"Strike a pose, ladies," said Gwen Coleman, chair of the 1999 Ms. Senior D.C. Pageant.
Poised like a queen on her throne, 90-year-old Mary A. Payne arched her back and tilted her head. She was an object of beauty. She looked good and knew it.
Her "naturally silver" hair soaked up the stage light at a pageant rehearsal last week, and her rainbow-colored dress fit her petite frame perfectly. She smiled, showing just about every tooth in her mouth and stretching her large, almond-shaped eyes.
Today at the University of the District of Columbia, Payne and eight other seniors from the District will strut their stuff in hopes of winning the Ms. Senior D.C. title and advancing to the national competition in Las Vegas.
Contestants will be judged on personal interview, philosophy of life, artistic talent and evening gowns. Contestants must be over 60 and, of course, beautiful. But these women's ideas of beauty are different from the familiar American ideal.
"When I close my eyes and think of beauty, I see . . . " Payne paused, "I see myself. I see a black woman."
For these women, blue eyes, blond hair and ultra-thin frames are not prerequisites for beauty. Personality, inner strength, attitude and how one treats others make a person beautiful.
Payne said that she would have competed in pageants as a young woman if the opportunity had been available. But even now she doesn't believe it's too late to show off the years' she spent taking care of herself.
"I spend about 45 minutes putting on my makeup," she said. Proud of her facial artwork, she whispered, "I pencil in my eyebrows and put a little blush above them. This here rouge I got on my lips, I think it's some kind of red. Does it look good?" she asked.
Life has been good to this ole girl. But at the start, things didn't look so bright. Payne said that as a young child, she and her siblings were starved and abandoned by their mother. When Payne was 14, she began a good friendship with work by doing odd jobs.
In 1925, Payne graduated from The Hampton Institute, receiving a business degree. She was, she said, the first black woman to open a boutique in the District. At first, the women's clothing store was at 15th and U streets. She still operates the store, now called Payne Associates, on Fairmont Street NW.
Payne, who has outlived her husband and son, doesn't think she's too old for romance either.
"Old men, young men, they all cut their eyes at me," she said. "They ask me to go out on dates. I say, why not?"
Payne's secret to lasting beauty is trusting in God, having no fear and taking care of herself.
"I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't abuse my body. I eat properly, and I get eight hours of sleep every night," she said.
The national Senior Pageant began 27 years ago in New Jersey. This is the 19th D.C. pageant.
"We want to disprove many myths about aging," said Darlene Nowling, a program coordinator from the D.C. Office on Aging. "Seniors are still active and are vital parts of the community."
The reigning Ms. Senior D.C., Elaine Terry, 68, is happy to see more women in this year's competition. She said that the competition was a high point in her life.
"It was a great experience," she said. "But I wasn't totally prepared for the competition." What surprised Terry was that she was one of only two black women in the national pageant, which had a total of 31 participants.
"Growing up, there was no opportunity to share the limelight with white women on a stage. But I would have liked to," she said.
From the looks of things, times haven't changed much. Terry said that although this competition is for seniors, white America's dominant views of beauty hold true even for older women.
"I did appreciate the opportunity to go," she said. "I felt proud to represent D.C. and black women. There are plenty of talented and beautiful black women out there. We just don't get the exposure we need."
CAPTION: Contestant Daisy J. Savage uses a folded sheet of paper as a substitute for a fan while posing during a pageant practice.
CAPTION: Contestant Alberta V. Bryant, 69, rehearses her skit, titled "Growing Old," on stage at the University of the District of Columbia.
CAPTION: Mary A. Payne, 90, shares a laugh with Mike Brewer, the audio technician helping the women record their philosophies of life. Contestants will be also be judged on personal interviews.