• Image about Pageant Systems
Richard Krauss

I dub these women the Sisterhood of the Traveling Gown, and together they hold more titles than Manny Pacquiao.

Entry into this community is a boon, as outfitting oneself for a pageant is pricey — new gowns can cost $6,000 or more. Add to that interview suits, athletic wear, cocktail dresses, jewelry, makeup, shoes, professional photos, optional sessions with pageant coaches and personal trainers, a spray tan, acrylic nails and, in my case, hair extensions (done by the fabulous Alison Cutry of Evolve Salon & Spa in Center Valley, Pa.), and it’s easy to see why this is a multimillion-dollar industry.

Unfortunately, my budget doesn’t allow for a gown that costs more than my car, so I buy one from a website that sells contestants’ castoffs and take it to dress designer Deborah Lopresti for an upgrade. Lopresti knows exactly what to do with this strapless confection and adds a cluster of rhinestones and an over-the-shoulder sash.

For weeks I am consumed with preparation: lifting weights and doing stomach crunches in my basement each night, boning up on current events for my interview and learning to apply false eyelashes. I end up losing 15 pounds and transforming my legs into strong, sinewy stems.

Before I know it, it’s the pageant penultimate. Marci puts out a call for a dry run. It’s a tradition among the Sisterhood, and they don’t come empty-handed. “You’re going to get a spray tan, right, toots?” David Fink, an extended member of the Sisterhood, says, eyeing my pale skin as I enter the living room in a green sleeveless dress. The outfit passes muster, but the earrings don’t.

Marci brings out a box of jewelry containing huge fake gemstones. They glimmer beneath the tract lighting and could probably launch a satellite if triangulated properly. The crew clips and unclips baubles on my earlobes before settling on a pair with stones the size of golf balls. Two hours later, I’m sweaty and disheveled and ready to go home, when Mary remembers the black knit interview suit in her car.

“I just saved your life,” she says, rushing out to get it. It fits perfectly.

As we say our goodbye, Marci surprises me with a purple garment bag bearing a rhinestone crown and matching vanity cases. “Now you’re official,” she says.