Pageant Girls: Making Miss Five Borough


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Stefany Briante?all 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 turn?

"Left, right, left, and?"

Stefany wears 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.

"It's easy, it's just?"

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.

Other contestants, 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.

"?name 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.

"?is 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 wooden floor.

"Where'd you learn this?" someone asks.

Stefany rolls her eyes. "About 20 locals," she answers.

"Awwwwwww..."

The Miss Five Boroughs pageant, in case you're interested, will occur on March 17 at the National Black Theater of Harlem.

But anyway, 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.

"O-kay," 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 Jackie Gleason.

"They 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.

"They're gonna have a mask," his good-looking young associate Iliana Medina answered, in a reassuring tone of voice.

"If they're gonna have the theme of masquerade, they might as well come out and lower the mask," Angel said.

"So they're gonna have a mask," said Iliana Medina. She kept the situation grounded.

The Evening 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 One-Two-Three.)

Rain lashed 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.

Torrents of water washed along Lafayette St.

"Is there a diner or something around here? Someplace to get something to eat?" I was asked. "Do you know the area?"

Getting asked 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.

Stefany lives 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 school.

Medical school?

"So you're really smart," I said stupidly.

"I guess. Ha ha."

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.)

Unlike other pageants, the Miss Five Borough competition downplays the swimsuit component.

"I call 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."

"I have big blonde hair sometimes," Andrea said offhandedly.

Her senior 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.

"Wherever 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.

"What's a hero?" Andrea asked, turning to us from the deli counter. "Is that like a pita?"

Pause. Stefany gave her a flat-eyed look. The fellow behind the counter goggled. Rain poured.

"Andrea, you are so funny. Okay."

"Oh, a sub," she laughed. "I thought it was like a wrap."

A bunch of her coworkers planned to attend the pageant, Stefany said.

"All men," she sighed. "I'm going to be on the cutting board all week."

The Miss 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.

"That's 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."

So Andrea's "program"?her area of advocacy as a pageant contestant?is multiple sclerosis.

"I just inhaled that sandwich," Stefany said with another flat-eyed look. "It was good. Besides dancing, that's what I love doing?eating."

Stephanie's program is?

"Helping the Hungry."

Helping the?

"Helping the Hungry," she repeated patiently, and slower this time, for my dopey reporter's benefit.

"They gonna do two circles or they gonna do one?" Angel called, with an edge to his voice.

The rehearsal 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 amongst themselves.

"It's ridiculous. That's why I'm ready to slit my wrists. This should all be done by the time we get here..."

"Did you see my purse?"

"Like, 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."

Earlier: Andrea 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.

Stefany, changed 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.

But there's 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.

"Is it side A or side B?" she asks, still cocked and ready to spring.

Nothing.

At the room's edge, Andrea whips a leg through air, whips a peach-colored pointe shoe.

Stephany dances to "It's Raining Men."

Onward. Angel commands girls onto the floor, where one by one they work their routines.

"We have Contestant Number 5?"

"??"

"A problem. Okay. Moving on. Contestant Number 6?"

Girl after 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 students.

"Everybody's loooooking for a he-ro," sings another contestant. And: "Can't take away my dig-ni-tyyyyy!"

Another sings "Whyyyy do fooools fall in love?" whilst throwing herself around the floor with great ballistic force.

Another recites poetry. Was it poetry? It was poetry.

Finally Andrea 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 floor.

"Stop. But can we please go over it one more time? Please? Sorry. Okay. Okay. Take two."





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