When it comes to film and television (not to mention real life), pageants aren’t always painted in the best light. In Miss Congeniality, Hollywood’s essential turn-of-the-century portrait of “World Peace”-wishers and talent routines, Sandra Bullock’s Gracie Hart goes undercover in a Miss America-esque competition to try and prevent a bombing from taking place—and when the FBI agent’s tomboyish tendencies turn out to be a hindrance, she’s made over by (an admittedly charming) Michael Caine. In Drop Dead Gorgeous, another popcorn-friendly romcom from the year prior, a gaggle of small-town women—mothers and daughters both— completely lose themselves to beauty pageant hoopla, tearing at each other’s throats and relentlessly plotting takedowns. And in reality shows like TLC’s infamous Toddlers & Tiaras, young pageant competitors—and their often overbearing parents—are likened to vicious predators hunting for their next sash. Real-life competitions aren’t helping the case for beauty pageantry much, either: Though the Miss America Organization is a scholarship program for young women across the country (and implementing a progressive new set of guidelines for their main event earlier this year, including the elimination of the swimsuit competition), images like this one from 2007 still come to mind at the words “beauty queen.” Americans don’t want to take pageants seriously.
Enter Queen America, the new dramedy from Facebook’s fledgling streaming platform, Facebook Watch: It just might cast pageantry in a new light, even as it upholds some of the stereotypes about cutthroat competition associated with it. Sure, there’s still plenty of diva drama and maybe even a hissy fit or two (or 20), but in Queen America, the pageant airheads are surprisingly grounded.
Queen America marks the second time a renowned movie actress has signed on to lead a scripted series from Facebook Watch. First, it was Elizabeth Olsen in the emotionally intense Sorry for Your Loss, which debuted to favorable reviews (including from Paste) in September. Now, it’s Catherine Zeta-Jones in the leading lady’s shoes (or sky-high heels, as the case may be), playing the role of Vicki, a merciless Oklahoma pageant coach who’s known as much for her unforgiving training tactics as she is for turning pageant hopefuls, even the most helpless among them, into winners. Queen America finds her charged with a tricky case, attempting to help clumsy outsider Samantha (Belle Shouse)—who, unlike the Tulsa-based Vicki, hails from the rural heartland—become a contender.
Samantha was raised in extreme poverty in the town of Claremore, and she, like many young women in the series’ universe, sees pageants as a way out, a path to a better life. She’s intelligent and lovable, but she needs a lot of work when it comes to perfecting her pageant persona. “She’s a fun-loving, goofy underdog,” Shouse says when Paste reaches her by phone during principal production. “She’s trying to get into the pageant world and is very raw and new to it. Vicki Ellis takes her under her wing and shows her the ropes.”
Like Samantha, many of the actresses working on Queen America are new to the pageant world. And like Samantha, who works tirelessly with Vicki to perfect the ideal pageant walk and talk, the cast members, including Shouse, worked with a real-life pageant coach to try and nail the idiosyncrasies of a professional queen. Shouse discovered there’s more to pageants than meets the eye.
“She showed us how to walk, how to pose,” Shouse says. “There is so much, way more than expected. I have so much respect for people who do pageants.”
Megan West, who plays Brittany—Miss Texas, and Samantha’s number one rival—agrees that pageants are no walk in the park.
“We actually had a pageant coach come and teach us the footwork, which was way more difficult,” West says. “I have way more respect for pageant ladies because of it.”
Queen America viewers may find themselves gaining appreciation for pageant competitors, too. Samantha—just Sam to her family—wants to change her station in life, and she’s willing to work extremely hard to get there. For her, pageants aren’t a display of ego, a chance to prance around and wear sparkles. They’re an opportunity to propel herself forward. For folks who may have preconceived notions about pageants and the people who compete in them, Samantha is a challenge to those mindsets.
When Brittany comes along, though, Samantha’s upstanding morals are put to the test. Brittany is seemingly perfect: She hails from a wealthy Dallas family and has always gotten everything she wants. She’s been doing pageants since childhood, so she’s the one to beat. But Brittany turns out not to be your stereotypical pageant competitor, either. She challenges notions of egotistical pageant divas as much as Shouse’s Samantha does. And as much as we’d love to hate Brittany, she’s got a good head on her shoulders.
“She’s done this ever since she was nine years old, but she also happens to be super down-to-earth and like really chill and cool and nice,” West says. “She has grown up in a well-to-do family in Dallas, and they’re all really successful career people. So she believes being Miss America will open every door. That is her motivation for being Miss America, and then pursue whatever she wants to do, whatever that dream is. It could be anything, but right now, her goal is to be Miss America.”
Zeta-Jones’ Vicki has a rival of her own: Brittany’s coach, Mandy, played by Jennifer Westfeldt (Younger). Vicki’s nemesis, unlike Samantha’s, is easy to love: She does everything with a smile and a charming Texas accent. She drives Vicki nuts, and they compete against each other through their protégés. But maybe they’re more alike than they’re willing to admit.
“Whenever someone gets under your skin, it’s probably because you had a similar perspective in life, and they both worked really hard to get where they are,” Westfeldt says. “I think they probably are similar.”
In addition to being led by women on screen, Queen America is led by hard-working women behind the camera, too: The series’ creator/showrunner is Fear the Walking Dead veteran Meaghan Oppenheimer (“You read her work and you instantly fall in love,” Shouse says), and the director of all 10 episodes is Alethea Jones (Fun Mom Dinner, A History of Radness). The cast and crew are a strong group of women, one of the reasons Westfeldt feels so passionate about the project.
“I just think it’s so exciting that this is such a female-driven piece,” Westfeldt says. “The fact that we’ve got this amazing writer/showrunner in Meaghan [Oppenheimer], who’s this young brilliant woman, and Alethea [Jones] is incredible. Many of the producers are women. Most of the cast are women. It makes me just so happy and proud, especially this moment in time, to get to work on something that’s probably 80% strong, awesome ladies.”
Queen America premieres Sunday, Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. on Facebook Watch.