Growing up in small southern towns, salvation could happen anywhere at any time. The Piggly Wiggly cola aisle was just a good a place to lay hands on for healing as the front of the church. Everyone was on a first name with Jesus and prayed that He would help with Friday night basketball game, crops, or a broken car, so it was not out of question that He could bring salvation through the Miss Holloway Pageant.
In 1980, The Holloway School Board had threatened to cancel the Miss Holloway Pageant. Last year, a contestant’s dance routine involved too much “hip-shaking” and the young woman had worn red-ish tights. All this caused much consternation with the adults of the community who all had purer memories of the pageant. They did not want their small town school and God-fearing ways corrupted by this new generation, so concerned parents, alumni, and pastors held an emergency board/prayer meeting.
The next morning, the school secretary made the official announcement. Mrs. Barnum’s drawl crackled over the intercom, “Students of Holloway. I am very proud to say that the Miss Holloway Pageant will go on. We expect not only Holloway contestants, but all students of Holloway to show true school spirit and conduct themselves as Godly young men and women. And don’t forget…” Announcements about lunch, basketball games and senior pictures flowed from K-12 classrooms. After announcements, K-12 would stand with hands over hearts and recite “The Pledge of Allegiance.”
My sister Lydia was one of the Holloway Contestants “making school history with Purity in Pageantry” as the take home letter explained. The young contestants had to sign a decorum contract, and they had to participate in purity classes after school once a week. A very strict list of dos and don’ts for dress and talent was included in the take home note. The pageant dress had to cover up the bosom to the collarbone and not be too clingy, and the casual day outfit was not to be too short or clingy. Basically, nothing clingy, and no red dresses this year because apparently, red was for harlots and not Miss Holloway contestants. My mother was so proud and cried, “Imagine, your sister Purity in Pageantry as Miss Holloway!”
I rolled my eyes, “I think it’s too for Lydia.”
Mom scolded me and said I was to never, ever–EVER to say such blasphemous things towards my sister or any other contestant and that I was damn lucky that she didn’t report me the office because THIS was a great spiritual endeavor my sister was a part of. Mom was soon telling my sister that she would sing “I’ll Fly Away” and play the mountain dulcimer. Mom thought the religious nature of the song would be a sure thing considering the tone of this year’s pageant.
The only thing that made all the pageant madness better was sharing the misery with my best friend Sarah whose older sister Mary Beth was also in the pageant. As 10-year-olds, we were sick of it all: dresses, make-up, hair, talent, and salvation messages with lip-gloss. Sarah and I would compare stories of pageant home life and found our stories were very different. I talked about how it seemed like most days after school and weekends were filled with taking my sister to the seamstress, looking through magazines for acceptable hair and makeup,
Mary Beth was fighting it all the way. She refused to have her hair done, have appropriate dresses fitted, or practice her talent. There was apparently some bargaining that was going on about if she did the pageant then she could get a car and the current long-term grounding could be shortened considerably. We joked about switching houses for a weekend, but realized that we would only be swapping for a different type of crazy. Sarah thought she would rather have a crazy sister than my crazy mom, and I had to agree.
The day of the pageant finally arrived. The lunchroom had a stage, so most of the elementary and middle school kids were able to watch moms and high school students decorate for the pageant. We all watched as a huge white banner was raised over the stage: “Purity in Pageantry.” White lattice with green ivy and pink flowers lined the back of the stage.
As we watched the prep, I was explaining to Sarah at lunch that I wish my sister would sing all the time because her talk- to-me voice was not so sweet sounding. Lydia was known for her talent in cussing rather than her singing. I made the mistake of saying she was the best singer in the pageant then Kayla Knox lit into me, “You are so stupid and gross Bea. My mom won Miss Holloway and so will my sister and everybody knows it but you, booger face.” Kayla ended her sentence with a smirk and her little group smirked along with her and then laughed.
Sarah then leaned in and whispered, “Don’t mind Kayla. She’s a stuck-up butthole.” I knew Sarah saying the b-word was a huge because of their Baptist household and Pastor dad. Sarah smirked at Kayla.
Kayla narrowed her eyes at Sarah, “Don’t eye me girl. Everybody knows your crazy sister got in for pastor pity.” Sarah lowered her head and fought back tears.
I shot back at Kayla, “You’re the booger face Kay-duh. Everybody knows your sister wraps her legs around anything that moves.” All the girls gasped and even Sarah looked wide-eyed at me and leaned in, “Does that mean she’s…having s-e-x with lots of boys?”
“I think so.” I whispered back. I had overheard my mom telling my sister this when they were evaluating the competition and wasn’t fully sure what it meant, but it shut-up Kayla and brought some comfort to my friend. Sarah and I were both so ready for all of the pageant drama to be over.
That night, Sarah and I could roam around while our moms were backstage helping our sisters get ready. The Principal Mr. Brown introduced the “Purity in Pageantry” as the new and improved pageant, which would be more about God than about self. He went on and on about the quality of the girls and how much they had learned about purity and God. The adults had convinced themselves this was truth, but every student pretty much knew it was all bull. Most of the contestants’ purity had long been comprised in the back of one of the school buses, and the contestant’s backstabbing and name calling still went on, but it was hidden. All of it was hidden.
The first “round” was the introduction with all eight contestants in all sorts of high-necked dresses, and lip-sync was the talent trend. One girl did her act to “Ahab the Arab,” and Katie, Kayla’s sister, did a lip-sync to a comedy routine, “It’s in the Book.” She dressed in oversized men’s clothes and mouthed to some sort of track about Bo Peep’s lost sheep. Sounded like a Sunday Morning Sermon. The crowd ate it up. Sarah and I both thought it was lame. We started saying lame like a sheep baa “laaame.” We were shushed several times.
My sister went after all the lip-syncers. I thought for sure Lydia with her playing the dulcimer and using her real voice would win. The crowd clapped along and some even sang, “I’ll fly away oh glory/I’ll fly away in the morning/When I die hallelujah by and by/
I’ll fly away”
After she sang, the crowd shouted some Amens. Sarah looked at me, “Gosh, your sister has real pretty voice. I didn’t know she could sing like that.” Mary Beth went next and was supposed to do a dramatic reading of Casey at Bat. Sarah explained the huge fight over the baseball outfit with pigtails and all the gestures, which Mary Beth had called a load of bullshit and pretending. She came out wearing a baseball top and cap with jeans and no pigtails. She slammed the book down, read with her head down and with no voice change at all. She had gum in her mouth, which she made no effort to hide and even blew a few bubbles slowly. After she finished reading, she gave a half smile to the audience and leaned into the mic and said, “Praise Jesus,” and left the stage. It was then that we noticed she was barefoot. I gaped at Sarah but she was smiling and clapping.
“No, that was actually really good. She was sneaking in the f-word.” I imagine her folks felt a lot like those in Mudville but probably worse, and considering the Baptist nature of their household, this was probably a great reading. The rest of the Miss Holloway contestants completed their talent. One girl sang along with tape of Marie Osmond’s “Paper Roses.” Another did “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” by sign language. Next, The Miss Holloway contestants came out with their casual day outfits.
Mrs. Barnum read a description of their hobbies and what they wanted to do after graduation. “Mary Beth wants to continue the mission work of her Baptist Grandparents by feeding the starving children in Africa. Ya’ll isn’t that lovely?” Mrs. Barnum had a soft spot for Mary Beth. They had become gossip friends over all the times Mary Beth had been in the office waiting to see the principal. Mary Beth took full advantage of being in-the-know as a Pastor’s Kid and had the best gossip to share.
Most girls wanted to attend college and earn an MRS and all wanted serve The Lord. The contestants left the stage to change into eveningwear and come back for the big announcement. Katie and Kaya’s Mom, Mrs. Knox, filled the time with a speech about how serving as Miss Holloway High was such a special part of her life, and she praised God for title. “Amens” echoed in the cafetorium. Tears were still glistening on many cheeks when the contestants lined back up. Sarah and I already knew who the winner was going to be. Kayla’s sister won and my sister was first runner up. Mrs. Knox was still on the stage, acted all stunned, and cried as she put the crown on her daughter’s head. My sister stood in her light blue dress looking calm. Sarah’s sister was in a white halter dress rolling her eyes. I dreaded the next day hearing Kayla yap all day about her stupid sister winning. Katie was handed a large bouquet of flowers, which she swung around and nearly knocked over my sister.
Now if we were at home, it would be on. There is no way my sister would be smiling or mouthing an okay. No, she would have grabbed her wrist and cussed a blue streak. Now, Mrs. Knox was edging all the contestants off to the side so she and her daughter could pose for pictures. The runner-ups usually had this honor. As Mrs. Knox and her daughter were posing in the middle of the stage, Mary Beth stomped over and grabbed the flowers from Katie. “Who the hell do you think you are? You and your mom act like you have done something big here. It’s a stupid pageant, and God don’t love you any more for having that crown and pretending to be all holy and nice.” Mary Beth untied the flowers and tossed them over all the contestants. “Now we’re all winners and equal in God’s eyes. Hallelujah! ” Mary Beth exited the stage. Most of the cafetorium gasped. Sarah and I were clapping.
The excitement of the pageant was over, on and off stage. Mary Beth had to serve a school suspension but grace was given seeing that she was a pastor’s daughter. Sarah said her sister got into some trouble at home, but apparently, her parents were happy she didn’t show up naked on the stage. At school, things were much more quiet, but Kayla. She was already planning her run for Miss Holloway but was soon disappointed. The Holloway School Board announced that there would be no Miss Holloway Pageant next year or the year after that. They felt the Lord was leading them in much different direction. I guess salvation was better served without lip-gloss or a talent show.