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You don’t have to be a D.C. native to win the title of Miss District
of Columbia. A passing familiarity with the Mall will suffice.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
The “girls” who would be Miss District of Columbia are about to introduce themselves to their public. It’s early on in the program at the 2002 Miss D.C. pageant. The 20 contestants, wearing similar white dresses, have swept down the aisles and taken the stage in the University of the District of Columbia auditorium, doing a hastily learned dance routine to the strains of Neil Diamond’s “America”: “Home, don’t it seem so far away/Oh, we’re traveling light today…”
Signs in the foyer offer a $10 discount on admission to any spectator who shows up wearing her crown from another pageant. A handful of tiara-wearing women are scattered in the audience, among the contestants’ friends and family members, sizing up the scene.
“Got a dream to take them there/They’re coming to America/Got a dream they’ve come to share…”
Tonight’s winner will advance in September to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. Now, with the dance number over, the contestants have to make their 10-second opening statements. In that span, they each aim to describe a platform they’ve thought up for social reform, while cramming in as many of their lifetime achievements as they can.
Susan Coggin, 22, goes first. In the front row, Gary and Carole Coggin, Susan’s parents, are watching. The Coggins have driven more than eight hours from their home in Hilton Head Island, S.C. (leaving their 200-pound dog, Bubba, behind), to see their daughter compete.
Gary says he’s watched Susan perform on countless occasions back in South Carolina, but never before in Washington, D.C. He particularly likes it when she sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” before minor-league baseball games near their town. “I love it,” says Gary, in a conspiratorial tone. “I get free tickets.”
Susan tells the audience that her platform is athletics for girls. She’s a recent graduate of George Washington University, where she played tennis; she aspires to be a professional opera singer and a freelance journalist. “I am,” she concludes with a pause, “Susan Coggin.”
She does not say, “of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.” She is followed by a procession of other achievers, who also omit their hometowns: Leah Smith, from Lake Worth, Fla.; Regina Wiener, from Avella, Pa.; Kia Sprinkle, of Blytheville, Ark.; Heather Hegedus, of Lynnfield, Mass. They sashay to center stage, speak their pieces, and exit to change into their swimsuits.
The last contestant left on stage is Tiffany Jarman, 19, a blond woman with big bangs and a big smile. According to her pageant biography, she attends American University, likes the Monkees, and dreams of someday being a Broadway actress. Jarman introduces herself and then, with spirited self-righteousness, tells the audience about her platform—teaching diversity and acceptance.
This messenger of diversity hails from Knoxville, Md., a small town of about 4,000 just across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, W.Va. According to 2000 census figures, Knoxville is approximately 94 percent white.
“Diversity is great,” Jarman announces. “Can you dig it?”
Most of the audience succeeds in choking back laughter. Even so, a chorus of snickers ripples through the auditorium.
Betty Hemby wanted to avoid moments like this. From 1997 to 2000, Hemby, a full-time employee of the American Institute of Architects, was the executive director of the Miss District of Columbia pageant. Two years ago, she quit that volunteer position, and this year she’s skipped the pageant altogether—because, she says, she was sick of outsiders like Jarman cluttering up the stage and obscuring the talents of local competitors.
The District has a history of being overshadowed on the Miss America circuit. From 1990 to 1996, there was no Miss D.C. pageant at all. Instead, the District’s aspiring beauty queens were forced to compete in the Miss Federal City pageant—the winner of which got a spot to compete not for the title of Miss America, but Miss Maryland. The District had become a minor-league outpost for its northern neighbor; being Miss Federal City carried no more weight than being Miss Gaithersburg, Miss College Park, or Miss Wicomico.
In 1995, D.C.-born Marcia Griffith won the Miss Federal City title and went on to upstage the competition in Maryland, earning a trip to Atlantic City as the Free State’s representative, where she missed the cut for the top 10.
Hemby, a D.C. native who had competed in Maryland herself as a pageant contestant in the early ’80s, couldn’t bear the sight of a Howard University student—Southwest-bred, no less—forced to wear the Maryland sash on national TV.
Crab cakes be damned: The District deserved better.
“I’m a big cheerleader for D.C.,” Hemby says. “We have the Redskins and the Wizards, and I believe you should root for your home team. So I got D.C. back in the Miss America pageant. That was big.”
Hemby petitioned the national Miss America Organization to grant D.C. home rule over its beauty contest. She envisioned the revived Miss D.C. pageant as an opportunity for women like her—women who grew up in D.C., pretty, smart, modest, and far removed from the cult of Miss America—to win some much-needed scholarship money for college.
Hemby recruited contestants from public high schools throughout the District. She kept her pageants low-key, developed a local following, and trolled the city for undiscovered talent. “I wanted to build from the ground up,” says Hemby. “It would have taken 10 to 15 years for Miss America to come out of D.C., but it would have been a real D.C. girl.”
Where Hemby saw a chance to nurture local talent, though, young women across the country saw something else. The flimsy rules of the Miss America Organization are no match for the steely ambition of aspiring beauty queens. To compete in a state, a contestant merely has to have lived, worked, or gone to school there for six months prior to the pageant.
The lax residency requirements have spawned a phenomenon known in the business as “state-hopping”: Women who can’t win in more competitive states pack up their batons and high heels, and high-tail it to jurisdictions where the pageants are smaller and the competition more feeble—places such as Vermont, Montana, North Dakota.
Or Washington, D.C.
D.C. is especially easy pickings because of its embryonic pageant system. Unlike most states, the District has a one-round competition, without the preliminary network of mini-pageants known as “locals.” Having locals ensures that contestants have to spend more time in the state they hope to represent before they can move on to Miss America. Absent the locals, the route from D.C. to Atlantic City is significantly shorter.
So as soon as Hemby added Miss D.C. to the Miss America roster, the state-hoppers (or “carpetbaggers,” as Hemby likes to call them) added “Move to nation’s capital” to their to-do lists. As director, Hemby was besieged with phone calls. One hopeful, Hemby says, called and asked outright: When was the last possible day she could move to D.C. and still participate in the pageant? Hemby refused to tell: “I did everything I could to discourage these transplants from coming to D.C.”
It was a losing battle. State-hoppers showed up in throngs, scaring away the less experienced locals. “My girls would get intimidated by these out-of-state types that look like glossed-over Ivana Trumps,” says Hemby.
Eventually, Hemby decided that there was no way to legally stop the blitz of outsiders descending on the District. But as long as they were going to show up, Hemby vowed to immerse them in their adopted city.
Hemby sponsored brown-bag lunches with the pageant contestants and D.C. councilmembers. She gave them a crash course in local politics. If they were going to represent the District in Atlantic City, they were going to be well-versed in the arguments for statehood.
Toyia Taylor, Miss District of Columbia 1999, was one of Hemby’s protegees. Taylor, who is originally from Seattle, moved to D.C. after graduating from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied political science.
Before competing for the Miss D.C. crown, Taylor paid her dues. She chatted with her neighbors, listened to her advisory neighborhood commissioners, and even sat down for an interview with Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “We talked about taxation without representation and about the state of the educational system,” recalls Taylor. “We also discussed where we needed to be as a city. And then Sharon just wanted to talk girl talk. She was real nice.”
By the time Taylor won the title, she had become firmly rooted in the culture of the city. Three years after her trip to the Miss America Pageant, where she won the Bert Parks Talent Award, Taylor still lives in LeDroit Park and works full-time for a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving D.C.’s school system.
Taylor says she got an important lesson in Atlantic City. “Going to the Miss America Pageant was such a learning experience,” explains Taylor. “I learned so much about who I was. The first thing I did in preparing to go there is I tried to put on a facade. I tried to figure out what it was they would want me to do. Biggest mistake I ever made. The way to come out on top is to make people know who you are and what you stand for.”
It’s not impossible for an outsider to authentically represent D.C. This is a city full of out-of-staters, drawn to the District by schools or careers. Contestant Gwendolyn King, from Fayetteville, N.C., works in the mayor’s office. There are contestants from Howard, George Washington, and Georgetown’s medical school—though not from host school UDC.
Still, in a town where residency requirements are debated with moral fervor and local officials cry wolf at every bureaucrat who owns property outside the Beltway, the Miss D.C. pageant represents an occasion for the city’s greatest fear: the triumph of savvy outsiders over local interests.
Nor, in the end, does state-hopping help anyone. When the hoppers do win and advance to Miss America, they’re pitted against the Miss Virginias and Miss Ohios who originally beat them in their home states. They’re still second-raters.
So after four years running the D.C. pageant, Hemby threw in the towel. Her tolerance for out-of-state contestants, thin to begin with, had finally worn out. “I was fed up with all the carpetbaggers and the bimbos,” says Hemby. “Now, I don’t have to put up with them.”
A few hours before the 7:30 p.m. kickoff, the contestants sit on stage, having completed their final walk-through rehearsal. A pageant volunteer gives them some final instructions: “No family. No boyfriends. No nothing. Don’t go off where we can’t find you.” Otherwise, they are free to do as they please.
The rookies promptly run off to the dressing room to primp in front of the mirrors. The veterans chill out and have a snack.
Amy Wills of Beaver, Pa., sits backstage and noshes on potato chips. Wills is 24. Next year she will be too old to compete in the Miss America system. In pageant lingo, she will have “aged out.” In July, her two younger sisters—Melissa Wills, Miss Southwestern Pennsylvania, and Emily Megan Wills, Miss Penn State—will compete for the title of Miss Pennsylvania. Wills, who is of Amazonian stature (“People always ask me if I play basketball,”) is nonchalant, as if this is her pageant to lose.
Equally at ease is Meghann Dotson, a 20-year-old blond Georgetown student, who has twice competed for the Miss Oklahoma crown. “This is no big deal,” Dotson says. “At the Miss Oklahoma pageant, there are like 4,000 people in the crowd, it takes place over four nights, and there are 40 girls competing. The Miss D.C. pageant is much more like the local pageants in Oklahoma.”
In fact, a look around backstage suggests that the Miss D.C. pageant could be a local pageant from just about anywhere in the country. There are few indicators of D.C. character.
Hemby failed at sheltering her pageants from outsiders, but at least she organized events that were hometown affairs. Local celebrities, such as WJLA sports anchor Rene Knott, served as the masters of ceremony. One pageant saluted three D.C. police officers who had died in the line of duty and honored former D.C. Councilmember David Clarke, who had just passed away. Local bands and dancers, usually recruited from the halls of Dance Place, provided the entertainment.
This year’s event has a different tone. For the past two years, the pageant has been in the hands of Richard Kibler, a veteran organizer of pageants in Virginia and Maryland. Inheriting Hemby’s role as director, producer, and coordinator of the event, Kibler has brought his own flair to things. He hand-builds the sets, chooses the entertainment, and upbraids contestants when they step out of line.
Talk to the pageant’s volunteers and they’ll testify to Kibler’s dedication. The late hours. The weekends. The personal expenses he pours into the pageant.
And, inevitably, they’ll mention the new director’s greatest coup: scoring Kellye Cash as this year’s celebrity host.
Among pageant devotees, Cash is a towering figure. In 1986, as Miss Tennessee, she trounced the competition on her way to the Miss America crown.
Cash is also the great niece of country-singing badass Johnny Cash, and she has recorded three albums of her own Jesus-inspired music. She tours nationally playing the role of country-music star Patsy Cline in the play Always…Patsy Cline.
But D.C. cares little about country music, and even less about pageantry. In local terms, Cash has the same celebrity stature as a first-rate jai-alai player or a Ukranian poet. She’s a somebody only to insiders.
Also milling about backstage are the members of the band the Crossing. The band consists of three beefy white guys in pinstriped suits, who, according to their bio in the pageant’s program, have “performed in churches in Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland singing contemporary Christian, Southern Gospel and classic hymns with their unique style and blend.” They are not at all a Dance Place kind of act.
At this year’s Miss D.C. pageant, they look right at home.
Part of what makes D.C. vulnerable to outside influences is our own history of indifference toward beauty pageants—even by our beauty queens.
In 1921, a 5-foot-2, 16-year-old pixie from D.C. named Margaret Gorman Cahill won the first-ever Miss America pageant. Then, in 1944, another local—a young redhead named Venus Ramey—won. Neither woman went on to be a particularly outspoken supporter of the Miss America pageant. Neither adopted the traditional role of the gushing booster. If anything, Cahill and Ramey were critics.
Cahill—who grew up in Georgetown, rooted for the Redskins, and “could throw down a whiskey with the best of them” according to John Rosson of the Washington Star—never overstated the importance of the pageant. When she passed away, in 1995, Cahill’s obituaries told the story of a family woman who resented being labeled a beauty queen. According to the Washington Post, “Cahill said the contest had not changed her life one whit. Even her high school failed to celebrate her achievement. Cahill said…’nobody even cared outside of Atlantic City. It was a joke at school.’”
Ramey, who now lives on a tobacco farm in Kentucky, has a similarly unsympathetic take on the pageant. “Today, [the Miss America pageant] is a place for rich girls,” Ramey says. “If you don’t have the money to spend on yourself in preparation, you have to find someone to pay the bills for you. The contestants are manufactured. Back in my day, what you saw was what you got.”
And what do you get, after all? In 1998, Ramey wrote a letter to then-Miss America Kate Shindle, which was published in the Weekly Standard. “Does winning a college scholarship with the bod suddenly make one all-knowing?” she asked. “Atlantic City’s Miss America contest has tried for years to sanctify its leg show by granting scholarships to the winners….[W]ho thinks with their legs?”
In the educated, cosmopolitan District, much of the public may share that view. What use is a beauty queen in the 21st century? Without representation in the halls of Congress, why should D.C. care who represents it along the Boardwalk?
But Eleanor Holmes Norton isn’t likely to be featured on prime-time network TV. For many Americans, the title of Miss America lends instant credibility and visibility to its holder. Contestants’ policy platforms are part of the show. In 1998, for instance, Shindle won the pageant while publicizing AIDS prevention.
“I was talking about AIDS, which people don’t necessarily associate with the conservative, white-bread, grass-roots, Miss America Organization, and it got a lot of media attention,” says Shindle, in a PBS American Experience documentary about the pageant. “I will tell you that Miss America got me so much access….I was invited to speak at middle and high schools in Middle America where they would never, never, invite an AIDS activist to speak to their kids. But they’ll roll out the red carpet for Miss America and hope she brings her crown.”
The Miss America pageant, therefore, could be an ideal forum to spread word of the District’s political plight to every town in the county. If only the right kind of contestant would win. A woman like Rashida Jolley.
Jolley, a D.C. native who grew up in Petworth, stroked her harp all the way to victory at the Miss D.C. pageant in 2000. Jolley says that by nature she is shy and that the Miss D.C. pageant helped bring out her inner swagger. “It was absolutely incredible,” Jolley says. “Before I had the title, I had all these dreams. Once I won the title, I was able to see them all come to fruition.”
Since earning the D.C. crown, Jolley has used her winnings to attend Nyack College, in New York, where she studies music and history. She has been invited to appear on her favorite television show, Politically Incorrect. And earlier this year, President Bush named her to a national commission on HIV and AIDS awareness.
“Being Miss District of Columbia opened up a lot of opportunities for me as a musician as well,” says Jolley. After the pageant, she plucked her harp at events all around town, from a senior citizen’s nursing home to the Kennedy Center.
Jolley genuflects to Hemby. “Betty Hemby is one of the most incredible people I have ever met,” says Jolley. “She believes in providing young women with the opportunity to achieve their dreams, while uplifting the city that they represent. She believes in the District of Columbia. And she fights for the District
If Jolley represents the high-water mark of Hemby’s aspirations for the Miss D.C. pageant, Marshawn Evans, Miss District of Columbia 2001, represents the drought.
Evans grew up in Richardson, Texas—the kind of place where pageantry sits alongside football in the pantheon of sacred pursuits. She competed in her first pageant when she was 17. In 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000, she participated in the Miss Texas pageant, finishing as high as second runner-up, but never quite grabbing the crown.
So she moved to D.C., where, in summer 2001, she won the Miss D.C. pageant on her first try.
Despite her Texas roots, Evans tried to construct a local identity. She had grown up an avid football fan. Whom does she root for when the Redskins play the Cowboys? “I knew you were going to ask me that,” says Evans. “I’m a Redskins fan now.”
But you can’t fake the real thing. And Evans’ superficial knowledge of the District came back to haunt her.
From the outset of the 2001 Miss America pageant, the odds appeared to be in Evans’ favor. Theoretically, Miss America contestants are judged solely on their performances in the pageant: their poise under pressure, their artistic abilities, their bodies in swimsuits. But the history of the pageant tells another story.
In 1945, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Bess Myerson was named the first and, to this day, only Jewish Miss America. In 1992, a month after Hurricane Andrew devastated her state, Leanza Cornett, Miss Florida, won the pageant. In 1995, approximately five months after the Oklahoma City bombing, who won? Shawntel Smith, Miss Oklahoma.
The date of the 2001 pageant was Sept. 22, less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. The country was awash in sympathy for New York and D.C. Predictably, Miss New York and Miss D.C. both made it to the finals.
For the first time, the 2001 pageant included a section for the finalists called “The Miss America Quiz Show.” Host Tony Danza asked the finalists eight multiple-choice questions based on the subjects of American history, government, and current events.
Question No. 1: “Which of these monuments has the inscription, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..?’” Danza asked.
Evans answered: the Lincoln Memorial.
When the quiz was over, Evans finished last, with only four correct answers. Katie Harmon, Miss Oregon, won the quiz—and went on to win the tiara.
Question-and-answer time at the 2002 Miss D.C. pageant comes at approximately 10 p.m., as the pageant limps into its third hour. Each contestant, now wearing her evening gown, must answer two questions—one that is open-ended and one that specifically refers to her platform.
Tonight, the state-hoppers have nothing
First up is Susan Coggin.
“Do you think Washington, D.C., needs another memorial on the Mall, and why?” asks Cash.
During her four years at George Washington University, Coggin has had ample opportunity to scope out the Mall. She even recalls something about a new World War II Memorial, though she admits to being a little hazy on the details. After some momentary waffling, she takes a stand: There will always be enough room on the Mall for new memorials, she says—that is, if they are worthwhile and important.
Contestant No. 2, Leah Smith, makes her perfunctory circle around the stage. Cash then asks, “What do you think is the favorite tourist site in Washington, D.C.?”
Smith, the Floridian, pounces on the question. The Washington Monument is the best site, says Smith, not only “because it’s the biggest” but also “because it’s fun. You can travel to the top and see all of Washington, D.C.”
Next it’s time for Melissa Taylor, an aspiring elementary-school teacher, to take a crack at her wild-card question. “What would you do to get tourists back into Washington, D.C.?” asks Cash.
Taylor eschews a possible wisecrack (recruit more contestants for the Miss D.C. pageant) and suggests that D.C. might want to imitate New York City’s recent television campaign.
Cash poses the ultimate question to contestant No. 4, Latoya Haynes of Montclair, Va. “Where in D.C. would you take a visitor and why?” asks Cash.
Haynes smiles. She knows this one. “I would take them to the Mall, of course,” says Hayes.
The Let’s Go approach dominates all the way through. Other questions include “Do you think the White House should have a normal tourist schedule now and why?” “What are your three favorite sites in Washington, D.C., and why?” “Would you like to see Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House reopened and why?”
During Hemby’s pageants, the questions about the District probed further than the Mall. “My questions were about D.C.,” recalls Hemby. “Like, ‘How would your platform help the community in Washington? How would your kids-to-work program help out the children in Ward 8?’”
Midway through the procession, Cash asks Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, a 23-year-old aspiring lawyer from Atlanta, “If you could add, change, or remove anything from Washington, D.C., what would it be and why?”
Without pausing, Langford answers, “Our street structure. The streets are very difficult to navigate….That’s what I would change.”
Voila: Langford has perfectly distilled the ultimate knee-jerk, outsider response to D.C. into one pristine sound bite. Forget the right to vote—the streets are too damn confusing! Tear up the L’Enfant plan. Rip out the city’s arteries. Make things easier for Miss D.C. contestants from Georgia.
After all 20 contestants have showed off their street smarts, Cash launches into a series of cloying show tunes, while the pageant officials tally up the judges’ scores.
Marshawn Evans, citing other commitments, hasn’t bothered to show up to pass her title along. In lieu of the real thing, Cash announces, Evans’ pre-recorded farewell speech will be played over the loudspeakers. And while the tape is playing, Cash promises to model Evans’ cape, stitched by Linda Harris of Texas, which Evans wore last year to Atlantic City.
Evans’ disembodied voice crackles over the audience, rolling gently from cliche to cliche. “True success is a destination never reached…” she reads.
Cash reappears on stage sporting a billowing red cape.
“It is in Him, Jesus, that I put my faith…” reads Evans.
Cash turns her back to the audience, so that the cape’s iconography faces the audience.
“Please, never forget the victims of Sept. 11…” reads Evans.
On the back of the cape, there is a giant image of the Capitol building.
As Evans’ message wraps up, the audience is left with that image: the hulking symbol of the federal government, stitched by a woman in Texas, which will, if tradition holds, ride on Miss D.C.’s back all the way to Atlantic City.
A few minutes later, Cash announces the winner of the pageant: It’s Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, the law student from Georgia. The one who wants to tear up D.C.’s infrastructure, to jettison its historic street plan for the convenience of newcomers. Hers is the rhinestone crown, the $4,500 scholarship, and the three-piece luggage ensemble. Here she is, Miss District of Columbia. See her while you still can. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.