When I was growing up, the Miss America Pageant was a big deal. It was a TV Event. Everybody watched it, and believe it or not, you youngsters out there, along with their name, state, and future aspirations, the announcer would call out each contestant’s weight and measurements. Ah, yes, the elusive 36-24-36. This is not a good thing for an overweight little girl to hear. For years I wondered why I could never attain those magic numbers. Then I was introduced to a little thing called genetics.
Even in what we’d like to think of as enlightened times, the Beauty Myth lingers on. It beams into our brains from countless TV ads. It stares at us out of airbrushed magazine covers. And the biggest culprit of all? Those pageants for little girls. Growing up anywhere is a challenge, but growing up in the South has an added element of pressure because no matter where you look, there’s a beauty pageant: Junior Miss, Little Miss, Tiny Miss, Baby Miss, Little Miss Fetus, Little Miss Zygote. If you’ve seen the horror show that is “Toddlers and Tiaras,” you have some idea of the problem, and it’s not the kids.
Now what would make you take your perfectly normal and lovely little four-year old, who has no concept of pageant competition and would rather not spend hours practicing how to walk and stand, spray tan her, put on false teeth, false eyelashes, fake nails, pounds of make up, tons of hair, and a stiffly jeweled dress that costs more than her truck-drivin’ daddy makes in a year? I’ll tell you. Because Mom wants to be Miss America. Mom has always wanted to be Miss America, and if she didn’t, you can bet her mom or grandmother did. She grew up, got married, maybe got a little stout, maybe never was 36-24-36, or tan or blond or had perfect teeth, and the fact that she is a wonderful wife and mother was never celebrated. In order to have self-worth, she has to be the prettiest, and if she can’t be the prettiest, then her daughter will be, no matter how much time and money it takes. If a young woman is old enough to make her own choices, wants some experience on stage, and needs scholarship money, that’s one thing. If you’re three or four years old, it’s not your choice. You want to please Mom.
It’s interesting that the Miss America Pageant is now telecast on channels like CMT and TLC and isn’t the draw it used to be. Magazines and TV programs now show all kinds of women. We’re beginning to realize how much damage can be done by images of perfect figures and perfect smiles: anorexia, bulimia, plastic surgery overload, and self-esteem issues. But the Little Miss Perfect Pageants rage on. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the appeal of a plastic tiara.
In my mystery novels, my main character, Madeline Maclin, is an ex-beauty queen and fledgling PI, who is often judged unfairly because of her looks, but in an opposite and equally damaging way: because she’s attractive, she must be dumb. Her mother was one of those intensely competitive Pageant Moms and has never forgiven Madeline for giving up the chance to be Miss America. So while Madeline is trying to prove herself as a detective and sort out her feelings for her best friend and future husband, Jerry Fairweather, she gets to tote along this emotional baggage, and I get to poke fun at the pageant world.
In A Case of Imagination, Madeline and Jerry travel to the small fictional town of Celosia, NC, because Jerry’s uncle has left him an old house. Jerry’s very happy with the house because it looks haunted, and his idea of a good time is to hold fake séances and take peoples’ money. Madeline wants to start her own detective agency and doesn’t want to have anything to do with pageants, but the Miss Celosia Pageant is being sabotaged, and the director pleads for her help. When one of the contestants is found murdered backstage, Madeline has her first chance to prove herself as a detective, and her knowledge of the pageant world is a plus. In the sequel, A Hard Bargain, while trying to discover the identity of Celosia’s own Bigfoot, Mantis Man, Madeline is plagued by a couple of rabid fans, whom Jerry dubs “The Pageantoids.” In the third book, A Little Learning, while investigating the death of an unpopular teacher, Madeline has to fend off another teacher, who is determined to have Madeline coach her girls for a Little Miss Pageant. Solving mysteries will give Madeline a true sense of purpose, something a little more important than a sash and a tiara.
Jane Tesh lives and writes in the small town of Mt. Airy, NC, otherwise known as Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. When she isn’t writing, she’s playing the piano for community theater productions, teaching aerobics, or traveling. She’s writing another mystery series that has nothing to do with pageants. Her web site is www.janetesh.com. Her books may be purchased through Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com and Poisoned Pen Press.com.