• Image about Pageant Systems

It's a rainy night in March, and I’m standing on a hot stage in a turquoise gown and rhinestone sandals with a bunch of perfectly coiffed women all waiting to see who will be the next Mrs. Pennsylvania International.

After months of exhaustive preparations that involved learning how to walk in five-inch heels, getting hair extensions and applying a spray tan, the moment of reckoning has come. My now-flat stomach should be fluttering with anticipation, but I’m too occupied by other things: my face, which aches from hours of smiling; my Spanx, which are pinching my internal organs; and the nagging concern that my two unsupervised teenage boys are playing beer pong on the dining-room table back home.

They can keep the crown. I want a gin and tonic. At the ripe age of 46, I entered my first beauty pageant. Some people may think these competitions silly and self-indulgent. I thought that at first too. But then a former Mrs. Delaware moved next door to my brother-in-law, and I decided to enter a pageant — both out of curiosity and to satisfy my DNA. (Doesn’t every girl want to be a princess?) My foray into sashes and rhinestones opened a hidden world populated by women of a certain age from every walk of life who are giving their younger competitors a run for their tiaras.

As iconic beauty pageants like Miss America lose ground to American Idol and other reality-TV competitions, the pageant world is welcoming older women like long-lost sorority sisters. These days, there are pageants for married women, career women, full-figured women, disabled women — just about any demographic you can think of. Even contestants 60 and older can compete for a national crown in the Senior America pageant.

“Today’s 50-year-old woman is not the 50-year-old of 20 years ago,” says Mary Richardson, executive director of the Mrs. International pageant and a former titleholder who, at 53, works out with a personal trainer three times a week.

So what’s the appeal? It’s certainly not money motivating these hot mamas; there is none. For many, the payoff is the camaraderie, the motivation to stay in shape, the thrill of competing, the visibility for a cause and, of course, the clothes.

“A lot of women I work with just want to get dressed up and feel good about themselves,” says Suzy Bootz, a pageant coach who was crowned Mrs. International in 2006 at the age of 42. “When you hit your 30s, 40s and 50s, you become comfortable in your skin and want to celebrate who you are. That’s a great place to be.”

Just because I’m comfortable in my skin, however, doesn’t mean I necessarily wanted to show off all of it. So of the three major pageant systems for married women — Mrs. America, Mrs. United States and Mrs. International — I chose the latter for one simple reason: There’s no swimsuit competition. Posing in fitness wear is still part of the deal, as are one-on-one interviews with five judges, sashaying in a gown and answering an onstage question.