EVEN BEFORE I learned of the incident in Honduras, I didn't know if I was cut out to be a judge for the Miss Virginia Pageant. I'd watched contestants smile and squeal through beauty contests from the safe remove of a television set, but I'd never become personally involved. Until recently when - for the sake of journalism only - I spent a couple days in Norfolk helping choose the Miss Virginia who next weekend will compete on network television for the Miss U.S.A. title.
It's nice work if you can get it, so long as you're working somewhere other than the aforementioned Honduras. That's where, according to a fellow judge who had a friend there, judges were stoned by an enraged audience when an unpopular woman was chosen the winner five years ago. (Did the judges grow more responsive to the people's choices the next years? Who can say - now the honored panel is shuttled far from the site of the contest under armed guard before the winner is announced.)
Happily, beauty pageants are less frenzied affairs north of the border. Unless, as happened during our rainy weekend in Norfolk, a bizarre failure of technology throws the best laid plans of Sid Sussman into disarray. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
Let's be frank about Sid Sussman. He looks more like a beauty contest director than a Hollywood casting director could hope for: big belly, pockmarked face, gap-toothed, a bulbous nose with a wart, a wardrobe that is, uh, eclectic with an emphasis on that modern miracle fabric called double-knit, Spotting him one morning, a photographer cracked, "Ask Sid to change the oil and rotate the tires, will you?"
But Sussman's gas jockey's careless looks belie a personality tailor-made for his chosen profession. In twenty years he's orchestrated contests involving some 125,000 women; he owns the franchise to run the Miss U. S. A. state pageants in Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and Georgia. He earns a living by collecting an entrance fee from contestants, some admission dollars at the gate and some advertising revenue from programs. He does it professionally, in almost a family way. Women adore him; on Thanksgiving, for example, former contestants prepare a fat turkey for Sussman so the bachelor will not have to suffer a lonely holiday. He is stern during rehearsals, fatherly in private. His motto is "I'm easy," which refers to his outlook on life since be collapsed two years ago with a heart attack while hosting a swimsuit competition at Miami Beach.
Sussman isn't in the beauty biz for fun; he wants to win, and before his judges begin inspecting the contestants, he explains some facts of life in the privacy of his suite at the Omni hotel
"No Miss U. S. A. has been under 5 feet 6 inches so we're not aiming our sights at anyone too short," says Sussman. One-third of the sixty-four contestants measure in under that height. "When in doubt, go on beauty of face. If that doesn't work, we'll go on height and if that doesn't work, we'll go on someone older and if that doesn't work, just close your eyes and pick.
"We'll have a cocktail party without the cocktails during which you'll meet all the girls in groups. They'll be introduced and they'll have twenty minutes to talk to each of you just as if this was a party. In the back of your mind, you have to remember you're looking for Miss U. S. A. - so if some girl have a nice personality, she might not have a prayer in other respects, don't waste your vote. You're not trying to determine if they're incredibly bright - whether she can solve World War III.
"If you don't like their gown or hair, those can be changed," says Sussman, who makes it clear a winning body and personality can be dressed and groomed in time for April's national contest. "But if they look like me, forget it."
Unlike the rival Miss America pageant, the Miss U.S.A. contest has no talent requirement.("You don't have to stand on your head and play the piano," snipes Sussman.) We judges were presented with women ranging in age from 17 to 26, with measurements that ran the gamut from 32-22-32 to 39-24-36. Some appeared worldly, some tough, some girlish.
Some, like Nancy Yeamans, a clinical psychology major at the University of Virginia, entered on a dare.
"My boyfriend said it would be a hoo-ha and my roommate, a law student, said she'd always wanted to live with a star," said Yeamans, who made her own clothes for the weekend.
Others viewed the affair as a stepping stone in a modeling career. Terry Hughes, an ad agency secretary in Richmond, spent $3000 on designer-label clothes, including a silk Halston jumpsuit.
Some women approached the weekend with undisguised ambition for movie contracts, fame and glory. For Gloria Renfrow of Annandale, the pageant marked the end of a single-minded self-improvement program that included losing ten pounds, undergoing plastic surgery as well as cosmetic dental work and buying a new wardrobe.
Robin Shadle, a well-spoken, knockout blonde from Springfield who won the pageant, entered at the suggestion of her modeling agency director. Her real passion, however, is a career in public relations - currently she's a graphic artist for the Fairfax school system while she pursues a master's degree in education at the University of Virginia.
Like almost any pursuit that looks gamorous to the audience (moviemaking and racing come to mind), the actual pageant is asexual. Though Sussman places no restrictions on socializing between judges, staff and contestants, everyone is on their best behavior. Some women, so afraid of appearing ungraceful to a judge during an unguarded moment, refused to eat at the community breakfasts and dinner. Others were confortably gregarious, like Donna Meade, a paperhanger from Richmond who sang and played a soft guitar one night in the pageant suite after a pizza and wine party. As the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Elizabeth River began to fog in the cold, damp night, Meade slid off her shoes and sang sad love songs in a crystal voice.
They dream, these women willing to parade in high heels down a thirty-two-foot runway wearing a swimsuit. Some dreams are grand: one contestant said she wanted to live during the height of the Roman Empire, another wanted to change places with the late author, Pearl S. Buck. Others said they'd be content if someday they could visit Switzerland or "have Jesus as my savior."
Sid Sussman, he would have settle for a little luck.
On Sunday afternoon, as the pageant drew to a close, as the distinguished panel of judges chose the fifteen semi-finalists, then the finalists, as the crowd of 500 leaned forward for a last look at the top five women, as the "envelope please" was handed to the M.C. . . . as Sid Sussman was about to wind up his pageant and the television crews finished taping the pageant for showing in seven states the following weekend . . . as the fifty-nine certain losers closed their makeup cases backstage, some swearingthrough tears never to enter a pageant again . . . as all of this was happening, a pageant official ran up to Sussman and whispered the grim news.
Before the envelope containing the winner's name could be opened, Sussman took the stage to explain about the videotape machine in the truck behind the hotel that hadn't . . . recorded . . . a single minute . . . of the two-hour show. Some dirt was lodged in the head of the machine and, delighted with the show's pace, the exec producer hadn't rerun the tape to make sure the event was being recorded for the television stations that planned to air it the following weekend.
Sid Sussman felt his delicate heart begin ticking dangerously fast, but he began selling.
"I can only appeal to what kind of trooper you are," he said to the shocked contestants as he begged them to go through the pageant once more with feeling. Big money from television advertisers, not to mention prestige, rode on their cooperation.
In the end, the pageant was repeated. A dozen women left, unwilling to act surprised at what was, for them, foregone defeat. Half the audience decided not to stay to see the winner crowned.
For a moment there, Honduras looked pretty good.