Plenty of girls dream about becoming Miss America. A glittering gown, high heels, big hair, and big boobs. They looked like real Barbies, and that was what I aspired to be. Of course, as a little girl, I didn’t know that people who participated in pageants bought all of those things with money—money I definitely didn’t have. But the illusion, to me, was that these were the women to become. (Plus, their moms let them wear bikinis on TV, something my mother never allowed. I wouldn’t wear a bikini in public until I was well into my twenties.)
This dream of being a pageant star grew dim as I reached high school and realized that my bust size was not going to be big enough, and that I was in fact only 5’4”. Even with the highest heels, I was never going to be tall enough to be an actual model.
Considering my mother is 5’9”, I found this very disappointing.
My moment finally came when I was a senior in high school. My school was going to have the Miss Leander pageant, and I was going to participate. My parents were totally on board. After all, they wanted me to be a pageant queen, even if I was short. My dress was a deep burgundy, which looked great with my auburn hair. It had an empire waist and a skirt that flared into a small train. The back was cut out, but only to the top of my bra-line, obviously—my not-too-big boobs needed to be restrained. At the top of the waist was a purple bow, with the ties that went all the way to the floor with my train. It was one of those brief moments where I felt really great about my appearance. I knew I looked good and I believed those watching me walk on stage to a song by the Backstreet Boys would agree.
I was gorgeous.
In addition to the evening gown competition, there was also a talent portion.
My very un-hip self decided to sing a song from a popular Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s the song Esmeralda sings to the Hunchback—a beautiful, sad ballad. With years of training in voice, it was right up my alley. (This was also the ‘90s. Celine Dion and Mariah Carey were queens.) My father wanted me to sing Patsy Klein’s “Crazy.” In retrospect, this was probably a better idea, considering that my audience and judges were men and women in Central Texas. But it was just one of those times where I was going to be myself. That was the song I felt passionate about and what I wanted to share.
I needed a costume, so my mom dressed me up like a Bohemian, complete with tiered skirt. (Do you remember tiered skirts? Regular people used to wear long, wrinkled skirts—as fashion.) She tied a purple cloth in my hair and I planned to go on stage barefoot.
The only other part of the competition I had to worry about was the question-and-answer section. I wasn’t worried as long as they didn’t ask for an embarrassing moment. I wasn’t sure what I would say and pondered it for a few weeks ahead of time. I figured something would come to me, but it was definitely a stressor. I knew from watching hundreds of pageants that it’s a favorite question, and as someone who was completely embarrassment averse, I didn’t have anything leaping to mind.
No matter. I was going to nail it on everything else.
I had the dress. It was my satin courage.
Finally, it was pageant day.
I got up and put my Cover Girl foundation and mascara in a bag so I could get ready at the pageant location with the other girls.
There we were, all lined up behind the stage where wardrobe happened for the drama department.
There was plenty of room because only six girls showed up.
I was a shoo-in.
I didn’t even worry about the girl who looked like a 25-year-old and had expensive makeup and an entourage. I knew I could beat her. I was a little nervous about my friend Amanda—she was really popular and smart, two things that I was not. Still, pageants were only about the pageant; the rest didn’t come into play. I had faith that it was going to be fair.
A previous Miss Leander was backstage helping us and was so very kind. Of course, her sister was also in the pageant, and that did make me a little nervous about my chances: After all, her sister would have had some coaching from a former winner, while I had none, except for what I’d seen once a year on TV for 16 years.
I put on my professional outfit—a pantsuit. (Hillary Clinton was the first lady. Maybe that inspired me. I don’t know.) I went on stage and answered the questions about who I was.
Then it was time for the talent portion. Amanda, I believe, read a poem. Again, she was smarter than everyone and a poem was totally her. But I wasn’t intimidated by a poem. I was going to go onstage barefoot and sing!
The 25-year-old blonde was also barefoot, but her costume was a bikini top and and a grass skirt. She then proceeded to light coconuts on fire and dance with them on stage.
All I could think was, “What the heck is happening? Has she been to Hawaii?”
I suppose part of the talent was that she didn’t actually light herself on fire. I mean, she was holding open flames near a grass skirt, which is impressive.
She was also barefoot.
She totally stole me thing! How was I going to compete with FLAMES and BARE FEET?
It didn’t matter. I had to follow her.
My sing-a-long karaoke track was loaded and I began my song. I hit all the high notes, and shared all of my Disney-esque emotions with the crowd. No one was smiling, but it was a sad song. I did my best and felt confident in my performance.
Finally, it was time to don my gorgeous evening gown. This I knew looked great, and it did. Of course, flaming coconuts girl was wearing a sequined designer gown. You know, like a real pageant queen. But I didn’t care. I felt as pretty as she looked and decided that was what would count.
We all paraded down the stage, did a turn, and walked backstage. I was a star: It was just like on TV, if the TV sets looked like high-school theaters.
Then it came time for the questions, and they were hard. The former Miss Leander’s sister was asked, “What is your favorite vegetable?” Her answer: “Tomatoes.” I was so happy. Even I, someone who rarely eats fruits or vegetables, knew that tomatoes were technically a fruit. This girl was toast.
I can’t remember at this point what anyone else said because they still hadn’t asked the embarrassing moment question and for the life of me I still didn’t have anything in my mind to say. I was freaking out. Then, I was called to the stage: “Next we have Keri Keith, a senior at Leander High School.” The audience politely applauded and I prepared to answer whatever I was asked.
Please, oh, please, I thought. Don’t ask about an embarrassing moment.
The emcee pulled a question out of the bowl and asked, “What is your most embarrassing moment?”
Of course. Of course he did. Nothing can ever go right for me, I thought. I nailed the song. I wore a great dress. But I had no answer.
So I made something up.
As I recall, this is what I said: “I was in the cafeteria one day and I was going to open my lunch box, and when I opened it, everything fell out on the ground. My chips were everywhere and I was so embarrassed.” This was followed by very polite applause.
I didn’t really think I was going to be walking away with a tiara, but I also thought I had a chance to be runner-up since I didn’t read a poem or say that tomatoes were my favorite vegetable. All six of us lined up on stage. We did not hold hands and giggle like they do on TV. This was before the days of cell phones and thankfully, there isn’t video of the event floating around on the Internet.
When they called second runner-up, and it was Amanda. I had no objections to that, although I thought my best chance at riding in a float in the Leander parade was going to be second runner-up. First runner-up was a girl I can’t even remember. She probably went on to fame and fortune, or didn’t… I honestly don’t know, and while I want to care, I don’t.
At this point I thought, Could I have won? I mean the only other girl with a chance was an old lady with bare feet and flaming coconuts. Surely that didn’t win.
I had underestimated the appeal of a girl in a bikini and grass skirt doing something mildly death-defying.
The death of my dream happened on a stage in front of a 100 people and five competitors. I couldn’t even place there. It was a real blow to my self-esteem. Even the Former Miss Leander said, “I thought you would win.” I don’t know if she meant that or not, but it did make me feel marginally better.
My mother totally believed my made up embarrassing story, which made me feel even worse. I immediately rolled my eyes in a surly teen way and said, “Mom, I made that up.” She very kindly said, “ I totally believed it.”
I went home a loser. In an expensive dress my parents could barely afford. I felt low.
I felt lower still when I was riding home and actually thought of a great embarrassing story. More embarrassing than losing to a flaming hula dancer.
About a month prior, I had driven my truck to Walmart. (Yes, I had a truck. Almost everyone at my Texas high school drove a pickup truck. Mine was a blue Dodge Dakota with a standard transmission because Dad wanted me to be proficient at driving stick before I got too comfortable driving an automatic.) I had been driving for a few months, and was already pretty good at knowing what was going on with the truck. I pulled into my parking space, took out the keys and started walking into the store. All of a sudden, I started to hear a clicking sound. Click, click, click—someone’s car was out of gear. I laughed to myself about the idiot who didn’t put their car in park.
I turned around and, sure enough, I was that idiot.
I ran back to the truck hollering for help and tried, like a bigger idiot, to stop the truck from rolling with my 120-pound body. A middle-aged woman ran over to help do the same thing. Finally, it dawned on me. Jump in the car and put on the brake. I honestly think God must have put that thought in my head, because at the time I wasn’t thinking rationally at all. I stopped the car, and everyone at that Walmart had a good laugh.
But I will always wonder: If I had thought of that story, would I have been Miss Leander?
Upon years of reflection, I think the answer is still “no.” There was no way to compete with a sexy woman with flaming coconuts. Miss Congeniality backs this theory up: The winner gets the crown because she’s brave enough to spin flaming batons.
Moral of the story: If you want to win a beauty pageant like the girls on TV, you need to light something on fire.
The 2019 Miss America Competition airs Sunday, Sept. 9 at 9 p.m. on ABC.
Keri is a professional chatterbox who loves watching TV & movies, reading about pop culture, and gawking at any craziness on the internet. You can follow Keri on Twitter.