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A Kingdom Less a Crown

Dear Margaret Cho,
I would like to begin this letter by saying that I’ve been a huge fan of yours since watching your stand-up sets on
Short Attention Span Theater on Comedy Central in the ’90s. It is with great regret that I report that you cost me the crown to Miss San Francisco 2001.

This was the beginning of a letter I had been writing in my head to the comedian Margaret Cho since I did, in fact, lose the Miss San Francisco 2001 pageant. Reflecting on that glittery and hairspray-filled speck of time, I acknowledge there could probably be some other things that contributed to me losing, including: having hips, being ethnically ambiguous, not playing an instrument, and not being tan; but if these offenses chipped away at my points, Margaret Cho was the dynamite that blasted all my chances of gaining the crown. ​

It wasn’t that I was committed to the crown—this was the first time I had ever entered a pageant, and I only agreed to sashay my ass in front of judges to help a friend. This friend, Tim, was helping organize the event and part of his job was to sell the pageant to women at San Francisco State—a task which proved to be more difficult than he had thought.

I was stuffing my face with burrito bliss during lunch when I saw him making a brisk beeline through the quad toward me. I knew he needed something—a cigarette or help. He had a cigarette and without saying hello, he lit it and launched his appeal. “Darling,” he said, “you have to sign up for Miss San Francisco.” ​

“Is that like Miss USA?” I asked, with beans and cheese sticking to the roof of my mouth. ​

“No!” he said with horror, “This is a scholarship program.”

I could feel the italicization of “scholarship” and told him it wasn’t really my thing. ​

At that point in my life I was surrounding myself with friends and artists intent on being the next Beat Generation. Ramshackle writers with initials for last names and PO Boxes for addresses, some who were arrested at the WTO protests, we believed we were the next coming of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs as we slinked from poetry readings to art shows with boxed wine in our backpacks and clove cigarettes for new friends. We stayed up all night talking about our game-changing visions of post-modernism, theater, and how Danny Elfman and David Bowie shared the role of god. A pageant was no place for a girl like me. But Tim goaded me on: “What’s the worst that can happen? I dare you.” Sitting like a lump on the grass, I wiped the cheese grease from my mouth with the back of my hand and decided that finding out the worst that could happen might be the kind of “fuck society” fun I was lacking and said yes to the pageant dress. ​

Once this verbal contract occurred, I thought I would just buy a dress, show up on the day of the pageant and walk around looking like something out of Soundgarden’s video for “Black Hole Sun.” What I wasn’t prepared for was the actual training that took place. There were tutorials on walking, tutorials on turning while walking, and tutorials on adjusting arms while walking so they were stationary at the sides of my body. This coveted stationary position of the arms, I learned, was because the coaches insisted that only “whores” swung their arms. By the end of the first day of training, the verdict was in: I walked too fast, my feet were not straight enough while walking, and my arms swung naturally and, apparently, could not be stopped. I was not prepared to wear a crown of Swarovski crystals and silver-plated metal. ​

After much trial and error, my arms calmed down and learned their place: still at the sides of my body, only allowed to move to wave and reach for a microphone to discuss my strategies on world peace. Once that was taken care of, I had to then work on my interview. While I was fully capable of carrying a serious conversation, it was hard for me to take any of these questions as a jumping-off point for deep and intentional dialogue, considering I would be wearing a ball gown or bathing suit when I would be expected to answer. But playing this charade was part of the deal, so I bucked up and started my interview training by answering questions the only way I knew how to when confused or scared—like a sarcastic jerk: ​

Q: How would you achieve world peace?
A: Everyone gets a puppy.
Q: What would you do with a million dollars?
A: Burn it.
Q: What is the most significant world event?
A: The invention of Panda Diplomacy. ​

Unsurprisingly, I failed my mock interview and was given the “correct” answers for these questions: ​

World peace is achieved by… something nonpartisan.
With a million dollars you would… do something nonpartisan, maybe with animals or babies.
The most significant world event (at that time) was the fall of the Berlin Wall because it symbolized the strength of the West and proved freedom and liberty always prevail.

I felt exhausted. I didn’t like the prescribed answers and questioned my intentions but knew it would be too easy to just walk away. ​

After what seemed like the montage of a ’80s movie makeover but without a cool soundtrack, the pageant day arrived and I was escorted into the bizarre. The makeup! The hair! The tears! And, without going into too much detail: the duct tape and Vaseline. Once everyone had finished either throwing up their lunch, having a meltdown that displayed regressive behaviors signaling daddy issues, or taking their form of a Valium, the show began. ​

The opening number was a simple affair with lots of strutting and crossing of the stage by all of the contestants to Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel”; we were all in bathing suits that had one balloon attached for each color of the rainbow. When we crossed the stage, our target was a mic where we would introduce ourselves and the community cause we were representing. There was something almost dystopian about walking up to a microphone engulfed in balloons and announcing, “My name is Mandy and I’m working towards HIV prevention in the local community!” all while smiling and making sure to make eye contact with the judges. Though strange, the crowd loved it. The people who came to see me were fellow nerds from the study-abroad club and international students who were very curious about this American pastime. They had taken the time to create a large sign reading “MANDY!”, showed up drunk, and sang the Barry Manilow song whenever my name was called. I had brought savages into the sanctity of Pageant Day. ​

As I completed each stage of the pageant alongside girls who treated these events as a profession, I was clearly an outsider. I came to the conclusion that my participation wasn’t just to make good on a dare. I started to feel like I was there for a bigger purpose—I was representing all those girls who just didn’t fit in. I was representing the girls with freckles and weird hair that would never flow loosely and effortlessly like the hair in shampoo commercials. I was representing the girls who started dieting in fourth grade because some idiot boy told them to “go take a workout” and the girls who had to mend all their pants because the right size was always too long. I was representing the girls who played softball and knew they had played a good game because they had dirt in their mouth and were bleeding when the umpire called time. I was representing the girls who enjoyed talking music, writing bad poetry, and buying fashion magazines only to tear them up to make collages for art class. These were my girls and I wasn’t going to let them down. ​

As the interview process began, I found myself in a stuffy room with five interviewers, a large video camera, and Tim, who was in charge of timing each answer. From the second after I introduced myself and spelled my last name twice, I was peppered with banal questions: What do you like about San Francisco? Where do you see yourself in five years? Even though I was nervous, I answered the questions effortlessly and even got a laugh here and there. I was wondering when this whole interview section was going to get hard when a man in his sixties looked down his glasses at me and asked, “What woman do you admire the most?” I caught my breath because for some reason the question felt loaded. I could have easily gone off on the need for third party politics in the US or how Shakespeare’s Henry V is still relevant today, but this question stumped me. Surely this was one of those questions in training where there had to be a “right” answer. I took a moment to reflect, thought of my girls, and realized my answer: Margaret Cho. ​

I had seen her show “I’m the One That I Want” and had been completely taken aback and transformed. She showed a tangible vulnerability while also showing a commanding strength. There was a palpable honesty and trust with her audience; there was a communion of sorts as she discussed her evolution as person and performer. She displayed self-worth, self-actualization, and dignity, all while being funny. That show introduced me to the reality that we all have the control to stop and start over and that we have to make ourselves the most important person in our lives. She impacted me in a way that changed the course of my thinking, and I was going to acknowledge and pay tribute to that fact in an official answer to a Miss America Organization pageant question that would be filmed and memorialized. In that haze of sheer confusion and a terror that only chiffon and eye glitter can inspire, I found my moment of zen and said Margaret Cho’s name. ​

After the interviews wrapped up and once all the contestants had their turn to thrill the judges with their talents and gown wearing, we all lined up on stage to hear the results of this strange trip we had taken together. As I stood in line on stage, I was mainly looking out into the crowd trying to locate my drunk friends in the audience, who I could hear but not see. As I was squinting, I was surprised as contestants began to peel away from the lineup, leaving me next to two women I knew to be pageant professionals. I could hear my friends singing “Mandy” enthusiastically. After some stalling tactics by the master of ceremonies to further increase the suspense, my name was announced and I was given a bouquet of roses and escorted to a special place on stage for runners-up.

I was a misfit among these women; a former fat girl with bad hair, mediocre grades, the swearing abilities of a sailor, and scrappy as hell. But somehow I was standing on a dot on stage reserved for a finalist and had acquired an official Miss America plaque stating “Second Runner Up.” When the master of ceremonies said good night and the audience made their way to the stage to congratulate or wipe away tears, I saw Tim walking his signature beeline toward me. “Darling!” he shouted as he scooted across the stage, brushing aside the riffraff who’d been unable to convince the judges to give them a pre-inscribed plaque. “You were so close to winning! Your answer for the woman you look up to—you were supposed to say Hillary Clinton!” Unknown to me, before the interview section I had been the frontrunner for the crown, but declaring my choice of role model dropped my points so low I was given the title of second runner up. ​

While I was wrapping my head around this information an older woman neatly dressed in a pantsuit made her way through the crowded stage to me. “We were really rooting for you! But... you have to understand... you’re just... a little too unconventional for the organization.” She gave me a smile that said “You know what I mean,” patted me on the arm, and walked away. One of my friends from the study-abroad club followed behind the woman, “Who was that?” ​

“I don’t know. She said I didn’t win because I’m too unconventional.” ​

“Too unconventional? Good!”

I don’t regret my answer. It helped me at a time in my life when I needed to realize that when standing in the face of convention, it’s perfectly acceptable to say or do what is unconventional if it means that I’m speaking my truth—even if it’s a sloppy, disorganized, arm-swinging truth, with friends who show up to social events wasted. I never sent the letter to Margaret because I felt like it needed some fine tuning, and so, almost two decades later, it’s still in the works. But as time moves on it gets closer to what I think my true message is to her: ​

Dear Margaret Cho,
I would like to begin this letter by saying that I’ve been a huge fan of yours since watching your stand-up sets on
Short Attention Span Theater on Comedy Central in the ’90s. It is with gratitude I report that the courage you inspired in me cost me the title of Miss San Francisco 2001 and helped me realize that I don’t need a crown to rule my kingdom.