Those lips. Like two sugarplums dipped in honey. Those eyes. Molten dark-chocolate bonbons. That body. Palatable as a ripe peach and at 35-24-34, pinup perfect.
Well, almost perfect.
"I have very small calves," says 24-year-old Robin Harmon, the first black Miss Maryland, who hopes to be crowned the first black Miss America next month in Atlantic City. Not Miss Black America. Miss America. As in "There She Is." As in Bess Myerson, Phyllis George and Susan Powell. As in $100,000 a year, eternal stamp of approval, all-American sequined star staring out from billboards and television screens.
She thinks her feet are too big (size 8) and says her breasts "are getting too big." She tugs at the bodice of her skintight white Lycra swimsuit. "That's my latest flaw. Before, it was my teeth. But I had them fixed two years ago."
It wasn't vanity that made her shell out $2,000 for the cosmetic dental work. "It's the fact that my teeth made me feel uncomfortable. That's the first thing people see when you smile." Which she pronounces "Smi-all."
"Smile," corrects the older woman standing next to her. Her name is Helen Fox. She has short red hair and laughs like Lucille Ball.
"If you have crooked teeth or rotten teeth or any kind of abnormaties, it's distracting," says Harmon.
"AbnorMALities," corrects Fox.
Harmon, former Miss Georgetown and Miss Black D.C., recent graduate of Howard University (majoring in broadcast journalism, minoring in drama), is holed up in Fox's Winchester, Va., ranch house being prepped for the Miss America pageant. Fox, a 43-year-old local gym teacher who's been grooming Maryland beauty contestants for the last 17 years, is Harmon's official traveling companion, mother confessor, chaperone and Henry Higgins to the beauty queen's Eliza Doolittle.
Like the irascible linguistics professor who turned a flower girl into "My Fair Lady," Helen Fox knows that Harmon has the potential to become Miss America. Winning the Miss Maryland pageant took the contestant out of Hagerstown. Now it's Fox's job to take the Hagerstown out of the contestant, even if Fox's twangy, Maryland accent is a far cry from what Higgins'creator, George Bernard Shaw, had in mind.
Still, the unlikely partnership is thriving.
It was Helen Fox who changed Harmon's hair style. It was Fox who persuaded Harmon to give up hot roast beef sandwiches with extra gravy, blueberry Slurpees and Salems. It was Fox who started Harmon on a crash course in current events by trading in People magazine for U.S. News & World Report, by emphasizing "The CBS Evening News" and pulling the plug on "All My Children."
And now, three weeks before the main event, it's Helen Fox who pounds Robin Harmon's calves every day so they'll touch when she stands in her white swimsuit and white high heels. Dieting. No sweets to spoil the Kahlua-and-cream complexion. Four miles a day on the exercise bike. A $3,000 wardrobe. Professional coaching to smooth the wrinkles in Robin's talent, a dramatic reading from the Greek tragedy "Antigone."
It's Helen, pounding, molding, shaping, cajoling, correcting. All the time, correcting.
"Robin's grammar and diction are what we're working on the hardest," says Fox, sitting in her station wagon, waiting for Harmon to finish her twice-a-week, two-hour-a-day drama lessons at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music.
Fox says the initial interview with the judges can make or break a beauty queen. It's their first impression of the contestant, before swimsuit, before talent, before evening gown.
"I think Miss America needs a black representative," Harmon says, "someone who can represent all women and still maintain that American style, that American beauty, that American way of life. Dignity and self-assurance and hard working. I think I could represent that. I feel that way about myself."
Not only that, she would be the first Miss Maryland to win the crown.
Inside the darkened auditorium of the conservatory, Harmon is kneeling on a purple pillow, playing the death scene form "Antigone." Normally, she is shackled in chains. But this morning, she forgot her chains, so her wrists are bound with the black leather belt from her blue jeans with the Colt 45 patch on the back pocket.
"AAAH, the good FORtune of kings," she recites, for the 15th time.
Several minutes later, Sophocles' spell is broken when she flubs a line, throws her hands up to her tawny, gorgeous face and giggles nervously: Marilyn Monroe doing Lady Macbeth.
"It's funny because one of my professors at Howard said, 'Robin, you have three things cut out for you in life. You can either be a broadcast journalist, go to law school or be a comedian. And I suggest you try the comedy life.' "
She is part waif, part woman. Naive. Pliable. Daffy and determined.
"A girlfriend of mine collects Marilyn Monroe pictures and one day we went out to dinner together and she said, 'You know who you remind me of?' "
" 'Marilyn Monroe!' "
Fox gathers up Harmon's belongings. The two women walk to the station wagon. Time for lunch. Harmon will eat three ears of Silver Queen corn and try to sneak out later for a hot roast beef with extra gravy.
"People don't take me serious," Harmon pouts.
"Seriously," says Fox.
There She Is . . .
Born and raised in Hagerstown, Md., the oldest of four children, Robin Harmon wanted to be a secretary when she grew up. She also dreamed about Miss America and beauty pageants. "When I was a child," she says, "the thought of being a queen was breathtaking."
Her father still works at Mack Truck in Hagerstown. Her mother is a nurse's assistant. But growing up in a lower-middle-class family left Robin Harmon with a taste for more. More money. More fame. More life.
In 1975, the year she graduated from high school, she entered the Miss Hagerstown contest and was named second runner-up. A year later, she won.
In 1977, she transferred from Hagerstown Junior College to Howard University. There, she studied drama and journalism. She also got into modeling, which resulted in her being chosen as the Colt 45 malt liquor poster girl.
Now, the 5-foot-7, 120-pound Harmon is vying for one of the most coveted titles in professional pageantry. Last year, in an unprecedented turn of events, two black contestants made it to the finals in Atlantic City. This year, along with one other black contestant, Miss New Hampshire, Harmon may have a good shot at the title.
"I think it would be absolutely great," she says, leaning over the car seat.
As for her chances: "At first I thought they were slim, but, uh, just recently I got to thinking my chances are darn good. My talent is developing very well."
Helen Fox nods in agreement.
"Helen has been working on my diction CONSTANTLY," says Harmon. "So now I'm feeling even more confident. And that has built me to the point where I feel comfortable and feeling that I can be open in my talking. If I get over the anxiety of it all with the judges, I'll be fine. I'll definitely do well in the swimsuit. And the evening gown, too."
Harmon says her diction is not what academics call "black English."
"It's not that at all," Harmon says. "It's just the grammatical errors. Like 'wif' instead of 'with,' or 'da' instead of 'the,' and 'toofpaste' instead of 'toothpaste.' These are things she's working on, not saying 'say what?' or not saying 'what's happenin?' "
Harmon says she has a strong black identity, "but I don't let it overcome me. I mean, when in Rome, do as the Romans. It applies to this. It's a white pageant, basically. It started out as one. In the '50s, they started letting blacks in. Just because it's a white pageant doesn't mean I'm going to go up there and act white. I'm going to be myself."
And yet, Harmon says her face is more Caucasian than black. "I have smaller features than most blacks. If I were to become Miss America, I'm sure the white race of people would identify with me much more quickly than someone who is darker-skinned, shorter hair or larger features. However, they have to start somewhere."
Harmon says if she wins or loses, it won't be because of her skin color.
"When I entered the Miss Maryland contest, they said, 'You'll never win because you're black.' When I entered the Miss Black D.C. contest, they said, 'You'll never win because you're not black enough.' "
She shakes her head. As a child, she says, she thought being a beauty queen was "the epitome of success." Now, she sees it as a chance to be discovered, a chance to get away from your hometown. It's winning $1,000 scholarships and diamond pendants and karate lessons at Jhoon Rhee. It's appearing at shopping malls and being interviewed on radio shows and having your picture taken 10 times a day.
The station wagon pulls up to the ranch house. The two women walk to the sliding glass doors on the patio. Harmon collapses in a chair.
"I'm going to the potty," says Helen Fox, looking in Harmon's direction. "Would anyone else like to go to the potty?"
Harmon curls her legs under the chair and shakes her head back and forth. "No," she says in a small voice.
Helen Fox got into beauty pageantry in 1964 with her husband when they joined the Hagerstown Jaycees, which sponsors the local pageant. Since then, they have moved from Hagerstown to Winchester, a short distance away, still keeping their positions as Maryland state pageant officials. This is Helen Fox's 13th Miss America contest.
Her moment of glory came several years ago when a Miss Maryland she accompanied to Atlantic City won the preliminary swimsuit competition. She speaks of the moment with such vicarious pleasure, it is hard to imagine that she never entered anything herself.
"I was an also-ran in a local pageant in college," she says, with a laugh. "I've always been interested in pageants, especially the Miss America one. I thought it would be a thrill to go to one, and it was!"
In fact, Helen Fox says, it still is.
She takes out her 22-page guide, given to her by Miss America pageant officials. She is studying it, highlighting in bright yellow felt tip marker the most important points.
* "NO MEN ARE PERMITTED TO VISIT OR ENTER THE ROOM OF A CONTESTANT AT ANY TIME."
* "A contestant must never be left alone in a hotel room or neglected in any way."
* "Contestants make the news. What you say during an interview will be published or broadcast all over the country. Reporters often dig for the unusual happenings in your life. They may ask questions on sex, morals, gambling, women's rights, abortion, nudity and politics. Never hesitate to say 'No comment' if a question is too personal."
* "YOU MUST OBTAIN APPROVAL TO BRING YOUR OWN HAIRDRESSER TO ATLANTIC CITY. Only one hairdresser per state."
The guidebook also warns swimsuit contestants to cover any tan lines with makeup.
"With Robin being black," says Fox, "she doesn't have to worry about a suntan line."
Fox tells the story of a recent fitting at a dress shop. "The saleswoman looked at Robin and said, 'My you have a beautiful tan. She didn't know Robin was black. It was just too cute."
They will spend $3,000 on Harmon's color-coordinated wardrobe, most of it in shades of white.
"White really looks well on Robin," says Fox.
There's the white skintight swimsuit, the white beaded evening gown with mutton sleeves and, for her interview, a white knit two-piece dress with $80 white shoes.
For the opening number, Helen Fox chose an electric-blue suit with a short bolero-type jacket for Harmon. But Fox says she isn't happy with it. She's looking for something else.
"Right," says Fox. "We found a suit jacket in white nubby wool. Something that will REALLY grab them."
Their week in Atlantic City is already scheduled:
Arrive Saturday, Sept. 5. Sunday, dinner at the Playboy Club. Monday, rehearsals. Interviews with judges begin. Tuesday, more rehearsals. Tuesday night, boardwalk parade. Wednesday, talent competition. Thursday, swimsuit competition. Friday, evening-gown competition. Saturday, a new Miss America is crowned before a live audience of 25,000 and 25 million more munching Fritos and staying up until midnight, swearing that the one they pick never wins.
Helen Fox searches through her file for more papers. She finds the one naming the judges. This year, they are the former director of the Air Force band, a "noted" TV and stage actress she's never heard of, a former beauty queen, two producers, a comedian and a game-show host. Wink Martindale.
"Oh, he's so cute," says Fox. "He's the one on that 'Tic Tac Dough' show."
The comedian is Foster Brooks.
"You don't know Foster Brooks? The drunk guy? He's REALLY good," says Fox. "He's always on the Dean Martin roasts."
She takes another typed sheet. It shows the other 49 contestants and what their "talent" will be. Harmon is up against some pretty stiff competition: a gymnast who will perform to the theme from "Hawaii Five-O," another who will perform to "Theme From Close Encounters," a few vocalists, a few piano players, a guitar player who will warble "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool." There is only one other dramatic entry. An original piece of writing.
"Antigone" was chosen by one of Harmon's former professors at Howard for the Miss Maryland contest. Her current drama coach confides that she would have chosen a less difficult piece to perform in Atlantic City but, as Fox says, "Sometimes, emotionally, changing a girl's talent can throw them off."
Some states, says Helen Fox, have more money than others. They can afford to give their contestants a last-minute crash course in just about anything. They also can afford better clothes, more evening gowns. High-priced makeup. High-priced poise.
The day before they leave, Fox says, she will take Harmon to Elizabeth Arden for the works: hair, nails, pedicure, facial.
Maryland has a rather small budget, she says, compared to some of the other states. "Like Texas," she says. "They have money up the tu-tu."
The Warm-Up Interview
Q. If Robin Harmon were given $1 million, what would she do with it?
A. "Oh my goodness. If I had a million dollars, well, I'd give my parents $100,000 first. Secondly, I'd buy a house and a car and start my own business. I'd like to own and operate my own modeling agency or school to train young women how to conduct themselves and how to maintain poise and self-assurance."
Q. Has she ever done any nude modeling?
A. "No. I've done lingerie and back modeling. When I won Miss Georgetown, David Chan Playboy photographer offered me a shooting while he was here doing 'The Girls of Washington.' I didn't take it up. I have never been interested in showing my body more than what has to be shown as far as modeling. I've done bras and underwear. But my personal body parts are personal and only I should see them." Long pause. "And my doctor."
Q. What does she think of the ERA?
A. "Bleeeeechh! I'm not into the ERA. I was born liberated. I don't believe in being equal to a man. To get equal pay should be enforced, but as far as competing, it's a GAME and I certainly don't feel I'm in the same league as a man. They're not in the same league as we are. Men certainly don't want to be like women, so why do we want to be like a man?"
Q. What about saving the whales?
A. "I'm for saving cats and dogs."
Q. What do her parents think?
A. "Oh, they're excited. I have drugged them around practically five years to everything I've gotten into."
"Dragged," says Helen Fox.
"That isn't the past tense of drag?" asks Harmon. "Drugged?"
"No," corrects Fox. "It's drag, drag, dragged."
Harmon looks crushed. She had been doing so well. Fox puts her arm around her reassuringly. "I don't think you'll have to use it in Atlantic City," she says.
Dreams and Schemes
Last week, tragedy struck when a small red pimple appeared on Robin Harmon's gorgeous chin.
"She was having a FIT about it," says Helen Fox. It wasn't from sweets, she says, it was hormonal.
"We always ask the contestant whether she will have her period at Atlantic City. There's nothing you can do. One girl got sort of puffy last year. We don't give them birth control pills, or anything, to stop them from having it. What other states do, I don't know."
Even though the pageant has traditionally endorsed a virginal quality about the contestants, times are changing.
"I don't think it's a Doris Day image anymore," says Fox. "The Miss America pageant has grown in the years, become more up-to-date in philosophies. The pageant is progressing. It used to be they could only wear a one-piece pastel-colored suit. Now, it can have designs on it."
The pageant, says Fox, "is moving with the times."
Harmon doesn't need to use any of the traditional tricks of the trade. She doesn't need to smear Vaseline on her teeth to keep her lips in a permanent smile without sticking to her teeth. "She can hold her smile naturally," says Fox.
She also doesn't need to tape the bottoms of her breasts together for more cleavage, or pad her hips.
"Robin is easy," says Fox. "I would give her an 8+."
Her strongest assets, says Fox, are her beauty, her face, her figure, her personality. "I wouldn't say her weakest is talent because she does her talent well. You can't compare her to an opera singer who's had years and years of training. It isn't fair. And they don't compare these girls in Atlantic City. But she has worked extremely hard. She's going to have to fight. I think we've got a shot at it with Robin. They're obviously going to see her. There's no WAY they're not going to notice her."
Last night, Robin Harmon says, she had a dream. It was about the Miss America pageant. She dreamed she won.
Did her calves touch when she stood in her swimsuit before the throng of admirers? She doesn't remember.
"But they WILL touch when she's up there," says Helen Fox.
They will touch. One way or another.