Monday, September 19, 2016

Growing Up Miss Alabama

Taking the Stage
When the Stomps family arrived at our local children’s theatre everyone took notice.  We were preparing for a talent show where I was performing what would generously be called an “improvisational tap” routine (using the Harold Hill think method discussed here).  There were four girls in the family, all beautiful and all talented in their own way.  Beth, who was the oldest, had a voice that commanded your attention.

There wasn’t much Beth couldn’t do.  She was soon landing leads in every production.  Even with nightly rehearsals and a 45 minute commute each way, she still managed to make the National Honors Society. She was the kind of girl that it would be easy to hate.

But Beth was also fun and silly, and we quickly became friends.
Beth was always a performer, but she wasn’t a pageant kid.  In high school she realized she was going to have to find a way to pay for college on her own, so she entered the Junior Miss Pageant (now known at Young Woman of the Year).   With scholarship money in her pocket, she enrolled at the University of Alabama as a music major before transferring to theatre.  

It was there that she decided, on a whim, to enter the Miss University of Alabama pageant.  She had her grandmother’s mint green formal from 1975 and a costume she borrowed from a community theatre production of My Fair Lady.  She won and was soon competing against seasoned pageant girls at the Miss Alabama Pageant.    

That’s where she realized that there were two types of pageant girls.  She explained, “There are the girls who are in it for the crown and there are the girls who are in it for the opportunities.”  The next year she found her way back to the Miss Alabama Pageant, and this time she went home with the crown and new opportunities.  The pageant community rallied around her giving her support and guidance, all while her family was dealing with her father's declining health. 

But her win meant putting her relationship with Matt, her college sweetheart on hold.  Miss Alabama doesn’t have a boyfriend.  When she returned to campus after her win she found a note from him vowing to wait for her.   

In a bold move at the time – especially for a girl from Alabama – Beth made AIDS education her platform.  At 20 years old she found herself in Washington DC meeting with government officials to lobby for better housing options and care, all while preparing to compete in Miss America.

Meanwhile, I was a women’s studies major as a small, liberal arts college in New York.  Attending the pageant went against pretty much everything I was being taught. But it was Beth and what were the chances that anyone I knew would ever compete in Miss America.

I was college-poor but determined to attend.  I took the bus to Atlantic City, stayed at a dive motel on top of an Irish pub.  The bathroom was down the hall, and I slept fully clothed, on top of the bed for fear of bedbugs.  I took the bus to the pageant in a blue velvet dress I had no business wearing.  But it was worth it. 

For Beth, the Miss America Pageant was a whole new world.  “There were girls up there in $5000 dresses,” she tells me. “I had a dress from Goodwill and a voice.”  Beth didn’t win the crown, but she had an experience that has impacted every aspect of her life since.

Soon her reign came to an end and Beth had to learn how to speak as herself, rather than as the voice of Miss Alabama.  

Most of us assumed that she would graduate and head to New York.  However, she decided to stay close to home to help with her father’s escalating health crisis.  Matt kept his promise to wait for her and soon after graduation they were married.

Matt’s job eventually took them to the west coast.  Knowing no one, they decided to start running.  It provided them with something they could do together, while also helping them build community in an unfamiliar place.  She approached running the same way she approached pageants.  “I’m doing something I never thought I was capable of doing.  Every time I’m running I’m competing against myself,” she says.

The skills she learned in pageants and theatre have served her well in her career as a pharmaceutical rep.  Not only is she able to easily memorize details about the products she sells, but her background also helps with presentations.  “It’s all about knowing how to package yourself, how to sell yourself in 5 minutes.”

But there was one thing that Beth, who had always accomplished what she set out to do, struggled with.  For years, Beth and her husband tried to start a family.  Finally, after fertility treatments and specialists, Kate was born.  It took several more years until Beth was ready to once again deal with the physical and emotional stress that goes along with fertility treatments, but ultimately it was worth it.  Running and pageants have now become a family affair, with Kate and little sister Paige, participating at their mother’s side.

Jealousy usually comes from seeing someone doing something that you know you could do.  There was never any competition between us because I always knew that Beth could do things I couldn’t do.  Even at 12, I knew that was something worthy of respect.

We met for lunch at Little Donkey, a local favorite in the Homewood area of Birmingham.  Her husband, who Beth describes as a great “girl-dad”, took our daughters to the playground so we could enjoy uninterrupted conversation.  We replayed our almost 30 year friendship over chips and guacamole.  Beth looked effortlessly beautiful in her well-accessorized denim dress.  (I, on the other hand felt victorious for remembering to wear lipstick.)

The conversation became focused on the role that the Miss Alabama program has played in her life.  She tells me she has never experienced the pettiness that the pageant world is infamous for.  “I learned early on that I could hang out with people who would pull me down or those who would lift me up.”

The program holds a special place in her heart because of the personal growth she experienced as a result.  Miss Alabama provided her with more than just money for school and a showcase for her talent, it also provided her with support and stability during a particularly difficult time and lessons that have benefited her since.  Hearing her talk about her involvement in the pageant community made me rethink many of my assumptions about that world.  

Today Beth and her family spend their weekends competing in marathons.  Kate now competes as well.  When he opportunity arises, Beth judges or emcee's pageants.  Often her daughters appear on stage with her.  Beth has found her way back to her first love, performing in community theatre productions and doing voice-over work.  And just like the girl I met when I was 12 years old, Beth seems to do it all well.