• Image about Pageant Systems
The Mrs. Pennsylvania International pageant has the typical competition categories - except swimsuit.
Photograph: Richard Krauss; illustrations: Jennifer Lilya

It sounds simple enough, but as I learned, preparing for a pageant is more like getting ready for battle. It requires strategic planning, a commander who knows which cut of dress looks best on a 5-foot-4-inch frame, and a team of loyal advisers willing to open their closets and jewelry boxes to a new recruit. Lucky for me, I had just that.

Marci McNair, Mrs. Delaware U.S. 2009, agrees to whip my untoned bottom into shape. An attorney by day, Marci, 34, is a pageant aficionado, having entered her first competition as a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. We meet for the first time at her home outside of Philadelphia, and she introduces me to the raven-haired Susan Huntley, 36, who was crowned Mrs. Pennsylvania America 2012 in February. An attorney, Susan has won every pageant she’s competed in as a married woman.

“I honestly don’t think I’d be as good at what I do on a daily basis if not for pageantry,” says Susan, who credits the circuit for her confidence and speaking skills in the courtroom.

Right off, the pair insist on assessing my walk, which, according to Marci, is everything. I oblige, strutting across Marci’s spacious bedroom, then pivoting when I hit the full-length mirror.

“Not bad,” Marci says. “But don’t touch your leg and walk slower.”

I try again but wobble a bit on the turn. “That’s good for fitness competition,” Susan says, “but you went a bit too fast for evening gown.”

Marci tells me to buy some five-inch heels and walk in them for practice. The first thing I do when I get home that night is order a pair online. They arrive several days later, and that afternoon, I wear them to clean out the refrigerator. I have to admit: Scrubbing cucumber slime from the crisper never felt so hot.

I must have shown potential with my walk, because Marci soon introduces me to others within her circle, a tight cohort of accomplished women who are only too happy to pass along their pageant garb and knowledge to whoever needs it. Besides Susan, there’s Danielle Micale, 37, a licensed nursing-home administrator and self-proclaimed tomboy who competes, she says, because it gives her a megaphone to advocate for those with Alzheimer’s disease; Dr. Ellie Baker, 32, a dentist and mom; and Mary Moulds, 39, a culinary adviser who, after losing a significant amount of weight she had gained from taking steroids to manage multiple sclerosis, says she started entering pageants because, “I needed to get over the fact that I wasn’t 250 pounds [anymore]. I still saw myself as that girl in the mirror. If anything was going to get me over that, it was getting onstage in a swimsuit.”