“I’ve never done this,” feminist author Gretchen Ainsley whispered to the distinguished-looking man sitting next to her. She leaned closer. “I’m a virgin. Can you believe that? At my age.”
“Me too. You’d think in my 65 years I would have. But I haven’t,” Lewis Carlyle said with a self-conscious laugh. “Why I picked now, after all this time, after all the opportunities, I don’t know.”
“Could it be because you own this hotel? And the timing was right.”
“Perhaps,” Carlyle answered looking past Gretchen. “Oh, here’s Qwonzell.”
The tall, slender African-American glided next to Gretchen, pulled out a chair, and sat next to the woman.
“Have you met Qwonzell?” Carlyle asked Gretchen. Her head shake said “no.”
“Well, then, Gretchen Ainsley, this is Qwonzell Hollingsworth, male supermodel and now owner of a brand new chain of formal wear rental stores for men. What is its name again?”
“Aisle of Man. We thought there was a revitalized need with the legalization of same-sex marriage. And, of course, there still are traditional weddings. And proms.” Qwonzell looked at Gretchen. “Pleased to meet you. I understand you, too, are a virgin.”
“Oh, Lord! Does everyone know that?” the famous fighter for women’s equality moaned. “And here comes another one. Or so I’ve been told.”
Two-time Tony winner Andrea Milland approached the seated trio. She was smiling. “I was told to sit next to you Qwonzell,” she said. “We’ve been paired up.” She sat and turned toward the two men and woman. “God, I feel so…What? Inexperienced. Naïve. Green.…having never done this before.”
“I’ll bet you’ve watched this sort of thing on TV in the privacy of your home,” Gretchen said. “Everyone has. Except me. My mother wouldn’t allow it. Not in our house. Demeaning, she said.” Embarrassed by her admission, Gretchen changed the subject. “So where are the other two? There should be two more. Right?”
“Yes. There are,” Lewis Carlyle chimed in. “Oh, what perfect timing. Here they come now.” A professional-looking woman who appeared to be in her fifties and a younger man, perhaps 25 to 30, neared the group. “Welcome, Congresswoman Nogales,” Carlyle greeted the woman. “We are so proud to have you participate. And is this your son?”
“Please, call me Elena and yes this is Ricardo.”
“Ricardo, in case any of you haven’t heard, was just elected to the California State Legislature,” Carlyle explained.
Gretchen, Qwonzell, and Andrea reacted with sounds of surprise and smiles. Elena Nogales beamed with maternal pride.
“Hello, everyone,” the new legislator said. “This is exciting. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” He paused. “Oh, my God. Andrea Milland! I’m your biggest fan.”
“That is so sweet.” The Broadway star stood and reached across the others to shake Ricardo’s hand. A flirtatious smile teased Ricardo.
“I would so like being paired up with you, Miss Milland. But apparently I’m paired with my mother.”
“That’s true,” Lewis Carlyle interjected. “But that’s because, as I understand it, you and the congresswoman have done this together before. Is that true? We all are virgins.”
“Yes, we have. Mom and I did this last year back home at the state fair. I was a virgin then. But Mom, the experienced one, showed me how.”
“Oh, the fair was such fun. Wasn’t it Ricardo?”
Before young Nogales could respond, Carlyle stood, raising his hands. “I understand we are about to start. I’ve been given the signal. Is everyone ready?” The quintet nodded. “OK. Take a deep breath and exhale your tension.” He paused as the group of inexperienced men and women emptied their lungs, releasing their pent up anxiety. “Oh,” Carlyle added as an afterthought. “Do we want the lights dimmed or left on?”
“On!” five voices shot in unison.
“OK. I would have said dimmed. But the lights stay on.” He laughed with nervousness. “Andrea and Qwonzell, you’ll be over there,” he said pointing to the left side of the room. “See how it is set up for your comfort? And Team Nogales, you’ll be near the right wall. Gretchen and I will remain here.” The Broadway star, the male model, and the political Nogales made their way to their assigned area. The feminist leader rose, shoved the extra chairs around her to the side and stepped forward to the relaxing setting provided for her and Carlyle. “Everything you’ll need,” the older man continued, “the interview questions, scoring sheets, and pens, are in the center drawers of the tables. And you’ll be glad to hear the chairs are far more comfortable than what we’ve been sitting on because the interviews with the 51 contestants will last five minutes each. This will take about two hours. Remember their scores will include your impression of the casual outfit they have selected. Today’s scores, as you know, will be combined with tomorrow night’s televised swimsuit, talent, and formal wear competitions. Are there any questions?”
“Do the contestants know we are as nervous as they are?” Andrea asked.
“They’re all probably more experienced at this sort of thing than we are,” Qwonzell said to the judge with whom he had been paired.
Carlyle checked the other panelists. “OK, then, no questions. Oh, one last reminder. We are making history here. Erase your previous views about beauty.” He shrugged his shoulders and stretched his neck muscles in an attempt to relax them. “Are we set?” he asked looking toward a man posted at the interview room’s door. “Send in the representatives from Alabama, Alaska, and Arizona.”
Two hours…and 51 brief interviews…later, as the representative from Wyoming, a Native American named Blair, finished answering a question about the death penalty posed by Congresswoman Nogales and exited the room, the six judges erupted in a collective sigh. “I feel like I’m on speed,” gasped Gretchen Ainsley. “That went by so fast.”
“I’m exhausted,” breathed Qwonzell Hollingsworth. “That was more stressful than a runway gig during New York Fashion Week. But at least I’m not a virgin anymore when it comes to judging beauty pageants.”
A young woman with purple hair cut in a boyish style gathered the six score sheets and handed them to the two representatives of Coburn & Popich Accounting who trailed her like Secret Service agents crowd the president. “Is everyone ready to go to the bar downstairs?” Lewis Carlyle asked.
Five voices answered “Yes.”
“I need a beer,” Congresswoman Nogales announced with urgency in her voice.
“A martini for me,” Andrea Milland chimed in.
“I’m having white wine, at least one,” supermodel and entrepreneur Hollingsworth said. “My taste in wine is probably the whitest thing about me.”
“Diet Coke here,” Women’s Rights advocate Ainsley announced.
“Lite-beer.” Ricardo Nogales giggled. “I am not going to the fattest member of California’s legislature.”
When the panel of judges entered the Carlyle Hotel Grand Ballroom the next night, they were greeted by an excited crowd of nearly 1000 supporters of the pageant’s contestants. The six judges stepped into the vast hall from a side entrance parallel to their seats and strolled single-file to the judges’ table that faced the stage. Once seated, each began to sense the electric tension in the air and the importance of the night.
“We really are making a statement tonight,” Gretchen said loud enough for the entire panel to hear. “No nationally televised pageant has had contestants like these. No pageant has had judging criteria like these. No pageant has sought to change perceptions of pageants and define beauty as we shall tonight.”
“Yes,” Lewis Carlyle added, “we are making history here. These courageous contestants are making a statement about intelligence, accomplishment, talent, and attractiveness that will change expectations and shatter stereotypes. And I am so proud this is happening at my hotel.”
As Carlyle finished his statement, the lights dimmed and a pre-recorded fanfare began. “Showtime!” Andrea Milland whispered as the ballroom’s wide back door swung open and the pageant’s 51 male contestants entered, strode down the center aisle in their Aisle of Man tuxedos, and climbed the four steps to the stage to begin The First Mr. Gay-merica Beauty Pageant.