The weird thing is, when Miss America signs an autograph, she signs your name, not hers.
Floyd! Dawn! Margaret! Kim! ("Nice easy one," says Miss America, before turning off the smile for a second to moisten her teeth and the insides of her lips before serious tissue breakdown sets in.) Doyle! Hugh! Andre! All the supplicants standing meek and watchful in the line at Tysons Corner Peoples Drugstore get an exclamation point after their names.
The rest of the autograph is preprinted under a photograph of Miss America. It reads -- in a lumpy, erratic version of the ovoid cursive so popular among American women since the 1920s -- "Good luck and Best Wishes Always!
Kylene Barker Miss America 1979"
The "M" of the "Miss" links into the "y" of "Kylene," even when she's signing the 8-by-10 glossies. These rate her own name, too, and are sexier than the lumpenprole handouts. They're reserved for the Peoples Drugstore executives who stride around her as if they're shoving through a crowd though there isn't much of a crowd. It runs about 30 people at any given time during Kylene Barker's reign in a wingback chair, in front of the Gillette display (Right Guard! Foamy! White Rain! Soft! Ultra Max! Adorn!)
"I'd say she's prettier than her picture," says Jewell Davis, 31, a secretary upstairs at the U.S. Marshal's office.
"I just wanted to see her," says Lisa Patchen, 16, of Silver Spring.
Did she think she'd look different than she did on TV, back when she swept down that runway with the roses and the tiara and the air melting like butter to Bert Parks' tenor, yes, There she is, Miss America... ?
"I don't know," says Patchen. "I never saw anybody for real after I saw them on TV."
Four hours Kylene Barker will spend at it. John! Osgood! ("That's an unusual one!") Sergeant Jones! Little J.C. ! A thousand autographs a day she signs in a gesture which, like her smile, seems to require about an eighth of the muscles the rest of us use, celebrity ergonomics at work, supplying punctuation marks for the sentences of American life. Life! America!
They keep lining up, lots of kids, lots of retired people, like Emil Lowenthal, a retired computer analyst, who notes that Miss America's navy blue dress has less pomp and glory than the Atlantic City rig, but finds no anomaly in the avid flogging of toiletries. "I'll sell anything I get paid for, too," he says.
She works seven days a week, 50 weeks a year, traveling 20,000 miles a month. She was in Seattle the day before. Next stop is Boston. About 60 percent of her work is for Gillette. From all her labors, she makes about $50,000 a year, plus the $20,000 scholarship, plus whatever other deals she can cut.
Most of all, she gets the endless shuffle of fur hats, bifocals, shopping bags, Earth Shoes, down jackets, Velere and Clearasil. She gets women who, moments before moving into autograph position, ready a variety of smiles: grandmotherly approval; shy, shrugging concessions that Kylene Barker is prettier than they are; or earnest just-we-girls grins, sometimes under scouring assessments of Miss America's eye shadow, curled lashes, the two little lines under each green eye.
J. Ivey, on the other hand, lapses into the courtship ritual of a lot of males in this line, tracing his thumbs behind his lapels, adjusting his glasses, assuming a massive, sincere lean as he steps to the front of the table where it all melts, alas, into a sad, faraway request for, yes, another autograph.
"Have a nice day," says Miss America, and the crowd keeps setting off their magi-flash instacube flippomatic GLITCH! GLITCH!cameras as if they were lighting devotional candles, as if those flashcubes were exclamation points of their own. Their own!
In the land of equality -- Peoples Drugstore! -- Miss America is the highest possible lowest common denominator, the girl next door apothepsized into total abstraction.After all, how many people know her name? Who would recognize her on the street? In 1970, a pageant official walked Pam Eldred down the Atlantic City boardwalk eight days after Eldred won her crown. "Nobody knew her from a rabbit," the official recalled.
Actually, Kylene Barker is far more attractive than her photographs. For one thing, there's the irresistible bait of female boredom. You can see it when she offers the dispensation of her special bunny smile, wrinkling the nose to achieve the same ironic sincerity men strive for with a wink -- but she forgets about eyes, which stay cool.
And beneath that face that any boy would take home to Mom lies an obstinance -- it might be speculated -- ready to battle any inconvenient reality, a determination to be nobody's woman but her own, which works out to the same thing as being everybody's woman but ours.
Fortunately, however, there she is, sequestered behind that palisade of exclamation points -- Miss America!