In an earlier blog I promised not to talk any more about beauty pageants. I’m brazenly reneging on that promise. My school recently hosted the entire provinces Girl Scouts of the Philippines for a four night sleep away camp. They learned native dances, tie-dyed shirts, competed in singing contests, and of course, held an eleven contestant beauty pageant. After a grueling four and a half hour campaign that tested endurance, talent and “overall loveliness,” the winner was crowned Miss Soirée and left with the deep veneration of all those involved. Naturally, I was selected as a judge.
After a year and half teaching high school in the Philippines, I’ve been privileged to serve as an honorary judge in a great deal of contests. Most recently, during my town’s Ati-Atihan festival, I was selected as “Chairman of the board of Judges” in the regional, modern and tribal, group-dance contest. Drawing from my extensive knowledge of both tribal and modern dance, I was able to guide the board of judges threw an exhaustive two-day deliberation period.
Most of my experience as a judge, however, comes from beauty pageants. In the past 18 months I’ve judged no less than 10 pageants, and sang the “serenade” at several more. I’m a shrewd and calloused observer of pageant minutiae. I’m often asked how I’m able to navigate the murky waters of teenage pageantry; a place resplendent with worthy contestants competing for a single crown. I decided to keep a running diary to offer some insight.
8pm – I arrive. There are 250 girl scouts here and zero girl scout cookies. They’re all wearing Girl Scouts of the Philippines shirts and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I hope they have one in my size. At this point, the girls from my school are used to me and a few of my students come up to talk to me. When I tell them I’m a judge, they say “of course you are sir. Always.”
8:05pm – I am the only judge so far, which puts our 8:10 opening ceremony time in serious jeopardy. “Filipino time” usually reserves about an hour cushion both ways. One time I arrived for a flight an hour early and it had left already. When I told them it wasn’t supposed to leave for another hour, they said “yes sir, it’s left already.”
8:17pm – Still the only judge. There is something truly creepy about the proposition of being the only judge in a beauty contest for 12-16 year olds. The sound guy is blasting a mash-up of Jason Mraz and what I’m pretty sure is La Bouche. The music reminds me of the dance clubs I went to when I was studying in Australia, when I still allowed my friends to bring me to dance clubs.
8:37pm – Now it’s Eye of the Tiger. The students from the other schools in my province aren’t used to having a white man at one of their events, so a lot of them are casually walking up behind me and posing for camera-phone pictures with the back of my head. Most of the pictures that exist of me in this country are of me walking by or facing a different direction. It’s what I imagine wild-life photography is like; “Oh my god, it just looked at me!”
8:42pm – Still the only judge. I’m blueprinting some improvements for my anti-cat gate. Within three days of arriving in Altavas after my trip to the states, I found out the cat population in my apartment had doubled. Four cats. At this rate I’ll have 23 cats haunting my apartment by the time I close service.
8:45pm – The other judges arrive.
8:52pm – We’re getting started. The facilitators have all the judges write biographies for the introductions, which is one of my least favorite parts. There seems to be a collective conscious amongst each individual panel of judges as to the format of how the bios will be written, and I never seem to get it right. It changes every time and each time they read mean there is something distinctly foreign about it. I tied to read the bio of the guy next to me as he’s writing it, but it’s in Aklanan.
8:54pm – Shit, it happened again. The other judges were all introduced as:
“A graduate of Western Visayas University majoring in Physical Education. A 33 year old MAPEH teacher at Linayuan National School and dance team choreographer, please welcome Mr. _________ ____________.” Then he would stand up and wave to the audience as they applaud.
I was introduced as:
“Traybis Ruffles Lindner, a Peace Corps volunteer at Altavas National School from Bermont, America.” By not putting my name at the end no one knew when to applaud and when I turned around to acknowledge the audience they stared at me blankly and waited for the host to say my name again. It’s awkward enough that I decide not to stand, which only perpetuates the confusion.
ASIDE: My middle name is not Ruffles. Each time we (Peace Corps Volunteers) participate in an event here we’re given certificates recognizing our participation. I figured out early on that A) I will close service with at least 70 certificates and B) They always print your middle name, even if they’re not sure what it is. So, I’ve been giving fake middle names (that all start with R). I’ve been Travis Really Lindner, Travis Risky Lindner, and Travis Remulus Lupin. I’m planning on making a coffee table book someday.
Also, the letters A and V are historically difficult for Filipinos to say, so I’m often Traybis from Bermont.
8:59pm – During the Group Production number each contestant walks up to the mic, says something like “Beauty is power, and a smile is a sword…” and then introduces themselves. One of the girls says “I’m 12 years of old,” and the audience erupts into vicious laughter. These pageants are beset with these little, painful moments of throbbing awkwardness where a contestant fumbles with a word or stutters in a step and the audience erupts in raucous laughter. Watching girls and boys in these pageants working hard to maintain their smiles when everyone is laughing at them is one of the most painful things I’ve experienced in the Peace Corps. In America, kids are so concerned with looking cool all the time and so mortified when they don’t. Here, they shake it off in a few moments, which I admire.
9:09pm – The host thanks the judges for sharing their “expertise.” One of the strangest things about being here is that I’m constantly being thanked for sharing my expertise. Other than knowing a lot about Bright Eyes and Fantasy Sports, I doubt if I even approach the vicinity of being able to claim expertise on anything.
9:19pm – The girls come out wearing their “official uniform,” which looks almost exactly like the outfit Robin Hood wears in the cartoon (except with pants).
9:20pm – An example of some of the criteria on the score sheet: Completeness (30%), Fitness (20%), Bearing (20 %), Beauty (20%), Audience Reaction (10%). I throw beauty and fitness out the window immediately by giving every girl the same score (a job better suited to Humbert Humbert perhaps). Completeness and Bearing make very little sense to me, so I’m basically limited to scoring entirely based on audience reaction, which is pretty much determined by which school has the most students in the audience.
9:35pm – I think it’s the smiles that make me the most uncomfortable, which is more of a pageant thing than a Filipino thing. It’s like watching someone in the dentist’s office who isn’t allowed to shut their mouth for twenty minutes. Try smiling for twenty minutes straight some time without looking like you’re also crying.
9:41pm – It’s the talent portion and one of the girls is doing the Cha Cha with a male dance partner. He’s wearing a white…blouse with a purple polka dot turtle neck and a large sparkly, sequin vest that forms a huge V down the shirt. This is only significant because the Denver boys and I spent a good 40 minutes searching (mostly giggling) through the women’s section at a thrift store for the perfect turtle neck to wear to a holiday party (which did not have a turtle-neck theme). We would have been all over this outfit.
9:51pm – One of the girls is wearing jean shorts that say “Pink Latte” on the back. I don’t get it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me uncomfortable.
10:01pm –We’re six acts into the talent portion and no one has done an interpretive dance to the Titanic song, which is really unusual.
10:26pm – The chorus of the song that’s playing is “I want to see your peacock, I want to see your peacock, I want to see your peacock…” I brought my camera fully intending on taking pictures. Apparently it didn’t occur to me how creepy that would be.
10:28pm – So far my favorite thing about this pageant is the host (Miss Soirée 2008) keeps saying these little condescending comments after the contestants perform. I’m sure she doesn’t mean to be snide, but that’s definitely the way it sounds. “That was indeed mildly entertaining contestant 10.”
10:33pm – Oh lord. For the “sportswear” competition one of the girls came out wearing cowboy boots, tiny jean cut-offs, a flannel shirt tied off above her stomach, and a cowboy hat. She brought out a whip and keeps cracking it. The audience loves it. I can’t even make myself look.
10:37pm – A second bad cowgirl.
10:39pm – Three bad cowgirls. I’m giving higher scores to the girls wearing the most clothes.
10:41pm – “I never imagined these girls could look pretty like this.” I love this host.
11:07pm – “The judges are having a hard time watching them on stage and moving.” I’m not sure if this is a shot on the judges or the contestants.
11:26pm – We’ve been waiting while they tally the results of “Miss Charity.” I’m not sure what that means, but I can’t imagine a scenario where whichever girl wins doesn’t run off stage crying.
11:31pm – Apparently one of the contestants dropped out because she’s “sleepy.” I had no idea that was an option.
11:43pm – The power just went out. The rest of the competition will be lit by a single lamp aimed at the stage powered by the loudest generator in the world.
12:07pm – During the interview portion one of the girls was asked what each girl scout can do to help fight global warming. She said it’s “important to reduce and resist getting things we don’t need.” Very nice.
12:19pm – I just found out I have pin the sash on the winner, which is my least favorite part. It’s like pinning a corsage on a prom date, except it’s in front of 250 people hooting, it’s on stage, and it feels illegal.
12:41pm – Congratulations to Miss Soirée 2011. I’m going to sleep.