was actually more about girl power, and as far as I was concerned, it had nothing to do with sex or men. I blew it."
Not exactly. She won Mrs. Congeniality, spent a weekend in hog heaven and emerged committed to the glamorous life. Soon after the pageant, she signed with the Maximum modeling agency; she's now in the middle of "putting together a 35-year-old ancient geriatric model portfolio. There's a huge market. I'm positioned as kind of a mom," she says happily. "I want to use the notoriety to talk about depression awareness, and I won't stop until I'm the Dr. Art Ulene of mental health."
In that case, I ask, how about an official Ulene-type statement about JonBenet Ramsey and her pageant career?
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"I am very strongly opposed to child pageantry," Nancy says, seizing the topic. "It's overly sexualized and overly provocative. Children need to build their self-esteem on intellectual, scholastic and athletic abilities, and not on looks. There's plenty of time later for the superficial thing I'm doing now."
"What about you?" I ask Elizabeth, who, though only one month postpartum, is already wearing her hair in a languorous up-do and has slipped effortlessly into advising Nancy about the crucial differences between modeling clothes that are plain white and those that are "more the color of French vanilla ice cream."
"Me?" she asks. "I don't think so. Nancy's my best friend, and it's fun to watch her evolve into a Mrs. Colorado. For me, though, beauty is a spectator sport."
Tell me about it.