(Cybil Shepherd, center, after winning the Miss Teenage Mephmis Pageant in 1966)

The Middle Distance 8.5.11: What Was I Thinking?

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

photo by Sean Cayton

What was I thinking? I was 15 years old and had moved with my family from the small town of Jackson to the big city of Memphis. I didn’t know anyone, had left all my friends and potential boyfriends behind. I thought my life was over. So when I picked up a brochure seeking entrants for the Miss Teenage Memphis pageant, coming up in September, I filled it out and mailed it in. The top prize was cash, what seemed a lot to me. A few months later, after a couple of preliminary rounds, I found myself among the top ten finalists. I was the youngest and the oldest was a high school senior named Patty, a pageant pro whose body said 18, but her eyes said 30.

What was I thinking? Hard to say out here in the middle distance where that kind of naivete has long since been squelched. I was bored and lonely and I believed I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t politicized, though that was soon to come. I had no experience in the world of beauty queens, but thought it might be glamorous.

It wasn’t. We met and rehearsed in a musty hotel ballroom on a makeshift stage. The girls who’d done this for years, the pageant pros whose bedrooms were bedecked with ribbons and sashes and trophies, brought in their own makeup lights for backstage, while I made up in the dim bathroom. Backstage was like a chicken coop, stirred up by the intrusion of a rooster.

It was 1970 and the Miss Teenage America franchise was updating itself to meet the times. They were looking for more natural girls, girls who were separated from their mothers’ generation by the long, liberating march of the 1960s. But what they were really looking for, in Memphis anyway, was another Cybill Shepherd, the local beauty who had walked away with the Miss Teenage Memphis title four years before and was now a supermodel and soon-to-be movie star. There were no Cybill Shepherds in our top ten.

The ante of this adventure was upped when I discovered the finals would be televised locally. I would have to perform my talent — the thing that had likely got me here, my ability to sing and play piano at the same time — in front of a television camera. Just thinking about it made my palms sweat, my throat close, my heart jump around like a pinball machine. What’s more, our group photo, posing like starlets in a semi-circle, our boobs all pointed westward, appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal with our names and the names of our high schools.

Before the torture of the finals competition, we enjoyed one afternoon of sheer thrilling fun. The top ten were invited to appear on a Saturday afternoon local television variety show, hosted by George Klein, a former disc jockey who looked like a vampire. The day we appeared, Klein’s special guest was Ronnie Milsap, the blind country singer whose star was just beginning to rise. Milsap, dressed in a satin tuxedo jacket, sat at a shiny black grand piano and rocked and rolled. We circled the piano and leaned over, snapping our fingers and swaying to the music. When Ronnie’s number was over, he blew blind kisses all around and we genuinely swooned.

Finals night arrived and I wished only for this whole thing to be over. But first I had to do my number, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” in front of the dreaded camera. I could play it in my sleep, but this day my hands shook. I opened with my best, hushed Barbra Streisand inflection — On a cleeeeaah day — then stumbled through every mountain, sea, and shore to the terrible end. I was eliminated and didn’t make the final five. Patty, who’d performed a choreographed contortionist act to the Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet, ended up winning the whole thing.

I was done with pageants. I made cool new friends at my massive, scary new high school, never mentioned to them my brief brush with fame, and prayed they hadn’t seen me on TV. Then one day I started receiving strange letters on thin, striped stationery, addressed to me, care of my school, in childish block letters. Inmates from the county penal farm apparently had followed the Miss Teenage Memphis pageant and especially liked the youngest contestant. What was I thinking as I stuffed those letters into my locker? That one day I would forget this whole fiasco. And for 40 years, I did.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance, 8/5/11: What Was I Thinking?

  1. Isabel says:

    I absolutely loved this story. I forwarded it on to a dear friend who lived many, many years in Memphis and was there at the time of this event. She now lives in California where she and I worked together at a community college. Enjoy New York and the wedding. I am dog sitting. Love, Isabel

  2. Marty says:

    Getting to know you, and your stories make me smile.

  3. Mary H says:

    I never got out of my home town pageant, but with my “Miss Congeniality” award to make me feel better, I still love singing John Denver’s “Follow Me” if only to myself.

    I’m very glad it never made TV. I thought it was ok, but all my not-so-diplomatic boyfriend said “Well, you are no John Denver.” I still don’t know if it was that bad, or if he just didn’t approve of pageants.

  4. Paula says:

    Well, had a good laugh and hope I can conjur this image up later today when I’m holding back those stinking alligator tears!!!!!

News

LightRocket via Getty Images
July 25, 2016 | NPR · For decades, New Zealand has tried to reduce the populations of destructive, non-native predators. Now the country has a more ambitious goal: eliminating invasive rats, stoats and possums by 2050.
 

AP
July 25, 2016 | NPR · “Brothers and sisters, this is the real world that we live in,” Sanders tried to say over the noise.
 

July 25, 2016 | NPR · Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz, who is stepping down amid an email scandal, was booed Monday. Is that a hint of what’s to come as Bernie Sanders speaks tonight?
 

Arts & Life

AP
July 25, 2016 | FA · Over the course of his career, Williams says he’s learned to separate himself from his characters (like The Wire‘s Omar). In HBO’s The Night Of, he plays a powerful prison inmate named Freddy.
 

Wikimedia Commons
July 25, 2016 | NPR · A new study of old masters finds that capturing and showing off decadent and expensive meals is a decidedly old-fashioned practice. Like today’s Instagrammers, it was all about projecting an image.
 

Getty Images
July 25, 2016 | NPR · You might not know Marni Nixon’s name, but you’ve probably heard her. Nixon dubbed the voices for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King and I.
 

Music

Courtesy of the artist
July 25, 2016 | NPR · Even with Glass Animals’ perky, high-pitched synths and rich R&B drums, you can’t help but sense tragedy in the air — especially when the song is paired with a video about a lost boy.
 

July 25, 2016 | FA · Maxwell creates an atmosphere of free-floating sensuality on his new album. Critic Ken Tucker says the record is dreamy and roomy enough to accommodate a wide array of emotions.”
 

Courtesy of Bob Hay
July 25, 2016 | NPR · With Live, recorded at Pylon’s final show in 1983, we hear a document that breathes and heaves, as these post-punk-disco mutants perform at the height of their evolution.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab