One of the many perks of being a local pseudo-celebrity is that you never know where or when you’ll be asked to make a guest appearance. (One of the others, of course, is deluding yourself into thinking you’re a celebrity in the first place.) Over the years, I’ve developed quite the reputation, it seems, for being a judge. Not of the bench and gavel variety, but of the Paula Abdul sit there and look pretty even though you generally have no idea what you’re talking about variety. From Miss Plymouth Days to a Unadilla Valley talent show to the much-missed Grove Park Idol, I’ve grown pretty comfortable with a score sheet and a critical eye.
But this week, at the 162nd Chenango County Fair, I do believe I reached the pinnacle of my judgeship – I was one of three panelists deciding who would win the coveted Miss Chenango County Teen-Ager crown. I was quite honored to be asked … I’ve always been a fan of Dick Gillespie’s, and when his granddaughter Shana asked me to be a judge – for the 40th annual pageant, no less – I could hardly say no.
After baking under the red hues of the entertainment tent for a few hours Wednesday afternoon, I almost wished I’d had – almost, but I’m very glad I said yes. Dick has a breezy, natural charm on stage that makes his contestants and audience feel at ease – even if some of his jokes are as stale as week-old bread! And while I signed on to do the ‘Miss Teen-Ager’ contest, I didn’t realize that I’d be judging all the other age groups too. While I consider myself an arbiter of post-pubescent beauty, the whole baby thing is lost on me. Until they reach a certain age, I think they all kind of look like potatoes. That said, there were some darn cute potatoes in the contest this week!
I was also a little disappointed that my judicial repertoire was reduced to a well-planned score sheet. What about all the witty banter I’d diligently prepared? The acerbic barbs hurled at the contests? The carefully raised eyebrow and wink for the studio audience? Heck, I didn’t even get to hold the darn microphone.
Although I didn’t get to employ any of my well-honed Simon Cowell routine, I did get a backstage peek at the inner workings of a beauty pageant, and got to meet some impressive young ladies. Oxford, Norwich, Sherburne, Otselic – they represented a small but good mix of the local gene pool. I particularly enjoyed the “judge’s interview” portion of the competition, wherein my colleagues and I threw a lightning round of questions at each candidate. Each of the five (more on that later) were well-spoken, personable young women. I admire their chutzpah in putting themselves out there like that. Each deserved a tiara, in my humble opinion.
So yeah, why only five contestants? Beats me, but it does seem as though the whole pageant thing has started to fade away around here. Dick himself said that when he started the pageant 40 years ago, there were more than 30 contestants. I understand the whole objectification of women argument (even though they’ve long since done away with the obligatory swimsuit competition), but having seen what goes on at one of these events firsthand, I believe there’s a lot more merit to ‘pageantry’ than it generally gets credit for. In the space of a single afternoon, even the girls who had never participated in anything like this before learned some pretty valuable lessons in charm, poise and grace under pressure. The mere fact that they, as teenagers, can get up in front of a varied group of people at a county fair and give a speech in a ballgown – well that’s something that I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to pull off when I was in high school. The public speaking part, I mean. I was always fond of ballgowns.
I took quite a bit of good-natured ribbing when I posted on my Facebook page that I was judging the pageant at the fair this year (start with “Tooth requirements?” and proceed from there). And that’s OK, because as much as I love the fair, I’ve certainly told a few STD-carney-fried dough jokes myself. We can do that, you see, because the Chenango County Fair is our own – it’s as much about us as it is our neighbor. And for surviving yet another exciting fair week, and celebrating all things Chenango, I think we all deserve that sash.