Crowns and gowns

Natomas’ sleekly modern Inderkum High School seems built to host The Breakfast Club. I expected to see Judd Nelson running down one of many well-lit hallways, nostrils flaring, as my friends and I filed into the school’s posh auditorium for the 2007 Miss Sacramento County Pageant. Instead, we found several hundred of the contestants’ families and friends chatting excitedly. Rhinestone tiaras glittered here and there atop the careful up-dos of other pageant winners, the Molly Ringwalds of this scene.

Looking more like Ally Sheedy in my black dress, galoshes and rain-soaked hair, I hunkered down in a seat near the back. People around me waved fans reading “AMBER! AMBER! AMBER!” Poster board sparkled with Greek letters. Someone blasted an air horn.

The crowd was pumped, and why not? The new Miss Sacramento County will compete at the Miss California Pageant in June and could find herself on national TV in 2008, working a fierce swimsuit in hopes of becoming Miss America. Each year, 12,000 American women, ages 17 to 24, participate in pageants like this to pursue that title, and I was ready to see what Sacramento’s contenders could do.

The 16 contestants glided across the stage in formal gowns. Each paused in the center, flashed her best spokesmodel smile and introduced herself.

Competition began with an interview question. Behind infallibly whitened smiles, the women were visibly shaky. Backed by a smooth-jazz soundtrack, they rushed through their statements. “I definitely think life is easier with all the things and new things we have these days.” “All the different freedoms we have in America leave us still the land of freedom.” “It’s about time to have women doing more things that men do.” “Women are making leaps and bounds.”

Then they bounded offstage to prepare for the euphemistically titled “Lifestyle and Fitness Competition.” I’m not sure how walking in a slow figure eight in a bikini and heels demonstrates fitness, but the swimsuit parade is a pageant tradition.

I felt awkward checking out the competitors’ assets. The Miss America program prides itself on providing academic scholarships and teaching valuable life skills, and while it could be argued that bikini modeling qualifies as one of the latter, it seems to run counter to the overall theme of educationally oriented empowerment.

Before I could get too Women’s Studies about it, we were on to the talent competition, which opened with an unexpected and charming marimba solo by Jacquelyn DeGrendele. The majority of the performances consisted of lyrical jazz dances to soft-rock hits or awkwardly constructed comedic monologues, but there were some lovely surprises, like Tulin Gurer’s violin solo or Kanisha Allen’s poem with lines like, “Let no one, young ladies, rule, intimidate or define you.” Of course, Miss Sacramento County 2006, Nicole Honaker, showed them all up with a gymnastics routine featuring several flips and mid-air splits.

Honaker was trotted out whenever the judges or the contestants needed to stall for time. While the judges tallied results for the better part of an hour, the audience endured a lengthy raffle, numerous thank-you speeches from various pageant administrators, and endless interviews with Honaker. She chatted amicably about her future plans (to compete for Miss California again with her recently acquired Miss Northern Counties title), her platform (youth physical fitness) and her total scholarship earnings ($2,800). She was charming and articulate, but the audience was hungry for results. When the emcee introduced Honaker for the fifth time, a woman behind me yelled, “Oh, Lord!”

When it was finally time to announce the winner, I realized I didn’t have a favorite. The contestants were all beautiful, but rather than highlight their unique personalities, the pageant had rendered them indistinguishable to me. When Miss Sacramento County 2007, Danielle Feil, stepped up to receive her crown, I struggled to remember anything about her performance. My friend nudged me and asked, “What was her talent again?” I shrugged and applauded anyway. The “AMBER! AMBER! AMBER!” fans lowered in defeat and, outside, rain kept falling down, down, down.