It's 6:30 p.m., time for the pre-event talent showcase. The house lights are still on and Summit Arena is somewhere between one-third and one-half full. People mill about, dressed in everything from tuxedos and sequins to seersucker and khaki. Handmade posters line the section railings, wishing specific contestants good luck. Ten minutes later, the crowd hasn't filled out, but the lights dim anyway.
Welcome to crowning night, the highlight of the 75th Miss Arkansas pageant. General admission will run you about $30, but the best seats are reserved for press. They line the runway, affording reach-out-and-touch proximity to visibly quaking calves, tear-streaked, make-up muddied faces and the occasional glimpse of Spanx-clad thighs.
Early on, I realize this is going to be more interesting than my prior pageant experience — watching friends shuffle onstage in our high school auditorium, using the event as an attempt to extend the usefulness of their prom dresses.
Miss Arkansas, night six, officially starts with each of the 47 contestants storming the stage to club music, stating their name and qualifying title, and then strutting down the runway in identical dresses that resemble a one-shoulder take on a Pan Am uniform. From the press perspective, it's a full-scale advance, an army of perfect — albeit orange-hued — limbs parading about 2 feet from my face. When I manage to overcome the hypnotic motion of so many legs ending in the same pair of rhinestone heels, the runway immediately conjures my sole after-hours experience on Fayetteville's Dickson Street — bleached blondes, everywhere I look, with a few exceptions. The party girls are even dancing a little, because they can't help themselves. Many of them are college freshmen, and when someone cues this kind of music, dancing is just instinct.
The limbs arrange themselves onstage, some posed atop wooden blocks. When the limbs are still and the smiles pasted, the top 10 contestants are announced. The chosen few line the runway, some of them so eager to make it to the "safe" corner that they trot rather than walk, the way that a boxer might. Except that they're trotting in heels, which means they're actually scuttling. A few of them are weeping (in relief, I suspect) at having made it this far. As the chosen clasp hands, embrace and swipe their eyes, I glance at the 37 others. Way back there on the big stage, the smiles have grown tighter. One girl wears an expression of utter bewilderment. It's obvious that her mind is racing, trying to process the incredible disappointment of having it all end, just like that, and at the same time, recalling what she was instructed to do in this worst-case scenario. Oh yes, she should offer a hand to the girls on the risers, help them step down in their heels. She turns to her left, then her right, but the risers are already vacated. The former occupants are either standing on the runway or have made a desperate getaway backstage, where they can sob in semi-privacy.
Tracy Neal, Miss University of Arkansas, is in the top 10. We met a few months back, and she told me how her Miss Arkansas wardrobe breaks down — $300 for swimsuit, $4,000 for evening gown, $1,500 for talent. In addition to these expenses there are the talent fees and the walking and interview lessons, often given by former beauty queens and traveling coaches.
"Miss Arkansas can cost up to $15,000," Neal said. "My budget for this year is between 7 and 8,000 [dollars]." Neal, a graduate student in the community health promotion program, raised about 80 percent of her budget. After our chat, she dashed off to host a princess party at the dance studio where she teaches. For an evening of manicures and makeup, little girls' moms were forking out $25 each.
Neal, a native of Bryant, didn't grow up in pageants. When she competed in Miss Arkansas 2011, it was only her third pageant. She said her initial interest was sparked by the scholarships (overall, Miss Arkansas 2012 offers a whopping $86,800 in scholarships and awards that include the use of a car and a gas stipend), but judging by her expenses, only Miss Arkansas herself (with a $20,000 scholarship), first runner-up ($8,000 scholarship) and maybe second runner-up ($7,000) will see any real financial return. And many girls make two, three or four rounds of Miss Arkansas before actually placing. But there are the unquantifiable personal benefits, including massive exposure and public speaking opportunities. In the role of Miss U of A, "you never know if you're going to be talking to children or the Chamber of Commerce, so you just have to be on your A-game at all times," Neal said. She estimates about five title-related appearances a week, in addition to her studies and her job. I came away from our meeting impressed by both Neal's composure and her sincerity.
First there's talent, which at 35 percent, is the largest portion of the final score. Among the 10, there are four vocalists, three dancers, a pianist, a flautist and a baton twirler. I'm rooting for Rosalyn Taylor, Miss Ouachita River, because being a majorette is so nerdy and awesome, and because her music is the theme from "Mission Impossible." She's a welcome departure from the endless Broadway vocalists. Added bonus: the batons seem kind of dangerous, flashing like silver-plated weapons under the lights. Of the vocalists, I favor Simone Mullinax, Miss Frisco Springs, who sings the operatic "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's "La Bohème." Mostly this is just because the song is in Italian and she wears one of the most impressive gowns of the night, a figure-hugging, floor-sweeping purple ensemble, embroidered with glittering flowers. I'm a snob about the dancing, though. I danced for years, and I can always tell when performers are cheating skills. The best dance of the night was a mostly a capella tap number performed by Kristen Glover, the departing Miss Arkansas. Miss Heart of the Ozarks Sloane Roberts' a capella tap routine was a distant second, although at least she seemed relaxed and energetic, and there was a lot of old-fashioned stomping.
The swimsuit — or, rather, "Lifestyle and Fitness" — portion of the competition goes down quickly and it seems, almost apologetically. After nearly jogging the runway, the entire line of finalists, nine in bikinis and one in a one-piece, line the stage (so the judges could make comparisons?), legs arranged prettily, stomachs sucked in and hips jutting out. All of the suits are boring. I wish someone had worn an awesome '50s pin-up piece or anything slightly playful, to offset what is actually an absurd and mortifying situation, even for some members of the audience.
Finally we've come to evening gown, the last on-stage part of the competition, as the interview portion happens behind closed doors. For the first time all night, I'm struck by Somer Allen, Miss Lights of the Delta. She's beautiful -- dark hair, ice-blue eyes and creamy skin that is barely obscured by layers of spray tan. Her nose is slightly hooked and her lips have a bit of that Angelina Jolie thing happening, perhaps a result of so many hours pursed against a flute. She glides down the runway, swinging her arms just so (which I come to recognize as an under-appreciated skill), in sharp contrast to another nameless contestant who conquers the runway as stiffly as an 80-year-old with a steel rod up her back. For me, Allen stole the event, but my favorite to win the crown — especially later, after being named highest academic achiever — is Mullinax, the classically proportioned, auburn-haired opera singer, who holds a master's degree in communication from the UA. She seems to tear up easily, but somehow she's poised even as her eyes stream. She's well-spoken, has excellent posture, a tasteful wardrobe and an elegant stage presence that is devoid of melodrama and unnecessary flash (read: she never runs, squeals, bootie-dances or flashes sorority gang signs). It just seems she would represent Arkansas well, perhaps even defying a few stereotypes.
The awards ceremony lasts forever. I count about 50 different awards, some as tiny as $100, for everything from best presentation upon arrival (I guess the judging starts first thing), to community service and leadership, to whose fans spent the most at Dillard's during pageant week. Some girls collect a half-dozen of these awards, which makes me extra sympathetic towards those who head home with nothing but the $250 "showing up" prize.
Simone Mullinax didn't even place in the top five, which confirms how little I know about pageants. The bleached blondes have a good run, though, filling the top three spots. Roberts, Miss Heart of the Ozarks and now, the new Miss Arkansas, is adorable, although she's definitely not as genteel a choice as I expected. This is her second time in the Miss Arkansas pageant, but she's a stage veteran, a former Miss Arkansas's Outstanding Teen and a lifelong tap, jazz and ballet star. She's petite, athletic and exuberant, oozing confidence, right down to her distinct, rear-wiggling stride. Her charisma is amplified by the crowd — she obviously loves the spotlight, which is a huge positive if your objective is to be Miss America. But unless Arkansas wants to perpetuate lame Southern stereotypes, our new queen could definitely use a more sophisticated wardrobe, a better haircut and a dose of sorority suppression. Then she might totally pull off an Edie Sedgwick aura, though I'm not sure how well Edie is selling on the Miss America stage these days. It would sure sell me on Sloane Roberts, though.Editor's Note: Based on information given to The Times by a pageant contestant and a Miss Arkansas spokesperson, an earlier version of this story misidentified which portion of the competition counts for the largest percentage of points. It has been corrected in the story.