Pageants have gotten a bad rap in recent years. Thanks in no small part to a widely YouTubed gaffe involving Miss Teen South Carolina and a question about geography, I got some quizzical looks from friends when they heard I was planning on covering the Miss Madison-Capital City Scholarship Pageant on Sunday.
But I found Madison's East Side Club packed and abuzz with sign-waving enthusiasts and a remarkable number of tiara-adorned spectators when I arrived. Under the flat harsh fluorescent lighting and the low ceilings of the room, nine contestants sashayed their way through the onstage questions, "Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit" competition, talent competition, and evening wear competition.
The event wasn't without its somewhat cringe-worthy moments. For example -- Q: "Do you think that it is ethical for CEO's of corporations to be making millions of dollars when there are so many starving people in our country?" A: "I do believe that it is ok, because the CEOs of big companies have obviously been very successful in school, they have worked many many years through high school, through college, and they've probably earned that right to be able to make that much money." Facepalm.
For the most part, though, it's hard to find fault with the earnest enthusiasm of the participants, who really do see this as a scholarship competition rather than a beauty contest. When I asked the night's winner, Kristina Smaby, what drives a person to enter the pageant world, she immediately noted that it is "the world's largest scholarship program for young women" and cited her own experience netting thousands of dollars in scholarship money since starting competing at the age of 18. She will now go on to compete in the Miss Wisconsin pageant this summer.
While shooting a pageant doesn't fall into my usual Sunday afternoon agenda, it was a fascinating glimpse into a somewhat surreal world, one filled with crowns and gowns, interpretive dance and piano solos and the occasional "like such as" moment.