John Kelly’s toughest assignment: Judging the Miss District of Columbia Pageant

John Kelly
Columnist January 10, 2012

Can there be such a thing as too many attractive young women parading in front of you in their swimsuits? Reader, the answer is yes.

In July, I was one of the judges for the Miss District of Columbia Pageant, the winner of which is representing the District on Saturday at the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas (broadcast at 9 p.m. on ABC).

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Sure, it’s an honor to be a judge, but it’s also a responsibility. Teri Galvez, executive director of Miss D.C., kept reminding us that the woman we picked could be — if all went well would be — Miss America.

Talk about pressure. Miss America is the closest thing our country has to the priestesses of Vesta, those carefully chosen women in ancient Rome who performed sacred rituals to protect the Republic. Picking wrong could bring the gods down upon us. (It was a poor beauty contest decision that started the Trojan War, after all.)

The fact is, Miss D.C. has always punched above her weight. The first Miss America, 1921’s Margaret Gorman, represented the District. In 1944, Miss D.C. Venus Ramey won the big prize. In the past five years, the District has had one Top 5 finalist and two Top 10 semifinalists at Miss America. Not bad for a place that isn’t even a state.


Ashley Boalch, who was crowned Miss D.C. 2011 one week ago. (Photo by Bruce Guthrie) (Photo by Bruce Guthrie)

“We want a girl who’s ready to go,” Teri told us in July, “who’s ready to hit the ground running.”

There were 15 contestants. On the night of competition at Arena Stage, they paraded in evening gowns, performed their talents and answered questions. We scored them accordingly. Swimsuit was the toughest. Teri had told us we had to be brutal. She told us there wouldn’t be much time to mull our decisions.

And there wasn’t. When the swimsuit portion started, it was as if someone was standing in the wings shooting beauty queens out of a T-shirt cannon. They just kept coming, one near-perfect young woman after another, like the chocolates on the accelerating conveyor belt in Lucy Ricardo’s candy factory.

Faced with this bikini blitzkrieg, a certain triage was necessary. “Big navel,” I scrawled on my worksheet for one contestant. Her belly button wasn’t grotesquely huge — not the size of a washtub drain, say — but it was bigger than average. For another entrant, I wrote “Unsure on feet.” Of course, you or I might be unsure on our feet walking in heels and a bathing suit in front of hundreds of strangers, but you or I aren’t hoping to become Miss America. One woman, I decided, had “bony legs,” another a “jiggly waist.”

If this sounds harsh to you, well, all I can say is, You weren’t there, man.

I had always thought the final winner was a consensus choice, the result of the judges dickering in a smoke-filled room. It’s not like that at all. The high and low scores are thrown out, the votes are tabulated, finalists are determined and then each judge ranks the finalists. Then those scores are tabulated. We couldn’t wait to hear who the winner would be.

It was 23-year-old Ashley Boalch of Silver Spring, a senior at the University of Maryland. (The contest rules allow women who either live or work in the District to compete. Ashley is a marketing intern at D.C.-based Monument Realty.) It was her first pageant.

I spoke with Ashley by phone Tuesday as she got ready for a pageant photo shoot in Las Vegas. Not long after winning, she flew to Texas, where 2005 Miss D.C. Shannon Schambeau runs a four-day “beauty boot camp.” Ashley got hair and make-up instruction and spent hours scrutinizing pageant videos.

Since being crowned in July, Ashley has had an average of two mock interviews a week with all sorts of D.C. figures, including the city’s director of homeland security. “Yesterday was my interview [for Miss America],” she told me. “I felt so prepared for everything.” (The biggest dangers facing the country, after the economy: threats to national security and nuclear war with Iran.)

I asked Ashley what makes the perfect Miss America. “She has to have solid scholastic ambitions and want to pursue a career,” she said. “Additionally, she has to be smart but also beautiful, a beauty but also someone who gives back to her community.”

Miss America, Ashley said, has to have “a presence that makes you want to listen to her. . . . She has to have that it factor.”

And she has to look good in a swimsuit. Take it from me, Ashley does.

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