While perusing the Atlanta Journal Constitution over a plastic bowl of Lucky Charms, my seven-year-old self honed in on a small, black and white ad:
“You could be the next Little Miss Georgia Peach!”
From what I could tell, the Little Miss Georgia Peach pageant was a local beauty contest that would surely lead to world renown. By the time I got to the fine print, “Peach queens serve as official ambassadors of the Georgia Peach Festival,” I was sold.
Peach Queen! Ambassador! Little Miss Georgia Peach! As far as titles go, what could be better than Little Miss Georgia Peach? In just four words it spoke to my size, gender, origin, and favorite fruit. I had to have it. I had to be the Little Miss Georgia Peach.
So I hopped up from the table, nearly tripping on my tattered bunny slippers in excitement. Just moments earlier, my parents might have glanced over at their daughter, sleepy-eyed, reading up on the state of the world, and thought to themselves, we must be doing something right. But what I was about to propose would reassure them that that they were actually doing something very, very wrong.
“Mom! Dad! Look! Little Miss Georgia Peach! It’s a contest! Please can I do it?!”
I might as well have run around screaming, “I want to be objectified! I want to be judged on my smile and how delicately I can move about wearing taffeta! Please, won’t you subject me to traditional beauty ideals!?” All of which would have been bold statements for a pint-sized, stringy-haired blonde with approximately three front teeth, one of which boasted an unfortunate brown spot from too much Kool-Aid.
Also, what was worse, the subtext: “I am adorable! Don’t you think the judges will just LOVE me?!”
My mom glanced down at the ad, shot my father a look and said, “See, I told you we should have taken her out of self-esteem class.”
And who could blame her? Every Wednesday for weeks a counselor with coke-bottle glasses had been coming to teach my second grade class how to feel good about ourselves. And every Wednesday for weeks I had rushed in from the bus with my bag full of “Warm Fuzzies,” or brightly covered synthetic puff-balls from some cheap craft store, each representing a compliment a classmate had given me.
“This one is because I’m pretty,” I said as I pulled out a little green puff. “Wait, no, this one,” holding a blue one now, “this one is because I’m pretty. The green one is because Charlotte loves my sweater with the horse mane on the sleeves. The purple one, that’s because I can read out loud really fast, and the orange one is because I’m smarter than everyone!”
Just one week of this and my mom considered calling the school to ask if I could be taken out for an extra recess or sent to the nurse’s office for a nap instead. My father pointed out that the self-esteem gurus would probably give me more attention if they thought I had some cruel and twisted mother who didn’t want me getting any compliments. Unwilling to risk this possibility, she decided to let me stay. But this moment confirmed that my mother’s original instinct had been correct. I had turned my blanky into a makeshift boa and was stretching it behind my head, shimmying back and forth while singing, “Start spreading the news!!! Little Miss Georgia Peach!!”
Maybe it is here that my mother saw her chance to reverse the damage all that silly self-confidence talk had done. Or maybe, because my mother is also a woman who has never once gifted me a journal without inspirational quotes inscribed within, she couldn’t bear to stand between me and my dreams. But somewhere between my sliding across the kitchen island flashing jazz hands, resting my chin on my fist and shooting her a snaggletoothed grin, she said yes. She let me cut the ad out of the paper, write my name and address on it and send away for a full application. One of the application questions was “What’s your favorite pastime?,” and I answered, without a doubt in my mind, “5pm.” My journey towards world peach harvest domination had officially begun!
The subsequent months were spent making important wardrobe decisions, trying to discover my talent, and learning to speak like a beauty queen. To this last point, my father offered one very key piece of advice.
“Never say yeah. When they ask you questions, it is yes, or no. Yes. Never yeah. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah,” I said. It did make sense.
According to my contestant packet, which I memorized as if it were the new Tiffany album, there were three stages to the competition, each requiring a different outfit. As a child who managed to work 2 to 3 wardrobe changes into every ordinary day, this thrilled me to no end. Finally, somebody understood. The same outfit one wears to play in the front yard is simply not suitable for the back yard. The front yard called for a favored pair of hot pink leggings with neon suspenders that popped enough to be seen from the road, while the backyard allowed for a more laid back, sandbox chic, like my faded purple OshKosh B’Gosh overalls with a solid pocket tee. I had tried to explain this to my mom so many times before, as she begrudgingly deposited more than three times the laundry my brother or sister required at the end of my daybed each week. But now here was a world where I was actually required to wear three outfits in one day. I felt vindicated. Lofty title aside, this was a dream come true!
The first outfit I had to choose was “Sportswear,” which would get me through my introduction, the group performance of “Tomorrow!,” and the casual interview. For this, I chose a stone-washed denim mini skirt with a matching jacket that had little bows as buttons. My dad, who was way more into this than he should have been, suggested I top it all off with a hot pink baseball cap.
“It’s sporty,” he rationalized to my mother, “it will make her stand out to the judges.”
Another clue my father was starting to take things a bit too seriously was that he began referring to me in the third person, as if I were a pig they were fattening up for the county fair. While my mom tried to keep a straight face as I stumbled over test interview questions, he looked me right in the eye and said, “We’ve got three months, she’ll be ready.”
Disappointed to learn there was no bathing-suit competition, I thought I’d found a loophole when I suggested I wear a Hawaiian print bikini with ruffles on the butt and a pair of turquoise heart-shaped sunglasses for my talent act, whatever it might be. When I bent over to touch my toes and moved my backside in a circular motion to show my mom how cool the ruffles could be, she shook her head in disapproval. In a rare show of good judgment, she flatly refused. “It’s too much, Elizabeth.” The next day she came home with a boring black leotard and opaque white tights.
Finally, there was the evening gown which I insisted be as large and as difficult to maneuver as possible. With my usual eye for excess, I found the dress of my dreams. It was a glittery pink gown with a white ruffled neckline that actually had a hoop in the skirt. With my limited frame of fashion reference, I determined it to be very Glenda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. As I twirled and imagined a troupe of munchkins popping out from beneath my skirt, my mother got that now familiar “too much” look on her face and tried to distract me with a boring velvet party dress with a dainty sash.
“What do you think of this one, honey?” I waved an invisible wand in her direction and quoted my inspiration, “You have no power here! Begone, before somebody drops a house on you, too!”
While I was a natural at making wardrobe choices, the talent portion did not come as easily. This is because I clearly had none. I couldn’t sing or play an instrument or gyrate with any sort of rhythm while yielding a feather boa. I wasn’t a tap dancer, a magician or a ventriloquist. I wasn’t particularly flexible. The only thing I could do that was actually remarkable for my age was tuck my chin into my chest and completely deprive myself of oxygen so that I sounded exactly like Anthony Perkins’ character in Pyscho when he pretended to be his mother. I liked to repeat the refrain, “Kill her, Norman, kill her.” It was uncanny, really, and adults found it hysterical. But something about Hitchcock felt a little too dark. If I must play down to the audience, I thought, I could recite The Wizard of Oz from start to finish. But that took too much time. Or I could tie a cherry stem in a knot with my tongue. But that didn’t take long enough (that’s what made it so impressive). So my talent remained a blank not to be filled until just before the pageant.
Finally, the big day arrived. I brushed my teeth furiously, as I often did, hoping that little brown spot would suddenly disappear and then, upon realizing its unyielding prominence, practiced smiling without letting any teeth out, which, as excited as I was, was a bit like trying to stuff a bunch of helium balloons into a garbage can. Then I folded each outfit into a perfect pile and packed them in a small, pink duffle bag we had purchased for the occasion. I tossed it over my shoulder, on the same side as my perfectly curled ponytail, and strutted out to our grey Chevrolet Celebrity. I felt every bit the star. My parents exchanged nervous looks in the front seat, as I belted out “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya! Tomorrow! You’re only a daaaaaaay awaaaaaay!”
“Don’t worry,” my mom whispered to my father, “It’s a group number.”
The pageant was held in an auditorium in downtown Atlanta and the dressing room was a converted collegiate classroom with Little Miss Georgia Peach scribbled across a dusty chalkboard. Immediately upon entering, I felt like a local fair pony that had been thrown into the rink at the Hofburg Palace and expected to do dressage with the Lipizzaner Stallions. The other girls had make-up and costumes with sequins and that skin-colored mesh stuff I had only ever seen on television during the winter Olympics. Their mothers wore whistles around their necks and screamed things like, “You’re still slouching on that last turn, Felicity. Let’s start from the top.” My mother said things like, “Honey, fix your leotard. It’s going up your butt.”
Across the room, I spotted a tiny brunette wearing crushed velvet and a bow as big as two slices of pizza. She was studying a page of sheet music. My mind flashed back to the application. In addition to whether or not you wanted to be considered for superlatives like “prettiest dress,” “prettiest hair,” and “best personality,”—check, check, and check!—there was also a box to indicate that your act required a piano. Why would anyone need a piano, I had wondered, when boom boxes are so much cooler? Only now did it occur to me that some of these girls could actually play the piano. This was trouble.
After the interview portion went as well as it could have—my question was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered succinctly, “A movie star,” and did a curtsy—it was time for the moment of truth. The talent competition. I was starting to regret the gymnastics routine I had prepared to Debbie Gibson’s “Out of the Blue.” Gymnastics routine is a term I use loosely to describe my squirming around on a gray plastic mat we bought at Wal-Mart. Lest anyone be confused as to what this mat was for, it was covered in sketches of a woman performing various stretches in the correct posture. As the competition rushed on stage in a flurry of feathers, a blaze of a cappela glory, I stood behind the curtain, shaking.
When it was time for my big moment, my grand entrance consisted of me walking on stage with my boom box. I unfolded my little mat, pressed play, snapped my fingers and bent my knees in time with the music. This went on for some time until, with no warning at all, I abruptly stood on my head.
A headstand. That was my talent. Not even a handstand, which required some measure of balance, or upper body strength, or something else I didn’t have. After 15 seconds, my face turned so red that the mc, a scary brunette with cavernous cleavage and Lee press on nails, rushed on stage and cut me short out of fear I might asphyxiate myself.
“Let’s hear it for Elizabeth McDonald, everyone!” She had been calling me this the whole time, even though it was NOT my name, and only now did I resent her for it. As the blood drained from my face, I started to hate her. But as any respectable beauty queen would do, I smiled through the pain. I rolled up my mat, and gave the judges a wink and a close-fingered wave as I walked off stage.
In the end, having failed to land one of the top 3 spots, I came in 17th because that was where Elizabeth McDonald fell in the alphabet. There were only 23 people in the competition.
Sometimes I defend this moment in my mind with the fact that Deborah Gibson was still Debbie then. We were all still coming into our own. And just like when Deborah looks back and thinks, I can’t believe I ever went by Debbie and wore scrunchies in my hair before I got all sophisticated, changed my name and started posing nude, I do sometimes think back to that day, and wonder what, exactly, I was thinking. Why the sad little gray mat? Why the pilly white tights? Why “Out of the Blue?” Why not something a little more up-tempo?
But I was 7.
So I have to look to the woman, the rational adult, who helped me make these decisions. My mother. What was she thinking?
It has taken some time to realize she knew exactly what she was doing. The bedazzled competition, the plain black leotard, the headstand that might have resulted in public death, here was a lesson that counselor with the coke-bottle glasses never could have taught me. Humility.
More than twenty years have passed and my mom still thinks it’s hilarious.
“You know,” she is fond of saying anytime there is a beauty pageant on television, “I still think you could really blow these girls out of the water. If only you had any talent.”