The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle

Miss Vermont 2017 Madison Cota presents Castleton Senior Olivia Maher with the Miss Photogenic Award in the recent Miss Vermont Pageant. Photo courtesy of Benjamin D. Bloom. 

Lined up backstage 15 minutes prior to the show translated into the longest 15 minutes of my life. My heartbeat pounded in my ears and my stomach was in my throat. I could barely hear myself thinking, “Liv what the hell did you get yourself into this time?” “Nah you GOT THIS!” “Never again Liv, never again.”

The lights flashed, music started, and I was off.

On the weekend of Nov. 12, I competed in the Miss Vermont USA competition, one of the many country-wide preliminaries to becoming Miss USA.

While I’ve participated in a few talent shows over the course of my life, I’ve steered clear of spotlights that require any form of rhinestone and stuck to cleats and gym floors. The only things I knew about beauty pageants were fake tans, big hair, and any odds and ends I’d picked up from the movie “Miss Congeniality.”

“Don’t bash it til you try it,” I told myself. If there was ever a point in my young life to do something like this, NOW would be the time. I’m a firm believer in the old cliché, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and oh boy did this impending experience make me uncomfortable.

This particular competition was comprised of a three-minute interview with a panel of five judges, a swimwear portion and evening gown competition. The chosen finalists at the end of the show then continue on to compete in an on-stage fish-bowl style question and answer session. From there, the second and first runners-up claim their trophies leaving the winner with the prized crown, sash, year of leadership, and one-way ticket to Miss USA.

Pageantry is a magical world of it’s own. An expensive world. One that you know exists but not until you take a step into the haze of hairspray do you see the complexity behind each and every little detail it takes to become a titleholder.

Having found the competition a little late in the game, I had one-and-half months to prepare and make sure I didn’t go out there looking like a first-time shmuck. I used every possible second to my advantage.

From videos of the Miss USA and Miss Universe competitions, to severe social media stalking, to listening to podcasts and pageant news sources, to any scrap of information I could find on the past competitions here in Vermont, to who I would be up against, to every pageant faux-pas in the book.

I practiced my hair and makeup constantly. Took my fingers for a barbecue a few times on my curing iron. I bought butt glue and learned that it can’t just be a singular purchase.         Essentially a magic adhesive that keeps your swimsuit from riding up, you also have to get baby wipes to remove any kind of residue it leaves. Otherwise your evening gown will be found sticking to the most inconvenient places.

Heels should be six inches or bust. Hair should be big, but not too big. Flat against your head isn’t cute even in real-life. You need a dress bag to hide your gown until the big reveal. Interview techniques and professional outfits are a must to show off your personal style, as is a swimsuit with proper lining to keep the harsh stage lights from shining through.

Warding off the summersaults that my stomach was doing to the murmur of the audience beyond the curtain, when show time rolled around, I breathed as steadily as I could to get my head in the game.

“Okay Liv, one foot in front of the other, calculated smiles down the line of judges. Strong, prolonged eye contact, but don’t make it weird. Graceful movements and slimming poses. Just give ‘em the ol’ razzle dazzle.”

Maher gets ready backstage. Photo courtesy of Benjamin D. Bloom.

We took to the stage to perform a jazzy dance and introduction of our names and hometowns into the microphone. Carefully waltzing off stage, we switched gears and high-tailed it down to the dressing room to throw on our swimsuits and change jewelry before sprinting back just in time to hear the announcement for the next part of the competition.

The swimwear portion was the most interesting part to come to terms with. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and proud of who I am physically in a world that makes it very hard to do so.  While I didn’t quite understand how me on a stage with cleavage to spare was going to prove my ability to best represent the state of Vermont, I could see how a possible role model’s physical health was an important part of the package.

During my strut across the stage, I felt more like a floating head who told herself, “Okay suck in, smile…and GO!” while my height, eye color, and three words I use to describe myself were read to the audience. It was surprisingly the portion that made me feel closest to the organization’s tag line, #confidentlybeautiful.

One more smile at the judges before booking it back to prepare for evening gown. No time to breathe. No time to think. Composure on stage, running like hell off stage.

The key to evening gown is that it isn’t about the dress. It’s about the girl in the dress. The grace and poise and personality she gives off in the dress. 

Giving the judges this last look at us, all contestants took to the stage to receive awards.

With friends and family in the audience, I could hear big cheers from the back as I was named Miss Photogenic and placed in the top three. Carefully making my way to center stage, conscious not to step on my floor-length ruby red gown, I pulled the name of the judge who was to ask my on-stage question.

Remaining as calm as possible, I answered to the best of my ability on the benefit social media has on bringing awareness to social issues.

For a pageant virgin, I could barely register having gotten this far until I made the top two.

Holding hands at center stage while shaking in my heels waiting of the final result through what felt like an hour-long dramatic pause, my name was called as First Runner Up.

While I didn’t come out a winner, at least I can say I did it and was close enough to taste it.

Hugging my parents and friends through their tears and mine, photo after photo was taken with my heavy glass trophies, while hugs and congratulations were given back and forth.

With my gown back in its bag and my nerves gone quiet for the first time in two months, all I could think on the car ride home was, “Okay, what’s next?”

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