Contestant Number Two, by Rita Plush

“If my friends could see me naaaow . . .”

And many of them did, and family too, at the 2017 Ms. New York Senior America Pageant held last week at the State University at Old Westbury, where I competed. 

Ms. Senior what?

Never heard of it, have you. You’re probably not alone, most folks haven’t. So let me give you the short form, but be sure to check out newyorksenioramerica.org to learn the many fascinating details of this organization. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be a contestant in 2018. Tell them Rita sent you. 

It was in 1972 that Dr. Al Mott came up with the idea for a pageant that would honor the accomplishments, dignity, and inner beauty of women over 60, thereby coining the term “the age of elegance.”

And that’s the beauty of the pageant. Focusing on poise, a positive philosophy of life, and talent, the competition stresses the inner you rather than the measurement of your waist and hips. Yes, there’s a message there. Not only to seniors, but to all women, and to young girls who are forming their attitudes and ideas of themselves — am I good enough, pretty enough? — and who every day are bombarded with sexual imagery and model-starved bodies as an ideal. 

Enter Ethel Bennett, now just shy of 95 — and that’s the only thing shy about her. A dynamic, engaging woman of great personal style, she is the quintessential symbol of positive aging. At 1985’s Ms. New York Senior America Pageant Ethel became its first state director, a position she held for 25 years before handing it over to Marleen Schuss.

You want engagement? You want guidance? You want a stylish shoulder — where does she get those clothes? — to lean on? A lady who’s got it all? You want Marleen, empress of all things pageant since 1972, the go-to gal who runs the show with a little help from Bob Geltman. 

And I do mean show, a yearly production of senior talent that includes the Seasoned Steppers, a group of former contestants, all 60-plus to mid-80s, whose high kicks and spirits set the pace for the pageant’s afternoon events. But enough about them. Let’s talk about me.

It was my yoga teacher, Doris Bodine, last year’s first runner-up, herself a marvel of movement and inner strength, who suggested one day last summer that I apply to the pageant. She said I’d fit right in with the Cameo Sisters. A group of former contestants, energetic, positive women all, they give new meaning to over-60. Briefly outlining the events of the day, one of which was the talent piece, she encouraged me to be part of it.

“Talent piece? I don’t sing or dance,” I said. “What would I do?”

“Aren’t you a writer?” she said. 

“Uh-huh.”

“Then why don’t you write something?”

I had lost my husband the year before, packed up and sold both my homes, and bought and moved into a condo. I was making a good adjustment, but there definitely was a hole in my life. Always game for a challenge, I was up for a new experience, and the idea of meeting these like-minded women appealed to me.

I sent for the application, filled it out, showed up for the audition, and performed my required 2-minute-and-45-second talent segment for a panel of judges. Would my monologue about perceiving God as a woman be too outré? Would the judges get that it was meant in fun? 

Actually, I have thought about God as a woman. And why not? Who knows what or who God is? Men wrote the Bible and they gave the best part to Him! No surprise there. But has He never heard of term limits? Maybe it’s time for a change. Transsexual is in! If Bruce Jenner can do it, why not God? 

Got it the judges did, and I was accepted as a contestant. Wow! I was now in a pageant. 

That was December. The pageant was in April, giving me months of thinking and worry. Was I right to take this on? Should I tell people? A pageant? You’re in a beauty pageant?

Rehearsing and pacing, pacing and rehearsing — I think better when I move — I set to committing my monologue to memory. Two minutes and 45 seconds of headwork may not sound like a lot, but for me it was practice, practice, practice. It didn’t get me to Carnegie Hall, but it got into my brain. 

And then there were the two gowns I needed. One in royal blue — got that one online from Nordstrom. Don’t you just love internet shopping? The other, in a color of my choice, I rounded up in convenient Macy’s in Manhasset. I love fashion, but I don’t love going far for it. And then the diet to fit into them. There’s more to life than how you look. When did I say that? 

I did not take home a tiara. I did not win, place, or show in the pageant. But Doris was right. We are amazing women. Each and every contestant, both past and present. We are all winners, because it takes a winner to take on a challenge. To put yourself out there in front of an audience of 400 — the pageant was sold out this year — to sing, and dance, and talk, and play an instrument. To do your thing, whatever it is. To silently sing to those watching and listening, “I am woman, hear me roar!”


Rita Plush, who had a house in East Hampton for many years, lives in Bayside, Queens. She is the author of the novels “Lily Steps Out” and “Feminine Products.”