(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.

This column originally ran on August 5, 2011. Kathryn Eastburn will return next week.

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.

 

5 Responses to The Middle Distance 8/3/12: What Was I Thinking

  1. Ellen Troyer says:

    Today’s Middle Distance column reminded me of my decision to enter the Tennessee 1956 Miss Strawberry Festival pageant. I came in third, hated the whole experience and promised myself I would never do something like that again. I, too, received strange letters and local pageants were not even televised in the mid 50s. One can only imagine what pageant-driven girls in the South have to deal with today.

  2. Matt H. says:

    I’ve been wondering for a while now, wether or not TMD makes KRCC a better radio station. I’m not sure KRCC has a primary purpose. If TMD serves it, God bless you. It seems like pure fluff to me. I’m not wondering any more.

  3. joyce cheney says:

    Kathryn, we don’t care what Cybil Shepherd looked like. Will you post a photo of YOU during your beauty pageant? Aw, come on! Please?

  4. Bob R. says:

    Just a wild guess, but the producers of The Big Something seem to have tried to give a good answer at http://radiocoloradocollege.org/about/about-2/ . Worked for me.

  5. Paula says:

    hey, where’s the pic?

News

NPR
June 24, 2016 | NPR · The city has set up an assistance center and plans to begin distributing $9 million in donations to the victims of the Pulse shootings and their families. An LGBTQ group has raised nearly $6 million.
 

June 24, 2016 | NPR · Legislators, pressured by the state Supreme Court, passed a $38 million package for the state’s underfunded schools. Justices had threatened to close all public schools in Kansas after this month.
 

AP
June 24, 2016 | NPR · A fast-moving blaze in the central part of the state, whipped up by hot temperatures and dry vegetation, has burned more than 1,900 acres. Officials warn conditions are ripe for more wildfires.
 

Arts & Life

June 24, 2016 | NPR · Every answer in this final round contains a word that is also a feeling or emotion. If we said, “It’s an app where avians are flung across the screen at piggies,” you’d answer, “Angry Birds.”
 

June 24, 2016 | NPR · Jeff Goldblum and Maika Monroe from Independence Day: Resurgence discuss the challenges of acting with CGI aliens. Plus, they play a game based on an infamous speech from Independence Day.
 

June 24, 2016 | NPR · We’ve mashed up the names of famous people with common text messaging abbreviations.
 

Music

AFP/Getty Images
June 24, 2016 | WXPN · The genre-defining singer joined World Cafe in 2002 for a career-spanning conversation.
 

Courtesy of the artist
June 24, 2016 | WXPN · Join in a listening session for Young’s new live album, Earth, which also features field recordings of natural sounds.
 

WireImage
June 24, 2016 | NPR · The influential keyboardist and composer had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Worrell was a key member of Parliament-Funkadelic and played with the Talking Heads.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab