- Fifty-four contestants aged sixty and over
- A theme song titled “The Little Girl Inside”
- Eleven tap dancers
- An infinitude of sequins
For three days every October, the ballroom of the Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey fills with women, and sequins. When I arrive, I see sequins worn in more ways than I knew they could be worn, spangling aggressively across gowns and blouses, glinting from the hem of a bolero or from the center of a jacquard flower. There are rhinestones, brooches, tiaras of differing heights and grandeur. There are shoulder-padded jackets that render the women inside them at once petite and bulky. I count a dozen unique takes on formal trousers: with ruffles, with slits, with a sheer layer veiling a more revealing inner trouser. All the blondes look giraffe tall; all the tans are a deep terra-cotta. The makeup is unabashedly full-faced: masks of foundation, bright knots of lipstick, stripes of blush sweeping up the crests of cheekbones. Stiletto or kitten heels wobble in the hotel carpeting. Here, feminine glamour has been taken to its furthest level. But while glamour is usually synonymous with youth, all the women in this luminous, glittering group are aged sixty or older. This is the Ms. Senior America Pageant.
As I observe the show over the following days, the women cheerfully share their biographies and their ambitions with me. Many of their stories have been rehearsed to hit the appropriate notes of hardship and resilience—Ms. Connecticut was imprisoned in a Stalinist labor camp before immigrating to the US; Ms. Pennsylvania wears a four-diamond brooch to symbolize four life lessons that can help overcome women’s anxieties about aging. Some women are practiced performers and take the competition seriously, but others treat it more like an annual occasion to see friends. “It used to be that when you were a woman and you got on in years, you were expected to just sit back and be a nice grandmother,” Ms. Transatlantic tells me. “But there are so many of us now, baby boomers, and life expectancies are much longer than they used to be, so we’ve got a lot of time to fill.”
Pageantry wasn’t always associated with beauty, or even with competition. The first recorded beauty pageant was created in 1854 by P. T. Barnum as a natural extension, evidently, of beauty contests he had previously held for dogs, birds, and babies. But before World War I, in England and the US, pageants in which townspeople performed historical scenes for their fellow villagers became a popular form of democratic entertainment. Beginning in 1908, the National American Woman Suffrage Association adopted the pageant as a way of bringing the accomplishments of women into view in an audience-pleasing way. Its shows spliced together short scenes or tableaux depicting notable women of history and their contributions to society—morality plays, essentially, centered around the equal capabilities of the sexes. Female performers wore costumes or sashes emblazoned with slogans of their choosing. In 1913, on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, suffragettes organized a parade numbering eight thousand women. They then put on a pageant in which more than a hundred women and girls, dressed in gauzy white gowns, silently personified virtues such as justice, charity, liberty, peace, and hope.
The Miss America Pageant, started in 1921 by a group of Atlantic City businessmen who wanted to draw in tourists outside of the usual summer season, stepped into the space opened up by the suffragettes. These early shows echoed many of the characteristic features of the suffragettes’ pageants—the sashes, the costumery, the willful resistance to staying out of sight, out of mind—but emphasized individual excellence over feminist solidarity. Competition for the crown pitted women against one another in a contest that rewarded a new vision of the ideal woman: beautiful, young, shapely, well-spoken, moral but noncombative. What was once a practice of dissent became a spectacle capable of opening doors for individual women—many used the pageant to launch careers in acting, modeling, and public life—though it came at the expense of the whole.
Ms. Senior America, by contrast, was originally envisioned as an “inner beauty” pageant, uplifting all women by celebrating a variety of body types, personalities, and life experiences. It was created in 1972 by Al Mott, a young minister who directed a senior home in New Jersey. One day he opened the local newspaper and saw a photo of an elderly woman eating dog food out of a garbage can. He recalled working under an evangelical missionary who had once taken him aside, pointed out a homeless woman, and told him that she was a queen in the eyes of God. Mott held his first pageant with eighteen women recruited from his senior center. Over the years, the pageant has been expanded and professionalized: all fifty states, plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, are now represented at the national pageant, and many states—especially those with warm weather and correspondingly large retiree populations—run their own.
Ms. Senior America puts the spotlight on women from ages “sixty to death,” as one former contestant puts it. Some contestants have smartly dyed hair or sleek wigs, but others wear naturally gray tresses in short, grandmotherly styles. Most of all, the pageant exhibits senior women doing things that may seem incongruous with their age just because the public rarely sees them do it, like twerking provocatively in fishnets, or turning cartwheels and doing splits while playing “This Little Heart of Mine” on a rhythm stick. When you turn on your TV or open a mainstream fashion magazine, you’re unlikely to see more than a few exemplars of senior womanhood; at the pageant, with fifty-four women onstage, I encounter dozens of different ways to grow old. Ms. Wyoming, a medical technician, worked with Jack Kevorkian in her first job. Ms. Tennessee, who does Hawaiian dance, appeared in two Elvis movies. There is a high school vice principal, a vice mayor, a talk show host, a cruise ship singer, and a former EPA administrator. Several competitors have written books or released albums, and more than one operates a nursing home. They’ve survived car accidents and multiple strokes. They’ve had fifty-seven-year marriages and many, many grandchildren. And at least eleven are skilled tap dancers.
Mott is proud to emphasize that contestants have acted, danced, or sung on Broadway, in musical acts, even in operas. But his pleasure at the unexpected performance talents of the participants betrays a departure from his original mission. The pageant, conceived as a public appreciation of ordinary senior women, now, predictably, rewards only the “best” senior women. In fact, Ms. Senior America bears a stronger resemblance to the beauty pageant Atlantic City is better known for than to anything else. In its “philosophy of life” segments, in which contestants share a thirty-second prepared statement, the tone is emphatically un-subversive and apolitical, an endless stream of the same optimistic platitudes that all good little girls are raised on. Life is likened to a box of chocolates that must be tried, a delicious apple that should be bitten into, a gift you get to open every day. Interspersed among calls to enjoy the present are reminders to live each day as though it were your last, to dream big and fulfill your goals, to never, ever stop striving. Ms. New Jersey quotes her mother as saying, “Count your blessings, keep moving, and smile!”—which I recognize as a piece of advice my own mother has given me.
On the final day of the pageant, a singer strolls among the smiling, swaying, evening-dressed contestants, crooning: “She’ll always have that little girl inside. / She’ll always have that little girl she can’t hide.” The women beam at him and at the audience. Then the queen is finally crowned: Ms. Missouri, or Peggy Lee Brennan. She has performed on Broadway with Patrick Swayze, and her daughter was Miss Missouri’s Outstanding Teen 2017. All ten finalists are on the younger end of the spectrum, and the majority have been professional entertainers. They have glossy hair, sparkly dresses, and figures that wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional pageant. As I watch from the dark and sunken space directly in front of the stage, it seems to me that instead of extending the conventional scripts of femininity into their old age, these women might prefer to opt out of the numerous and often contradictory demands of female youth. I wonder whether this is the trajectory of all modes of female exhibition: to begin by asserting something stubbornly different from societal convention, only to end up folding that difference into the louder and more insistent voice of the mainstream.
And yet it’s no small thing to give yourself permission, as a woman, to find yourself interesting, worthy of attention, and full of potential. As an older woman living in a youth-obsessed, youth-oriented culture, this feels radical. I, a thirty-year-old writer, spent three days among these women, and I went nearly unnoticed. Because no one looked at me, I was free to watch, an action that felt deliberate rather than voyeuristic. It didn’t matter how I appraised the contestants, or what I thought of their hair, makeup, and philosophy of life. By watching, I helped to constitute a public for these women who insisted that there should be no age limit on your right to be seen, heard, and admired. In this context, watching could be a way of showing respect.