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Beauty pageant more than skin-deep

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was a deer in the headlights, swaying slightly on her heels, her manicured hands trembling as she clutched the small hotel bar table that stood in for a lectern, her smile resolute, as if her sparkling white teeth could protect her.

“As you can probably tell, I’m nervous,” she said as she stumbled on a question one of the pageant judges had lobbed at her.

They could.

I suspect she wished she could have been anywhere else last Saturday morning than standing before a panel of judges in an Albuquerque hotel room during the first phase of a long weekend of pageant activity that culminated Sunday in the crowning of Miss Albuquerque, Miss Albuquerque Outstanding Teen and a dozen other assorted titles.

I got that. I was there in that hotel room, too, on the other side of that makeshift lectern as one of those pageant judges, of all things, and though I did not particularly wish to be anywhere else, I certainly felt I should be somewhere else.

What did I know of beauty pageants?

Newly crowned Miss Albuquerque is Stephanie Chavez, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of New Mexico who lists her platform as promoting literacy and whose claims to fame include naming all U.S. presidents in order. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

Newly crowned Miss Albuquerque is Stephanie Chavez, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of New Mexico who lists her platform as promoting literacy and whose claims to fame include naming all U.S. presidents in order. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

I was an unlikely choice to judge this Pageant Extravaganza, the first royal rung on the climb toward the Miss New Mexico crown in June and, ultimately, Miss America in September. Though as a very young girl I had those very young girl fantasies of wearing a sparkly crown as Bert Parks sang “There she is, Miss Americaaaaaa,” those fantasies were pragmatically shelved once puberty, pimples, pudginess and political awareness struck.

I had written about New Mexico beauty pageants, though mostly in a negative light. Those columns had apparently brought me to the attention of the pageant’s new local executive director, Annique Malm, who is attempting to revitalize the Miss America pageant program in New Mexico along with new state Executive Director Greg Smith of Portales.

Some local pageants in the past had been rife with infighting, questionable practices and a failure to prepare the young women for competition on the state and national levels, Malm said. My job as a journalist, she said, could be useful in hitting contestants with newsier, more probing questions during the interview process – worth 25 percent of the contestant’s overall score, second only to the talent portion in importance.

Ask pithy questions? That I could do. So I said yes.

And here we should mention that Miss America is not the same as the glitzier Miss USA – the former Trump endeavor. Miss America considers itself an achievement program and a provider of college scholarships to young women. Last year, Miss New Mexico contestants received more than $25,000 in scholarships.

Much of the process of judging a pageant we are sworn to secrecy not to reveal. Suffice it to say it’s a fairly exacting process that begins with the aforementioned interviews held the day before the pageant and continues the next day with the pageant itself, when contestants compete in talent (35 percent of the total score) and evening wear (20 percent) categories and answer an easy single question (5 percent), apparently just to show that the women can speak.

And, oh yes, there is a swimsuit competition – demurely labeled the Lifestyle and Fitness category – though it is brief and worth only 15 percent of the final score. Teen contestants wear biker shorts and tank tops, thank goodness, and perform a short exercise routine.

The pageant attempts to balance beauty with brains and benevolence, a pleasant surprise. One friend asked how much silicone I had seen at the pageant. Happily, I said, none at all.

What I did see was cellulite. I saw braces and bad skin and a few shy young women who could use a few lessons in walking in heels.

But I also saw young women who are active in their communities, selfless, well-rounded women who dedicate their time to charitable causes, athletic skills, artistic talents and academic achievements so much so that several of us judges remarked on how we had squandered our youth by comparison to the accomplishments of these young women.

And though I would like to have heard crisper responses to my questions – which included asking about Gov. Susana Martinez’s handling of her ill-fated “pizza party” in December, the potential for electing the first female president and the penalties for animal abuse – I can happily report that these contestants are not the fluffy-headed flakes so prevalent in beauty pageant stereotyping.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sparkle, smiles, slim physiques and perfectly coiffed hair still rule the day. It’s just nice to see that they aren’t the only things a young woman is judged by at this pageant.

That frightened young woman who admitted she was nervous was not among those crowned on Sunday. I hope she doesn’t give up. Practice makes perfect, and perfect is more than skin-deep.

Pageant winners

Miss Albuquerque: Stephanie Chavez

Miss Teen Albuquerque: Theresa Kennedy

Miss Bernalillo County: Brooke Ayala

Miss Rio Rancho: Elizabeth Nelson

Miss Sandoval County: Chanel Wiese

Miss Grants: Mariah Gomez

Miss Land of Enchantment: Nadine Oglesby

Miss Rio Grande: Chelsea Kaban

Miss Teen Bernalillo County: Lauren Melo

Miss Teen Rio Rancho: Kenzie Haarloe

Miss Teen Land of Enchantment: Ashley Purcella

Miss Teen Duke City: Sienna Mascareña

Miss Teen Route 66: McKenzie Stephens

Miss Teen Zia: Susan Hastings

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.