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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.