Fortunately, the Mrs. America contest required no talent—I was terrified I'd have to reprise my mime act from a previous Human Guinea Pig. But there were significant financial obligations: an entry fee of $500 and an ad in the pageant program—$300 half-page, $500 full-page. Laurett said she could refer me to a photographer for my head shot (estimate: $300) and a pageant dress shop where I could purchase my evening gown (estimate: $500), interview outfit (estimate: $400), and bathing suit (estimate: $80).
Now it was my turn to gasp. Not at the prices, but at the realization there was a bathing suit competition. I thought having a bathing suit competition in the Mrs. America contest was perverse. Go to the beach and take a look at the families. You will conclude the point of marriage is not companionship or reproduction but never having to worry anymore about looking good in a bathing suit. Leave the displays of nubile sexuality to the Miss contests. A Mrs. pageant should consist of maneuvering a minivan, saying "Go brush your teeth," and modeling flannel nightgowns.
There's always one contestant in any beauty pageant who gives great pleasure by allowing the audience to wonder how this bow-wow ever got in. That contestant was about to be me.
"Don't worry, you'll get a suit that totally sucks everything in," Laurett said when she saw the look on my face. A suit that could suck everything in would have to compress my midriff to such density that matter might collapse in on itself and I might become a black hole. I didn't think they sold these in department stores.
I do not normally parade around in front of strangers wearing a bathing suit and 5-inch heels; in fact, I do not normally wear a bathing suit even to go swimming. In recent years I have taken to putting on a spandex gym outfit and lying, "Oh, I left my suit at home." Perhaps I was taking my mandate to humiliate myself too far.
Laurett explained there were two approaches to the pageant. If you want to win, you hire her and have her coach you to stardom. "Or you just do it on your own and see what happens." I told her I'd take the see-what-happens approach. Slate agreed to pay for my entry fee and the ad (the photograph was taken for free by my editor), but I was on my own for the clothing. The whole prospect was so daunting I let weeks go by without doing anything, including losing weight.
I was intimidated by the heights set by previous Mrs. D.C.s. The most famous is 2001 titleholder Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who emerged as the beautiful villainess on the get-hired-by-Donald Trump reality show, The Apprentice. The current titleholder was Dr. Chiann Fan-Gibson, a stunning, golden-blond, Asian-American dentist who finished fifth at nationals.
Realizing the pageant was a week away and I had not heard from Laurett, I gave her a call. (It turned out that my spam filter had been deleting all her e-mails.) She sounded a little panicked when I admitted I had yet to get my gown or bathing suit. I asked her how many competitors had entered Mrs. Washington, D.C. She had told me previously that two or three other Mrses. were interested.
"Why do you ask?" she said.
"I'm just curious," I replied.
"You're the only one. You're going to be crowned. Look, I need you to do your all and be your best," she said sternly. Then perhaps realizing she was not exuding the kind of encouragement a pageant director should convey to her sole contestant, she put on her professionally sunny voice and added, "It was meant to be for you."