Contestant No. 9 took the stage wearing satin gloves and a billowy chiffon gown. She had 35 seconds at the mike:
"To be happy in life," Gail Stebbins told the audience, "you have to learn to adjust to the things you can't change."
When she lost her teeth years ago, she got new ones. When her hair fell out, she began to wear wigs. And when her bosom headed south, she gave it a lift with a little padding.
It's not exactly the kind of thing a beauty queen cares to admit. But Stebbins was not here for the crown. She just wanted to look good and have a little fun.
That was the case for many of the contestants who lined up on a recent Sunday to compete for the title of Ms. Senior Culver City.
They gathered at the senior center, teased hair smelling sweet from hair spray, necks glistening with rhinestones, feet aching in high heels. Elaine Brammell, a blond from Carlsbad, was the youngest candidate at 64. Sandra Miller-Erkus, a redhead from Granada Hills, was the oldest at 79.
Stebbins, 73, whose hair color depends on which wig she's wearing, came in from Oceanside. A girlfriend drove her despite the fact that her husband insisted she stay home. He's not a big fan of the shows.
The women are. Some have dreamed of starring in a pageant all their lives, and not until they reached their 60s did they have the courage or the time. They've been in dozens of shows. They have closets full of gowns, and trophies on their mantels.
On this day many were looking east, toward Atlantic City. That's where each year, in a big hotel casino off the boardwalk, judges crown Ms. Senior America. Her name is announced before an audience of hundreds, and a towering tiara is placed on her head.
Since California began participating in the national contest in 1986, women from the Golden State have scored five crowns, a record number.
"My girls mean business," said Marilyn Kohler, the state pageant director. "They are very hard to beat."
Especially when it comes to talent. Show business runs in their blood.
Many participate in local pageants just so they can qualify for Kohler's other venture: an entertainment group called the Cameo Club. Cameo members get to showcase at senior centers, baseball games and county fairs.
"That's why I do it," Stebbins said. "I don't need a pageant to tell me I'm good. I know I'm good."
Aynne Louise of Huntington Beach estimated she's been in about 30 contests. She's never won or placed. Still, she shows up every chance she gets with her bright red lips and her homemade banana bread.
"I'm addicted," she said about the pageantry. "It's my candy."
Every spring, before pageant season kicks off, the women scavenge thrift stores in search of sequined and chiffon numbers. Those with limited budgets pay as little as $5 for their dresses. Others splurge on $600 gowns.
The Californians have the fiercest of the states' competitions. Unlike others, they must vie in local preliminaries before qualifying for the state level.
The judges' scores are based on personal interviews, talent, the gown and the contestant's philosophy of life. Many entrants hop from pageant to pageant until they qualify for the state round.
On this Sunday, the dozen candidates were giving their hair and makeup one last check in the dressing room when their choreographer, the current Ms. Senior Pasadena, charged through the door.
"OK, ladies!" hollered Syni Champion, 64. "It's time to go!"
They took deep breaths and lined up. Down the hall, the audience awaited the opening dance number.
Myrna Motzer of Fountain Valley made her way toward the auditorium stage. She whispered to herself: "Life is all about taking chances and fearless living."
No one was nervous — or at least they said they weren't. And there was no talk of rivalries or bad blood between contestants.
"We're too old for that," Louise said.
Besides, Kohler runs a tight ship. The mama bear of the California senior pageant scene has watched hundreds of women compete for the crown. She won't put up with divas, she said.
When she took over as state director there were only two city-level contests. Now there are eight.
Everywhere she goes, she recruits. The women tell her they're too old, too wrinkly, too overweight, without enough talent. But Kohler charms them.
"Many of them are sitting on the couch, feeding the dog, doing the laundry, bored stiff with being old," Kohler said. "I tell them, 'You're so darn good-looking. You can do it!' "
She invites their husbands too and puts them to work. They set up chairs, prep lunches, carry the heavy luggage and escort the women onstage.
But Culver City would be the last pageant for Kohler. She's 84 now and is passing the baton to someone younger, with more energy.
So there was a special tribute during the contest. The city gave her an award and everyone, including the former queens in the front row, gave her a standing ovation.
At the mike, the women did what they could to shine during the talent segment.
Alma Gamez, 71, of La Mirada sang a beguiling Cuban number with clicking castanets. Miller-Erkus transformed into a wind-up doll and belted out an aria. Gayla Kalp Jackson, 67, of Moorpark recited a moving monologue on the origin of the military bugle call "Taps." And Brammell playfully shed some clothes while singing "I'm a Woman." (Think Peggy Lee).
The audience clapped, laughed, screamed, got choked up.
In the end, the crown went to Kalp Jackson, the tall, thin blond in the blue mermaid gown. In August, she'll compete in the big state pageant in Westminster. For the third time.
"Can you believe it?" the family therapist said. "I am absolutely shocked."
As she celebrated with champagne, her fellow competitors trickled into the dressing room to collect their things. A few kicked off their heels and swore they were done. No more pageants.
Then, minutes later, Judy Lamppu, an organizer, came through the door.
"Ladies! We've got the Conejo Valley pageant in a few days," she said. "Who's in? There's very few contestants, so it's an easy win!"
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