Isn’t She Lovely?

A beauty pageant spoof raises questions about the real deal.

I recently went to see the musical Pageant, at Manoa Valley Theatre. Originally an off-Broadway production, the premise of the show is that cosmetics giant Glamouresse conducts a yearly pageant to search for a swanlike new spokesmodel. Oh, and the swans are all played, with deadpan realism, by six men.

I particularly loved Miss Great Plains, Betty Louise Cutlet, both for her name and for her evening gown, which was festooned with Midwestern farm bounty. She sported a perky, 1960s hairdo that looked like it would hold up in a hurricane. Miss Texas was a fabulous dancer with truly enviable legs, and the host, played by KITV4’s Keoki Kerr, was smarmily perfect. The whole thing was mascara-clad wonderful, but what struck me was how closely it resembled another production I’d recently attended—the Miss Hawai‘i Scholarship Program 2006.

There were the names: Miss Kona Coffee, Miss VIP and Miss Island Ilima. And the sparkly dresses, although they weren’t as voluminous as those in Pageant, where “Miss Industrial Northeast” had a gown so full of sequins that it clanked as she glided by. The musical glossed over the swimsuit competition, for obvious reasons, while the Miss Hawai‘i show embraced it, and the audience’s attention suddenly ratcheted up, for obvious reasons.

In the talent segment for Miss Hawai‘i, Miss Moloka‘i performed a moving oli (chant) that she’d written in Hawaiian, in which she’s fluent. Miss Island Ilima, Pilialoha Gaison, an HPU student and a professional Tahitian dancer, came out in a regal headdress and stunned the audience into submission with her performance. She went on to win the Miss Hawai‘i crown, and I simply cannot wait to see her kicking some ass at the national competition, where ballet and piano and opera are the norm. Viewers in Akron are going to drop their Cheez-Its, let me tell you. Gaison’s bio also mentions that she wants to own her own business and serve as a Honolulu firefighter. The firefighters are going to drop their Cheez-Its, too.

illustration: Tim Foley

The problem with the talent segment is that most talents aren’t easily demonstrated on a stage. You could type 90 words a minute, have mastered scallop risotto and be able to rappel down a mountain—but onstage, you’re going to be stuck honking a Stevie Wonder song on a clarinet or belting out a tune from Chicago. No one’s doing archery, writing a novel or showing off their calligraphy—that would make for weird television.

Which brings me to a larger issue. Of the 14 young women vying for the tiara, all seemed confident, accomplished and hardworking. Many came from very modest, blue collar families. One competitor, Sheri Canopin, currently serves in the Honolulu Police Department, while Angela Everhart is in the 624 Civil Engineer-ing Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Her goal? To get a Ph.D. in educational psychology.

Do they have to, or do they choose to, tap dance for scholarships? Do you need an evening gown to get an MBA, or become a neurosurgeon? I can’t tell if these women are savvily using an antiquated system or being used because of their appearance. Could the $250,000 that the Miss Hawai‘i pageant gives out in scholarships and tuition grants be doled out differently? Maybe. Because when drag queens and real contestants start looking interchangeable, maybe it’s time for a change.