“Live in three … two … one … go!” The man behind the camera sliced the air with his arm. The curtains parted. Heart thumping, Adina walked out into the glare of the generator-run klieg lights and stepped to the microphone.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Forty-first Annual Miss Teen Dream Pageant, live from a creepy island in the middle of nowhere. I’m Adina Greenberg, Miss New Hampshire, and I’ll be your host this evening. And now, let’s meet our contestants!”
The girls paraded in their evening gowns as if this night were like any other pageant they’d smiled through. Before them, the audience of Corporation employees clapped and cheered. Behind them, the jungle answered with its own cacophony. The girls disappeared behind the curtain and Adina called them one by one to answer questions about world peace and being role models. According to plan, they gave the standard answers, the ones everyone wanted to hear, until halfway through.
Adina tried not to seem nervous as she called Miss Ohio to the microphone. Miss Ohio sauntered onstage in her long, hot pink gown. In her hair, she wore a bright purple island flower. She did her flirty wave to the cameras, which made the audience chuckle.
“Miss Ohio, what would you say was the toughest part about life on the island?”
“Oh, wow. Eating grubs was pretty gross. We didn’t even get ketchup!” She beamed as the audience laughed. They were giving good TV. “But you know, I’d have to say finding out there was a Corporation compound right here on the island the whole time and we never knew it. I felt like such a doofus!” She shook her head without losing her smile.
“Thank you, Miss Ohio,” Adina said, gently pushing the girl toward the curtain as Shanti made her way in.
“I am for Miss Ohio, General,” MoMo whispered loudly to General Good Times. “Her bu**ocks remind me of tiny cats.”
With a rigor mortis–style grin, Agent Jones put a finger to his lips to remind MoMo of the need for secrecy.
“Shanti Singh, Miss California, can you tell us about your platform?” Adina said.
“Absolutely.” Shanti faced the audience and smiled. She wore an emerald green gown with iridescent seashells sewn around the waist and hem. “My platform is called FemPower Me. It is about microloans for women in developing countries. What you may not know is that many big corporations exploit female workers.”
Adina pretended to be surprised. “Really! That’s so interesting. Tell us more.”
Shanti’s smile did not falter. She stood in a perfect three-quarter beauty queen stance. “Like, for instance, let’s just say that The Corporation had a secret outpost here on this island. First, they would clear the land of indigenous peoples and force them from their ancestral homes, killing them if they were, like, really difficult or whatever. You know how those indigenous people can be about their land and stuff, Adina.”
“Boy howdy, Shanti.” Adina beamed for the cameras.
“Anyhoo, they’d use sweatshop labor — often young girls — to make all those products that keep you and me looking good. Maybe they’d even do secret arms trading. Meanwhile, women and children lose access to their livelihood. They’d face famine, oppression, and possibly a life of slavery.”
“Yikes. Hey, don’t you have a cute story about how your immigrant parents put up a lawn Santa on the Fourth of July?”
“Sure do. Oh, my wacky dad!” Shanti crossed her hands at the wrist. “Culture clash. D’oh!”
MoMo slapped his knee. “Am loving it.”
“Thank you, Miss California. By the way, fun fact about Shanti: Her favorite lipstick color is Tickle Me Pink. Don’t you love lipstick, Shanti?”
“So much, Adina.”
Without missing a beat, Shanti raced offstage just as Petra made her entrance.
She’d chosen a strapless gold lamé jumpsuit with a seaweed belt and had blown her long hair straight like a 1970s chanteuse.
“Love the ensemble, Petra. Did you put that together yourself?”
“I did, Adina. My mom’s an artist and she gave me a real appreciation for the visual. I love to sew.”
“That is seriously amazing. Can you tell us what you did to help us survive on this island?”
“I sewed a banner to catch the attention of planes. You can’t see it now because they took it down.”
Adina turned to the cameras with an amused-but-confused expression. “Why?”
“It had the word bitches in it, which is perfectly fine to use if you’re a rapper or a director making a movie about career women, but not if you’re a teen girl talking about her homies.”