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Judging Beauty

A Mom Reveals What It Was Like to Judge a Beauty Contest

Dear Beauty Queens,

Hi. It's me. The judge on the left at the last Miss California Teen USA competition. You remember, the fortysomething with reddish hair — the one who really could use a little Botox and, frankly, needs to hit the gym a lot, lot harder? Yeah, I know.

What was I doing being a judge in a beauty pageant? Good question. I'm not exactly the pageant type, on any level. I mean, c'mon, I've written for Ms. Magazine, which philosophically is about as far from anything having to do with the Miss USA system as Pluto is from the Sun. (In Twilight terms, that would be as far as Edward is from Jacob.)

Anyway, I was asked to judge because I've been working with your Miss California USA director, Keith Lewis, on a (pretty great) book he's writing. In truth, I was asked because of that and the fact that the judge he really wanted had to cancel at the last minute. But he's too nice to say it that way. Instead he said, “Come judge so you can get a real feel for the pageant experience.” And I could get a free massage at the spa. That, honestly, sealed the deal.

All of this is to say I came in not expecting anything more than a nice shiatsu and some notes for editing a book. What I came away with was a lot of things I wanted to tell you girls but couldn't, since you were up there on the stage and I was over on the judges' platform, a distance measured literally only in a matter of feet but light-years in terms of perspective. ...Read More

First, I have to confess it was shockingly simple to pick finalists from the nearly 100 participants, a task I went into thinking inherently impossible. How would I be able to rank anyone when every woman has her own unique beauty, as individual as a fingerprint, and her unmatchable personality, and the light of her soul? How can you put one against another and say “this is the most beautiful”?

The short answer is it's not actually possible, and I learned that's not at all what I was supposed to do, thank God. The pageant is a really elaborate job interview. The company, in this case the Miss Universe Organization, has a list of qualifications they want for its ideal candidate, but instead of needing to know Excel and have an accounting degree, this candidate has to have practiced a particular walk for the runway, have mathematically drawn body proportions and have a face the camera loves from most, if not every, angle. Also desired is the projection of confidence in a bikini and a pleasant speaking voice. The company is looking for its ideal, not the ideal, of beauty.

So, like for any job, most of those applying don't have all the qualifications the company is looking for. Some come in unprepared. Some should not be applying for a crown at all but should be applying for CEO of the company (sorry, Donald Trump)! Some have tried really hard to meet the company's standards, and they make the final selection very tough, and very subjective, on the part of the HR department (read: “the judges”).

The girl who won, Alexis Swanstrom, had gone up for the job two other times and had figured out perfectly what the company expected. Alexis, I need to tell you that indeed you are stunning, the kind of iconic beauty that exemplifies the “California girl,” but it's really your ability to be determined, focused and disciplined that will always make you a winner.

And all you girls who said you wanted to be models and/or actresses: Oh, babes, you probably won't be. Geez, I hope not at least. How many does the world need, really? I think you want to be that because those are the only people who get their faces on flashy shows like Extra! or on the covers of magazines you read; they get the immediate attention in our culture.

But the fact is your talents and your compassion will make you real stars of your communities, and your families — you know, the places where life really happens. You have only started to discover all your gifts. Your job is to keep finding them, and then to give them to the world.

So many of you girls taught me that merely going up for a challenge even though you know you won't win is what life's all about anyway. Like running the Boston Marathon, the point is that you learn about yourself in preparing and in running the race. I just have to say to you, the redheaded contestant with the bright smile, hourglass figure and honor role status, how I could see that I was once like you, and how I wish I could have had your confidence when I was your age, your ability to radiate self-worth and joy. And you there, girl who weighed 200 pounds if you weighed an ounce, I loved you for strutting your stuff alongside the other applicants, and I loved the noisy family screaming for you in the audience. You were not only queen for a day; you will be treasured your whole life.

Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for inspiring me when I did not expect to be inspired, and for reminding me that lessons in life happen anywhere, if you let them.



  • Miss California Teen USA winner Alexis Swanston

    John M. Heller/Getty Images
Judging Beauty
A Mom Reveals What It Was Like to Judge a Beauty Contest
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