On Friday, my husband and I arrive at the Hampton Inn in Altoona, Pa., about 45 miles southwest of Penn State University, where all the Teen, Miss and Mrs. Pennsylvania International contestants will stay this weekend and where the preliminary events are held. Six of us are vying for the Mrs. title: Mrs. Philadelphia, Teena Handline, 22, a paralegal who attends law school at night; Mrs. Shickshinny, Kimberly McLendon, 35, a chef and food writer; Mrs. Conneautville, Danella Schroeder, 34, an emergency-management manager and planner; Mrs. Hazelton, Dr. Jill Snyder, 43, an OB-GYN; and Mrs. Coatesville, Sara Snyder, 44, who owns a petroleum business with her husband. My title is Mrs. Lehigh Valley.
Competition starts first thing the next day with one-on-one interviews, which are worth 50 percent of the overall score and focus largely on a contestant’s platform or community-service efforts. I have chosen to represent Girls on the Run, a nonprofit I volunteer with that uses running as a tool to empower young girls. My pageant posse believes this portion of the competition will be my best hope for racking up points because I like to talk.
I’ve eaten meagerly for four months in preparation for today, and my stomach is singing like an orca. So, with minutes before interviews begin, I head to the hotel buffet, serve myself a bowl of oatmeal and head to the lobby with the other contestants to wait for my turn. Several spoonfuls into my meal, disaster strikes, and I spill the entire contents on my green dress.
The other women look at me in horror. But then Dawn Hicks, the reigning Mrs. Pennsylvania International 2011, springs into action, ordering a hair dryer from the front desk and whisking me to the bathroom, where we try to remove gobs of Quaker Oats from my chest with damp paper towels. Dawn, I learn, used to be in the Air Force and now works as a civilian at the Department of Defense. Not only can this mother of two remove food stains without breaking an acrylic nail, she’s been deployed to Afghanistan twice.
Once my dress is dry, Dawn yells, “Go, go, go!” and I sprint across the hall, clean as a whistle, to the interview room.
Afterward, the contestants head to the Jaffa Shrine in downtown Altoona for rehearsal before the 7 p.m. show. We practice an opening number, walking across the stage and posing. Most, if not all, of the other women have done this before, and they move with grace and confidence. After my turn, Dawn pulls me aside.
“You’ve got dead arms,” she tells me. “Try and move them a bit as you walk. But don’t touch your gown.”
An hour before show time, we scurry to a makeshift dressing room backstage to get ready. We jockey for prime real estate near the electrical outlets and plug in hot rollers, curling irons and cellphones so our friends and family in the audience can text us feedback during wardrobe changes. Some of the more seasoned contestants have brought their own full-length mirrors, garment racks and steam irons. It’s complete chaos, but there’s none of the cattiness or fighting made infamous by movies like Miss Congeniality and the reality show Toddlers & Tiaras. That’s not to say tales of sabotage don’t exist: Everyone seems to know someone who’s had something “accidentally” spilled on her gown, a zipper ripped or painful mishaps with Crazy Glue. On this night, at least, civility reigns, and we share everything from earrings to bras.