City Lights: Beauty pageants with a twist

I had a college professor who kept a sign on her office door with a concise slogan: "Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Get used to it."

As one who has always considered the genders more alike than different, I applaud that sentiment, and I'm happy to back it up with evidence.

For example, if I gave you a transcript of one of our newsroom meetings and blacked out the speakers' names, I'd venture that you couldn't tell the difference between a masculine or feminine comment. We're all tough and tender, passionate and businesslike, and so on.

In a world where a woman can direct "The Hurt Locker" and a man can helm "Steel Magnolias," suffice to say that we've broken most of the gender barriers. Still, there are a few areas where yin and yang don't seem to intersect much.

Take beauty pageants. In recent weeks, I've gotten press releases for a pair of upcoming spring events: the second annual Mr. Huntington Beach Contest and the first-ever Mr. Fountain Valley Pageant. Both advertise themselves as pageant parodies full of laughs and hijinks, which would lead to the conclusion that beauty contests — serious ones, I mean — definitely belong on the feminine side.

In fact, I was so sure of that that when I interviewed Cindy Cross, the organizer of Mr. Huntington Beach, I jokingly asked if Mr. Huntington Beach wore a sash and crown and attended city events throughout the year.

And then she told me that yes, in fact, he did.

Calvin Free, the owner of the Beef Palace butcher shop, won the city's first annual pageant last year. Before I go any further, let me explain that these Mr. pageants are meant as charity fundraisers. The contestants represent nonprofits and sell votes for a dollar apiece, with the money going directly to the charities and, of course, factoring into the judges' final scores.

So when the contestants model swimwear and evening wear and demonstrate a talent, they're more than a little inclined to camp it up — and hardly expected to spend the next year representing the city at functions. But Free, as it turned out, did just that.

When dozens of people raced into the icy ocean on New Year's Day for the annual Surf City Splash, there was Free, firing the starting gun. When city workers held a chili cookoff, there was Free, serving as judge. And for that matter, there was his crown and sash, always conspicuous in a crowd.

Did he do it as a joke? Of course.

Still, Free, who raised $11,000 for the Huntington Beach 3/1 Marines Foundation, has enjoyed raising people's eyebrows, and he'll relinquish his title Friday with some regret.

"I have another crown tucked away in a box," he told me. "The minute they take my first one away, I'm gonna put the second one on. They're gonna have to track me down. I might be going around town in my crown and sash, impersonating Mr. Huntington Beach."

Free noted that for the evening wear competition, he even wore a long red dress — "a little bit of Milton Berle." Granted, it's all meant as a spoof. But Free, who noted that he admires assertive women, said there were worse humiliations.

"I'm a women's libber," he said. "I love women. I prefer 'em to men."

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

If You Go

What: Mr. Huntington Beach Contest

Where: Old World Festival Hall, 7561 Center Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 7 p.m. Friday (doors open at 5:30, with a buffet dinner at 6)

Cost: $35 in advance, $50 at the door

Information: (714) 375-3131 or

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