While it’s not exactly accurate to say it was a voice from the grave that commanded me to drop out of the Mrs. America pageant, it’s not exactly a lie, either. The truth lies somewhere in between and involves a questionable photographer, a threat from a friend to disown me, and a dingy bra once worn by Ivana Trump. But for five days, I was Cathy Alter, your Mrs. Georgetown DC.
It started from a place of insecurity — never a good thing in competition. My 11-year-old son, Leo, and I were sharing a late lunch at a British-style pub in Washington’s Dupont Circle. As we sat demolishing our mozzarella sticks, I took a moment to check my phone for emails. Maybe it was my text neck, or maybe Leo had never seen me in severe profile, but whatever the case, he reached over and grabbed the hunk of loose flesh residing below my chin (a wattle, a friend would helpfully explain).
“What’s that?” he asked, tugging on it like an udder.
I don’t remember how I answered him. But I do remember trying not to cry or ask my son if he was some kind of sociopath.
“I feel bad about my neck,” Nora Ephron confessed, in the opening essay and 2006 book of the same name.
“Our faces are lies and our necks tell the truth,” she wrote. “You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.”
These days, at 57, it’s hard not to look in the mirror without thinking about how my reflection has changed. It’s me but not me. The face is certainly mine, just more gutted, the area underneath my eyes carved out by a wood gauge. It’s less feminine, somehow, and more Founding Fathers, especially when my hair is pulled back in a Jefferson braid. We won’t discuss my burgeoning FUPA.
To accept this image would be the healthiest way to proceed. The most empowering thing I could do for myself would be to love the marionette mouth, the nasolabial folds, the “elevens” between my brows, the time stamps that make this face uniquely mine. To say, to sing, to emblazon on a T-shirt: Here I am, world! A middle-aged woman with declining looks and a soft body!
Instead, I went home and sobbed to my husband, Karl.
“All boys should think their mothers are the most beautiful women in the world,” I said through my tears. “And it’s clear that Leo does not.”
“Well,” Karl said, “what can you do about it?”
I couldn’t tell if he was answering me rhetorically or expecting me to come up with an action plan.
And I did have a plan. Or, more accurately, a wild impulse that stomped on any attempt at levelheadedness.
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” I told him. “I’m going to enter a beauty pageant — and win.”
When I was growing up in Connecticut, my parents threw an annual Miss America party where guests bet on the contestants as if the young women were racehorses. It was the hottest ticket in town. Friends arrived in evening gowns and tuxedos, tossed $20 into the pot, and rooted for their “girl” while tearing down the 49 others.
My mother, a 6-foot-tall beauty with a penchant for red lips and backless suede dresses, could be especially vicious, taking note of a competitor’s “thunder thigh” or “unfortunate underbite” or describing a pair of straight-on nostrils as looking like “the Holland Tunnel.”
As the owner of the hippest clothing boutique the Bermuda-bag-carrying women of our sleepy town had ever seen, my mother was a true arbiter of style and presentation. By midnight, everyone was tanked and the guest who got closest to choosing the evening’s winner paraded around in a homemade sash and dime-store crown, both courtesy of my mother.
Now, decades later, I found a slew of pageants on Pageant Planet, a website that consolidates local and regional contests including Miss Earth USA, Mr. Crimson and Cream, and the pageant I wound up entering, Mrs. DC America. There were pageants for veterans, for senior citizens (I’m still a few years away from that one), for full-figured women, and one that sounds like a meta version of itself, The Empowered Woman pageant. If I were to create a montage of the contestants I saw across the site, the result would look like the b-rolls from all the Real Housewives franchises in existence.
The rules to enter the Mrs. DC America pageant were straightforward. If you were married, you could enter — which meant I could potentially be competing with child brides. Contestants are judged in three categories: the interview, the evening gown and the swimsuit. As if striding across the stage in a bathing suit and high heels wasn’t terrifying enough, there would be an opening dance number. With choreography. The winner of Mrs. DC would go on to represent the District of Columbia at the national Mrs. America Pageant in Las Vegas.
The next morning, I called one of the pageant directors. After a bit of chitchat, I learned that I had a little less than five weeks to prepare for the event, which would be held at a community center over an hour away, in Frederick, Maryland. Somehow, I’d imagined that I’d have at least a year to get ready, both physically and mentally. Now things were becoming both very real and very surreal.
“What do you want your sash to say?” she asked.
When I hesitated, baffled by her question, she clarified. “Where do you live in Washington?”
Which is how I appointed myself Mrs. Georgetown DC, after forking over a deposit of $250 (the entire cost of entry was $750) and promising to schedule a headshot with the official pageant photographer within the week.
I immediately launched into overdrive, making a to-do list like I was planning my wedding. Each action item begot new actions. I made an appointment for highlights, but did I also want to talk about hair extensions? How much were hair halos? (What were hair halos?!) There was no time to sit and reflect on who I was fast becoming.
I called the photographer and asked him what I’d need to bring to the photo shoot. Everything on his list included the word glitzy. Also, he advised, “Wear something that either shows your cleavage or your shoulders but not both. That’s just overkill.”
He suggested I buy a bag of rhinestones and glue them onto my bathing suit, which, for some reason, he kept calling a “one-piece bikini.”
“Are you going to photograph me in a bathing suit?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you about rhinestones.” His parting advice, worthy of its own bedazzled T-shirt was, “Go glam or go home.”
My friends were divided on my new title. Some had a field day at my expense. “Can your bathing suit be Victorian or come with a turtleneck?” asked one. “Does AARP have a beauty pageant?” asked another, choking back laughter. One emailed me an Amazon link for Preparation H, which has famously been used to tighten bags under the eyes. “Maybe you can use this on your butt, too,” was the subject line.
Others were more perplexed.
“It’s ironic that you’re looking for acceptance and confidence in the very place designed not to give it,” said one of my closest friends, expressing concern.
A few were outraged. When I met a friend and former editor, she pounded on the table. “You can’t do this!” she said, holding her fist up for another strike. “What does this say about the progress we’ve been making as women?”
She brought up how precarious it is to be female in the wake of Roe v. Wade and the gutting of abortion rights and the horrible message about appearance that I would be sending to Leo. She told me she wasn’t sure if she could be my friend if I went through with the pageant.
Still another saw me as a champion just for entering: “You’ve been given a bigger stage, to stand up for all people who feel less than. You’re saying, ‘I’m here, I made it, and so can you.’”
I had been Mrs. Georgetown for two days before the idea of competing began to seem like a genuinely half-baked idea. What the heck was I doing? And what sort of message was I sending to myself? To my husband? To Leo? (“Do you think I could win?” I had asked the poor kid, who immediately looked to Karl for a clue before answering, “It depends on the competition.”)
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with beauty. As their ruthless Miss America parties suggest, my parents placed great value on physical appearance. When we were little, my father used to chase my younger brother and me around our swimming pool with a spray bottle of Sun In hair lightener. After growing up poor, eating mayonnaise sandwiches and fending for himself, having golden-haired, sun-kissed children who looked like they belonged in the Kennedy compound was, for him, an emblem of success.
My mother’s guiding principle was that it was more important to look good than to feel good. When I was in high school, she sat me down and gently explained that because I was no natural beauty — “no Christie Brinkley” were her words — I’d always have to wear makeup.
I was on the tender cusp of womanhood, and my mother’s grim appraisal took root in my soul. Before dementia completely robbed her of the ability to speak, the last clear words my mother said to me were, “How about some blush?”
On my third day as Mrs. Georgetown, I decided it was time to try on evening gowns at my favorite consignment shop in D.C. Even though the saleswomen aren’t permitted to mention the origin stories of their merchandise, I’ve gotten in pretty good with some of the staff and have been able to wheedle out some details.
Along these lines, I wound up in the dressing room with what I knew was an evening gown once worn by Ivana Trump by a designer whose name I didn’t recognize. It was $125 and the color of tomato sauce from a can, with a mermaid silhouette, red jewels scattered down the front, and about 40 miles of tulle. When I unzipped it, I saw there was a grimy Calvin Klein strapless bra sewn inside, size 36C, and I had a sudden pang, knowing such a private detail about Ivana. My mother, too, wore a 36C. Placing my own breasts inside the bra — and being this close to its original owner — was surprisingly intimate.
I looked at myself in the dressing room mirror, trying and failing to imagine myself striding across a stage in a conference center in Frederick, Maryland, giving a royal wave, chest out, smile aided by Vaseline on my teeth, hammertoes screaming at the straps of my stilettos.
“Take it off,” it said. “It’s not you,” it said.
Whether it was my mother speaking or Ivana, it didn’t matter. The dress wasn’t me. And neither, I realized, was the pageant.
My mother often warned me about falling for a pretty face. “Looks fade,” she had said after a man with movie star looks obliterated my heart. She could have been talking about her own vulnerabilities around appearance and aging. It was the way I knew that, despite her critical eye, even she recognized deep down that there were things more valuable than looks. My mother would have been unsparing in her assessment of my chances in the pageant (none) and in my decision to enter it (dumb).
What good is beauty, anyway? It was surely a burden for my mother, who tried mightily to keep up appearances until that weight shifted to my father. He became her de facto makeup artist as she sat strapped in a wheelchair, unable to perform her own ministries, her hands clenched in rage.
After watching him spoon-feed her lunch (“Now, now,” he’d say whenever she tried to bite his fingers), the sight of him dabbing her lips with her trademark Love That Red made me reevaluate my own definition of devotion — of obligation. In the face of the inevitable, my father’s tacit efforts broke my heart.
On my final day as Mrs. Georgetown, I phoned the pageant director and dropped out of the race.
“Did something happen?” She sounded aghast, like maybe I had microderm-ed my face off.
“I don’t have the full support of my family and friends,” was my excuse, which approached the truth, at least partially.
The woman who went on to wear my Mrs. Georgetown sash, I learned later, was from Rockville, Maryland. In her official pageant headshot, she looks a little like a Facetuned Jennifer Coolidge.
The pageant fell on the same weekend as my father’s 90th birthday. Home in Connecticut, I showed my father a photo of my “replacement.”
“Good thing you dropped out,” he said. “You didn’t stand a chance.”
“Grandpa!” Leo looked at my face, concerned.
“Thanks for your vote of confidence,” I said, lightly punching his arm and reassuring myself that limitations are not heritable.
Later that night, Leo slipped me a note before bedtime. It read, in part, “I love you for yourself. I love your sweet, sweet, heart. Though you are beautiful, it’s what is inside that counts.”
It is a note I wish my mother would have written and dropped in the mail, addressed to herself.
Cathy Alter’s articles and essays have appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine, The Cut, Wired, and The Washington Post, among others. She is the author of “Virgin Territory: Stories From the Road to Womanhood,” the memoir “Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over,” and “CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.” She lives in Washington, D.C.