It's 6:30 p.m., time for the pre-event talent showcase. The house lights are still on and Summit Arena is somewhere between one-third and one-half full. People mill about, dressed in everything from tuxedos and sequins to seersucker and khaki. Handmade posters line the section railings, wishing specific contestants good luck. Ten minutes later, the crowd hasn't filled out, but the lights dim anyway.
Welcome to crowning night, the highlight of the 75th Miss Arkansas pageant. General admission will run you about $30, but the best seats are reserved for press. They line the runway, affording reach-out-and-touch proximity to visibly quaking calves, tear-streaked, make-up muddied faces and the occasional glimpse of Spanx-clad thighs.
Early on, I realize this is going to be more interesting than my prior pageant experience — watching friends shuffle onstage in our high school auditorium, using the event as an attempt to extend the usefulness of their prom dresses.
Miss Arkansas, night six, officially starts with each of the 47 contestants storming the stage to club music, stating their name and qualifying title, and then strutting down the runway in identical dresses that resemble a one-shoulder take on a Pan Am uniform. From the press perspective, it's a full-scale advance, an army of perfect — albeit orange-hued — limbs parading about 2 feet from my face. When I manage to overcome the hypnotic motion of so many legs ending in the same pair of rhinestone heels, the runway immediately conjures my sole after-hours experience on Fayetteville's Dickson Street — bleached blondes, everywhere I look, with a few exceptions. The party girls are even dancing a little, because they can't help themselves. Many of them are college freshmen, and when someone cues this kind of music, dancing is just instinct.
The limbs arrange themselves onstage, some posed atop wooden blocks. When the limbs are still and the smiles pasted, the top 10 contestants are announced. The chosen few line the runway, some of them so eager to make it to the "safe" corner that they trot rather than walk, the way that a boxer might. Except that they're trotting in heels, which means they're actually scuttling. A few of them are weeping (in relief, I suspect) at having made it this far. As the chosen clasp hands, embrace and swipe their eyes, I glance at the 37 others. Way back there on the big stage, the smiles have grown tighter. One girl wears an expression of utter bewilderment. It's obvious that her mind is racing, trying to process the incredible disappointment of having it all end, just like that, and at the same time, recalling what she was instructed to do in this worst-case scenario. Oh yes, she should offer a hand to the girls on the risers, help them step down in their heels. She turns to her left, then her right, but the risers are already vacated. The former occupants are either standing on the runway or have made a desperate getaway backstage, where they can sob in semi-privacy.
Tracy Neal, Miss University of Arkansas, is in the top 10. We met a few months back, and she told me how her Miss Arkansas wardrobe breaks down — $300 for swimsuit, $4,000 for evening gown, $1,500 for talent. In addition to these expenses there are the talent fees and the walking and interview lessons, often given by former beauty queens and traveling coaches.
"Miss Arkansas can cost up to $15,000," Neal said. "My budget for this year is between 7 and 8,000 [dollars]." Neal, a graduate student in the community health promotion program, raised about 80 percent of her budget. After our chat, she dashed off to host a princess party at the dance studio where she teaches. For an evening of manicures and makeup, little girls' moms were forking out $25 each.