deft about it, her chestnut hair aflow–steps through the pageant turnaround,
through that smooth series of steps and pivots–hup, hup, hup and turn–with
which you, dear girl, must turn when, in a pageant, fate mandates that you must
right, left, and–"
black boots, a pink turtleneck sweater against the chill of this cavernous Lafayette
St. rehearsal loft, which is gray-lit like the world itself on this wettest
of Sunday winter mornings. Also she wears black stretchy pants appropriate for
light physical exertion. Girls cluster around her near where she holds court
in the middle of the floor. They shuffle their feet, imitating her.
easy, it’s just–"
left, right, left and freeze–and then a 180-degree twirl. And the
left foot you led with when you froze is now your rear foot as you face the
direction from which you came. (This maneuver is what’s known in the trade–famously–as
the Miss Schenectady Pivot.) Which means you’ve aligned yourself now to
glide from the pageant stage, out from the glare of the lights, your face tight
with a warlike smile. The sash plays across your breasts. You glide offstage.
You float out from the screaming white of the arc lights.
also wearing Sunday Morning Rehearsal Casual, peer on with interest, smiling
sometimes quizzically, arms loose at their sides. You could win a bunch of scholarship
money through the Miss Five Boroughs pageant in which these 18 girls are participating,
but there’s no belligerent air of competition among them. There’s
more this lax, resigned, friendly vibe. Bunch of girls, you know, pulling together
to do this–to do this thing. Once you discount the really young contestants,
like the one who’s still in high school out in Brooklyn, and whose face
is therefore that inscrutable wide-eyed alien mask of adolescence (kids are
an inscrutable alien race amongst us, planning our demise)–once you discount
the really young kids, it’s all about this resigned self-consciousness
and this camaraderie, like, here we are, let’s do this, maybe one of us
will get the money.
is Rebecca Browne. I’m a junior at Juilliard, where I’m majoring in
violin performance." This is a tall blonde who, during the rehearsal: walks
up to the mark in the floor’s midst, enunciates in a careful way that proves
that she’s not used to this sort of thing, this sort of e-nun-ci-ay-shun.
Christine Dunphy, I’m a senior at Columbia–" She’s wearing
a big scarf wrapped around her neck, because it’s cold in here. But in
her case too, you get the sense of–whatever, I’ll take the money if
I win it and go back and graduate from Columbia, and if not, not.
So the contestants
practice the step-and-turn. (This is what’s known in the pageant community–technically–as
the Miss Pawtucket Turnaround.) They sketch different vectors on the scarred
you learn this?" someone asks.
her eyes. "About 20 locals," she answers.
The Miss Five
Boroughs pageant, in case you’re interested, will occur on March 17 at
the National Black Theater of Harlem.
Angel Ortiz, the guy in charge–the executive director/president of the
Miss Five Boroughs Scholarship Organization–herded, prodded, cajoled. Made
punchy motioning gestures with little arms.
he called, "we’ve got time issues, okay?"
He moved with
that grace that big guys can have sometimes, that balletism of Zero Mostel or
gonna have a mask?" he asked, a little bit of petulance tingeing his voice.
One could see that, if he had had his way, all this stuff would have been cleared
up long before.
gonna have a mask," his good-looking young associate Iliana Medina answered,
in a reassuring tone of voice.
gonna have the theme of masquerade, they might as well come out and lower the
mask," Angel said.
gonna have a mask," said Iliana Medina. She kept the situation grounded.
Wear theme is: Masquerade.
So the song "Masquerade" blasts from a tape player. And were
you competing in the Miss Five Boroughs competition, what would happen is that
you’d emerge glorious from the wings, your face irradiating outward toward
the audience and Harlem and the greater world besides, and you’d glide
under and between the flags and past the smart Marine flagbearers ("We
gonna have Marines," Angel had declared, I thought a little morosely somehow),
and you’d stop at the tape mark and declare: "Good evening and welcome!
My name is Andrey Slivka, and I’m representing the borough of–"
And so on.
You’d wave, you’d walk a tight circle. (And then do that famous series
of steps–step, step turn–that those of us who love, and participate
in, the world of beauty pageants are accustomed to call the Miss Terre Haute
the street when we stepped out at around 11:20 that morning for a food break.
Man, I was tired, too–it’s hard work watching a bunch of girls rehearse
for a beauty pageant. I was with Stefany, who’s 22, and who huddled under
her overcoat and an umbrella. And also with Andrea–boots, black stretch
pants, long hair and blonde bangs–who’s 23, and who had wrapped herself
against the weather in a forest-green North Face parka.
water washed along Lafayette St.
a diner or something around here? Someplace to get something to eat?" I
was asked. "Do you know the area?"
to recommend a place to eat by pageant contestants–it’s no good. It
puts you on the spot. You want to do right for them, but you’re not sure
whether they’re pro- or anti-carb, whether they even eat at all. You suggest
pierogi joints, sandwich shops, falafel establishments. You want to give up.
We ended up
in a 4th Ave. deli.
in Hoboken and works in Manhattan, doing graphics for Canon. She’s been
a runner-up in a number of pageants, and wants to go to grad school, maybe in
marketing, maybe in p.r. Andrea, who’s from Memphis, graduated from the
University of Virginia, and is spending a year in New York–she’s a
dancer, but she temps at night to make ends meet–before she attends medical
really smart," I said stupidly.
This is the
functionalist approach to pageantry: win a pageant, take the money, use it to
become an orthopedic surgeon. Or whatever. (Sometimes, on the right Sunday morning
when it’s raining, in the vicinity of Astor Pl., you can slip into another
world, into a slightly different dimension, a place that’s unfamiliar,
where pageant winners evince a certain familiarity with organic chemistry. I
swear I saw Joseph Papp floating down Lafayette St. on a raft.)
pageants, the Miss Five Borough competition downplays the swimsuit component.
Miss U.S.A. the way Donald Trump gets his next girlfriend," Stefany said
outside the deli, darkly. "That’s where you get the girls with the
big blonde hair."
big blonde hair sometimes," Andrea said offhandedly.
year in high school, Andrea won a pageant and was declared America’s Junior
Miss. This effectively paid for her education. She traveled periodically, making
appearances around the country.
I went, I was also an advocate for this program, Be Your Best Self–this
motivational program for teenagers and young adults," she explained.
I wanted to
tell her that I sometimes have big blond hair too, sort of. I do–especially
when I don’t wash it. It tends to stick up and all. But today it would
have been hard to keep my hair up even if I’d wanted to. Because the damp
weighed everything down, it made your skin feel all cold and moist and gross.
In the deli, Andrea and Stefany acquired foodstuffs. Mini-packs of Snackwell’s
cookies and turkey-and-cheese sandwiches on rolls and cans of Tab (Tab?) and
Diet Pepsi materialized on the counter.
a hero?" Andrea asked, turning to us from the deli counter. "Is that
like a pita?"
gave her a flat-eyed look. The fellow behind the counter goggled. Rain poured.
you are so funny. Okay."
sub," she laughed. "I thought it was like a wrap."
A bunch of
her coworkers planned to attend the pageant, Stefany said.
she sighed. "I’m going to be on the cutting board all week."
Tuba City Pas de Chat. The Miss Fond du Lac 180.
The Miss North Platte Pick and Roll. In fact I don’t know what
the hell they call it, but it works. Step, step, step–turn. And glide off
the stage and you’re out.
We were back
in the rehearsal studio now, where girls and pageant staffers milled amidst
a general postprandial lassitude. Andrea and Stefany perched on the edge of
a battered stool at the room’s edge, their legs identically crossed, maintaining
identical perfect posture, wearing identical pants and almost identical boots,
eating nearly identical sandwiches. One more correspondence–if they’d
started bopping their overcrossed legs in unison, say–and I’d have
lost my mind.
the reason I did this," Andrea explained between nibbles. "Because
you spend your year supporting your program. And my mom has multiple sclerosis,
so I wanted a way to get that out."
"program"–her area of advocacy as a pageant contestant–is
inhaled that sandwich," Stefany said with another flat-eyed look. "It
was good. Besides dancing, that’s what I love doing–eating."
the Hungry," she repeated patiently, and slower this time, for my dopey
gonna do two circles or they gonna do one?" Angel called, with an edge
to his voice.
had resumed a sort of motion. Hands on cocked hips, the better to address a
choreographical dilemma, chewing writing implements–thus Angel, Iliana,
others. The girls, resigned to a long day, crumpled to the floor, sat in rows
along the wall-length mirror, hugged their knees to their chests and stared
off into the distance, soft-eyed and patient. Some wore elaborate heels along
with their jeans and sweats, the better to approximate game-time conditions.
And they talked
ridiculous. That’s why I’m ready to slit my wrists. This should all
be done by the time we get here…"
see my purse?"
it might be over there. I’m not promising anything."
A pump was
produced by a girl kneeling over a duffel. For comparison’s sake.
A deep and
appraising look, and then the appraiser, rubbing her chin, said: "Hmm,
yeah. Mine don’t have rhinestones and the heel is thinner and taller. Four
inches, I think."
materializes in green dress. Limbers herself at the room’s margins with
elaborate kicks and swoops. Sits on cold floor to wrap bare feet in pointe shoes.
now into baggy pants and shoes appropriate for dancing, stands alone at the
floor’s center, transfers weight to one hip and freezes, awaiting the moment
at which–at which the world explodes in–in song.
silence. She’s stuck at mid-floor, looking expectantly toward the room’s
margins, where the boombox lurks problematically amidst fumbling hands and pageant
staffers with clipboards and pencils. It’s admirable. Because she’s
such a pro. This is merely a small breakdown, and it’s occurring in a safe
environment, but it’s a breakdown nonetheless. And it’s not fazing
her at all. No embarrassment, no self-consciousness, no rancor. Just someone
trying to get something done.
side A or side B?" she asks, still cocked and ready to spring.
At the room’s
edge, Andrea whips a leg through air, whips a peach-colored pointe shoe.
to "It’s Raining Men."
commands girls onto the floor, where one by one they work their routines.
Contestant Number 5?"
Okay. Moving on. Contestant Number 6?"
girl after girl after girl. Some girls sing. Some girls dance. The Juilliard
student plays her violin with that intimidating mastery one expects from Juilliard
loooooking for a he-ro," sings another contestant. And: "Can’t
take away my dig-ni-tyyyyy!"
"Whyyyy do fooools fall in love–" whilst throwing herself around
the floor with great ballistic force.
poetry. Was it poetry? It was poetry.
dances to rapturous music, then stops dead in the midst of her routine, stranded
in the middle of the floor in her silky green. But it’s a perfectionist’s
pause, it’s just that she wants to do it all over. In the silent rehearsal
studio you can hear her breath even above the music as she flies around the
But can we please go over it one more time? Please? Sorry. Okay. Okay. Take