It's 3pm on a Tuesday and I'm on a Greyhound headed south to Atlantic City. The crowd is small but lively – just a loudmouthed gambling enthusiast and her albino friend, a biracial gay couple, a young math teacher, and me. They can't believe I've never been and are extremely forthcoming with tips on how to get the most out of the casino experience. "As long as you're sitting down, the drinks are free," the loudmouth tells me. When I tell her I'm actually going down for a sixty-and-up beauty pageant she looks deeply skeptical. "Sixty?" she asks. "Six zero?"
Atlantic City is and always has been an escape: a dark spot out of the way of real life where pleasure, liquor, and fantasy abound. Visitors come to win but also to lose—their inhibitions, their worries, their workweek selves. I'm here for something different: an event so heartbreakingly earnest that after 24 hours my face hurt from smiling, an event where tambourines outnumber poker chips ten to one. It's a pageant unlike any other: it's Ms. Senior America.
This is "the world's first and foremost pageant" for women who have reached the "Age of Elegance"—sixty and up. Women are judged based on evening gown, talent, interview, and personal philosophy segments. There is no swimsuit segment. Almost all of the competitors are grandmothers; some are great-grandmothers. Contestants range from former pageant queens and performers to dentists, attorneys, and officers in the Coast Guard. Although the pageant has been going strong since 1971, spawning imitators both domestically and abroad, outside the senior pageantry circuit it remains largely unknown.
In order to understand the Ms. Senior America pageant as it is today, it's important to know a little bit about its founder, Dr. Al Mott. A classically trained singer, doctor of Divinity, and avid user of Twitter, Dr. Al is man of many ideas. This particular idea came to him in 1971 after he read an article about impoverished senior citizens eating out of the trash. "I came up with an idea; the idea was the Ms. Senior Citizen pageant," he says, laughing in sheer wonder, almost forty years later. Dr. Al sees this as much more than a pageant—he sees it as a second chance, a space for women who have been disenfranchised by a youth-oriented culture to celebrate the formidable gifts that they have: their beauty, intelligence, and talent.
During our conversation, he is frequently distracted by the various contestants and returning queens walking by. He greets each by name, even those whose names he does not remember. "Hi Curly," he said to one woman in a large curly wig. "Look at you!" The community that has grown around the pageant is all that Dr. Al could have hoped for, the ultimate proof of concept. "This is their family now, and somehow, I'm the pied piper," he tells me with a sheepish shrug.
"When I was sixty my last child left for college. I was kind of floundering, not knowing what to do," Patti Kuhn, better known as "Peppermint Patti," tells me. "I thought, Well, my children are all gone; I have nobody to embarrass but myself." Competing in the Ms. Senior America pageant was the first step in Patti's transformation from stay-at-home mom to Renaissance woman. Since then, she's taken up the drums and accordion, gone to tax school, gotten her pilot's license, and studied the flying trapeze.
"I reinvented myself," she says. "It was very scary, but I had to find out who I was." When Patti first competed in 2006, she swing danced to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" with "Uncle Sam," a dummy she constructed out of a dowel rod, an Army uniform, and aviator sunglasses. Pageant rules prohibit dancing partners, so Patti's is a common dilemma. In the 24-hours I spend at the pageant, I witness two other women dancing with nonhuman objects. Though she isn't competing this year, Patti has returned for a reunion show and to see old friends. "I come back every year because I love the people," she says.
Another returning contestant is Fran Owens of Boston. Competing this year as Ms. Rhode Island 2015, she was also Ms. Massachusetts in 2007 and Ms. Maine in 2011. "If God doesn't want me to win, I'll come back next year as Vermont," she says. Fran wears large earrings and a wig that would make Dolly Parton jealous. Her suit ("the most conservative thing I own") is black with large red flowers, a bold pattern which reappears on her kitten heels. She designs all of her own clothes, she tells me, and she calls her company 'Frantastic Creations'. She is also the author of several songs—including "I Just Don't Look Good Naked Anymore", which has 21,000 views and counting on Youtube.
"Being part of Senior America is greater than anything for women who don't want to wear their bathrobe and slippers and watch The Bold and the Beautiful," she says. I find myself envisioning a bathrobe by Frantastic Creations. There are a lot of sequins.
Ms. Senior America 2014 Patsy Godley has a distinctly different vibe. A country singer at heart, Patsy entered the preliminary pageant as a stunt to market her band. Then she won and kept on winning. Despite the fact that she is wearing a tiara, she is the most down-to-earth person I've ever met. She tells me story after story with a clear-eyed, gravel-throated honesty that invites ultimate confidence, sprinkling into each an off-color joke that she makes me promise not to include on the record. Because she will only be queen for 24 more hours, she opens up a bit about aging gracefully and how shitty it is to have to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" ("Some sadist wrote that song").
"Until I got involved in this pageant, I wasn't looking around to see who my role model was," Ms. Mississippi says. Her name is Dr. Barbara Mauldin and she is from the town of Petal on the Leaf River in Forrest County, Mississippi. Already a "pioneer...of Mississippi private dentistry," Dr. Barbara keeps a busy calendar with work, volunteering on international mission trips, and ballroom dancing. She emphasizes the importance of staying active, continuing "to learn, grow and improve no matter what your age." Like Peppermint Patti, she has only gained momentum as she's gotten older, and she believes that everyone else can and should do the same.
The challenges that women face around the age of sixty are strikingly familiar to me as a recent graduate: the end of a phase of life, the loss of identity, the shock of change. The main difference is that, while my friends and I talk about trying exciting new things, these women actually do it. For them, the age of elegance is the age of no bullshit—the age where pretension and inhibitions melt away and there's no excuse not to try new things. Instead of clinging to the past, these women are charging forward, making it up as they go along, flexing their muscles and having a blast.
I forget how unusual this is until the pageant goes on break and we wander out through the casino to find food or bathrooms. The artificially lit maze of slot machines is populated almost entirely by men and women of the same age as the contestants, sitting motionless, glassy-eyed, far less inspiring. It reminds me of something one of the contestants told me: "It's not the winning, I've already won. Just being here is cool."
Not everyone is so nonchalant about competition, however. When I first encounter Lauren Scott Monohan, who is competing as Ms. Tennessee, she's stalking around the waiting room like a mountain lion on the hunt for its next meal. A self-described jock, she's competed in pageants all of her life, with notable titles including runner-up to Miss Florida 1974 and Ms. Plus America 2003 (immediately thereafter she dropped 120lbs). "I want the crown," she says seriously. "This is my outlet, to put on pretty clothes and pantyhose and..." At this point she grits her teeth, opens her eyes wide and lets out a long, strained grunt before telling me squarely, "You play the game."
Ms. Tennessee hangs out with Ms. Illinois, one Susan O'Brian of Chicago. Though they've known each other less than 24 hours, they're inseparable. "If she wasn't on my side I'd be afraid of her," O'Brian jokes.
In their early sixties, both women went to college and had full careers. Monohan has been an event planner and officer in the Coast Guard, and O'Brian holds a masters degree in behavior and is a published author. For these women, the Ms. Senior America pageant is not a second chance, but rather an opportunity to celebrate a lifetime of achievement and move confidently into a new phase.
But, at the end of the day, there is always a winner. Today, it's Dr. Barbara. She is a good winner and a good role model – a woman whose integrity, curiosity, and enthusiasm for life we can all learn from. At 61 years old, she's also one of the youngest contestants.
It's a pokey reminder that in our culture, beauty is inextricable from youth. Inner beauty is difficult to see, and even more difficult to compete with. The audience's coos and ahhs when the contestants process out in their evening gowns are an audible indicator of that rubric that we use to judge women, even if we shouldn't. Small wonder the attention is welcome: After a lifetime of judgment, not being measured any more can feel, on some level, like failure. "I am sixty-one and construction workers don't whistle at me when I walk down the street any more," Ms. New Jersey tells me candidly. "It's a good thing, yes, but still it's a little knock to the ego when they stop. This is a little validation: I've still got it."
An important part of affirming "it" is creating space for these women to compete. Everyone wants to be wanted; everyone wants to win. And somehow, in the world of Ms. Senior America, everyone does.
That's the reason people come to Atlantic City in the first place: to win. It's just that most bets don't pay off quite as well as this one.