Beauty Queens

13,047
05.03.2019

In the line, several girls gasped.

“Seriously! And she got all depressed and stuff? And she wouldn’t come out of her room or do cheerleading anymore because her uniform wasn’t fitting right and her parents had to do, like, a li’l benefit concert to raise the money to send her to fat camp, and when she came back from fat camp, she was super, super angry and started piercing things. She took a nail gun and nailed all her old Barbies to the wall in a cross pattern just like little Barbie Jesuses. It was so, so freaky. And we had, like, nothing in common anymore, and before she got fat we used to go shopping every weekend and watch all our favorite Corporation shows. It was super, super tragic, and so, like, I know the pain of this because I lost my best friend in the whole world over it and stuff, so, yeah, it’s bad and, um, what was the question again?”

Adina stared, openmouthed. “I have no idea.”

“My turn!” Miss Ohio walked the makeshift runway. She stopped beside Adina, her body turned in a perfect three-quarter pose, which her handler said made her look thinner. She gave Adina a flirtatious, fingertips-only wave.

“What was that about?”

“It’s my flirty wave so I can get Fabio’s attention and we can establish a joking patter and maybe end up as a clip on ViralVideo. See, you have to do something to stand out. I’m going to be the naughty one.”

“The naughty ones don’t win Miss Teen Dream,” Taylor called. She’d started a small fire. Now she fanned the flames by performing military dance exercises.

“I don’t need to win. I just need to get noticed. So for now, I’m pretending you’re Fabio Testosterone.” Miss Ohio waved again and winked.

“Well, I’m not, so don’t.” Adina slapped at a mosquito on her arm. “Miss Ohio, what are your life goals?”

Chin held high, Miss Ohio beamed at an imagined crowd. “I want to be a motivational speaker.”

“What are you going to motivate people to do?”

Smile still in place, she cut her eyes at Adina. “You know. Motivational … stuff.”

“Well, are you going to motivate people to bring peace to war-torn nations, or are you going to motivate people to join a cult and drink the Kool-Aid?”

“The first one.”

Adina sighed. “Nice. You might want to take the gum out of your mouth next time.”

The sun was hot. It burned holes in the fog cover and wilted the girls’ spirits. Periodically, they scanned the horizon for signs of a ship or plane, but there was nothing but those same darkening clouds in the distance. Only Taylor seemed unbothered by the heat, the bugs, the fear.

“Again!” she called from her perch on the rock as the girls marched forward one by one addressing an imaginary audience:

“I’m from Ohio, birthplace of seven U.S. presidents, and I hope you elect me to be your next Miss Teen Dream!”

“Hello from New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. We’re the forty-seventh state, but I want to be number one in your hearts tonight!”

“Hi. I’m from Arkansas, the cantaloupe state. And tonight, I hope you will hold my melons close to your heart and vote me your Miss Teen Dream.”

Adina cocked her head. “Umm …”

“What?”

“Nothing. Miss Colorado?”

“Oh. Sorry!” Nicole sprinted to the sandy runway and walked it carefully, making sure to wave to the crowd with her elbows against her sides as she’d been taught. That way you didn’t get jiggle. She took her place beside Adina, towering over her, all legs.

“Hello. I am Nicole Ade from the heart of the Rockies, the great state of Colorado!” She beamed.

Adina slapped a fly on her cheek. She missed the fly, but now her cheek stung. “Miss Colorado, how do you feel about being the only African-American girl in the pageant?”

“What do you mean?” Nicole shifted on her legs like a flightless bird.

“You’re the only black contestant out of fifty states.”

“It’s … it’s an honor to represent the great state of Colorado.”

“I didn’t even know they had black people in Colorado,” Tiara said. “You never see them in the ski brochures we get at church.”

Adina kept her focus on Nicole. A journalist was relentless in her questioning. “You don’t think the pageant’s a little racist? I mean, in the whole history of the pageant, an African-American girl has only won once — Sherry Sparks.”

Nicole knew about Sherry Sparks and the scandal. Everybody did. In the forty-year history of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, she was the only African-American winner — until it was revealed that Sherry had once shoplifted an eye shadow from an Easy Rx store and she was drummed out in shame. It didn’t matter that in the years since then, two white contestants had been disqualified for sexy phone photos, or that last year’s winner, Miss Florida, had been forced to apologize when it was discovered that she had gotten drunk at a frat party and a video surfaced of her sloppily twirling batons in her underwear and bra. No, it was still Sherry Sparks they talked about.