One Friday afternoon, I took a stroll to my neighborhood mall in Jerusalem to buy party favors for my upcoming 31st birthday bash. The minute I saw a poster on the entrance advertising the mall’s second annual “Prettiest of Women” beauty pageant for women ages 30+, I knew I had to enter. “Like wine, women get better with age,” read the poster – quite a comforting birthday message, and lo and behold, the audition was being held on my birthday. This would be my birthday – and Valentine’s – gift to myself. The contest was scheduled for February 14, Valentine’s Day.
I remember growing up loving American pageants but never really believing that I ever had what it takes to participate in one. But this contest was less intimidating – and, it seemed – winnable.
The audition process was extremely casual. It took place at the underground offices of the mall. They had me fill out a short application and write what makes me unique. I wrote that as an immigrant from Los Angeles, I would add an American touch to the competition. After all, aren’t beauty pageants and malls American inventions?
I passed the audition, which drew about 40 women. They consisted of 13 women ages 30 to 52: two nurses, two makeup artists, an optometrist, an aerobics instructor, an artist, a secretary, a sales person, a director of a community center, a director of a Judaica factory, an aesthetician, a grandmother and me – the Jerusalem Post journalist.
At our first rehearsal we were asked to bring high heels. I didn’t own any, so I had to buy a few cheap pairs (we were not funded for extra shoes and accessories, unfortunately.) The mall, however, would dress us up for the casual wear and evening gown portions of the competition with clothes from mall boutiques.
At the first rehearsal, we met the pageant director, Guy Glicksman, an attractive man with spiky platinum blonde hair who organizes fashion shows. He wore a fabulous scarf around his neck and a slight air of stylish snobbery. He immediately announced that he would put us to hard work.
First we had to learn how to walk like fashion models, and let me tell you – it’s not as easy as it seems. When it was my turn to strut my stuff, I got the thumbs down.
“You bounce too much,” Guy told me.
I spent the whole week in shoe stores – looking for more comfortable heels and practicing my walk. If 18-year- old girls without high school diplomas can do it, why can’t I?
Fortunately, I improved. At the next rehearsal, Guy said my walk was “great,” but I crossed my legs over a bit too much.
For three full weeks since the audition I think every contestant became unusually conscious of their looks, clothing, and personal style. I felt an uncontrollable desire to shop and upgrade my own wardrobe. I was glad to rediscover the sexiness of high heels, and on the day of the contest I discovered how big, curly and fluffy my hair could get – to the extent that I should have been introduced as Orit “Afro.”
I noticed how some women underwent a complete makeover. One lady came in with bright red lipstick and short, dyed blonde hair. Guy had her dye her hair a darker shade, and the makeup artists dressed her face in mauves and pinks. It was quite a positive transformation.
Some women fussed more than others about their hair and makeup. I’m sure if we had to spend a few more days with each other a few verbal catfights might have broken out. But we were all mature women, over 30. Most were married with children.
I admit I wanted to win. The winner was going to get a free trip to Rome, and then, of course, the prestige of being a beauty queen. I thought I had a good chance. Hani the hair dresser told me he was rooting for me, and a man who worked at the camera store nearby assured me I would get first place. My family members told me I was the prettiest, but then again, they’re family.
On the day of the contest, I realized the rehearsals didn’t really prepare us for the contest. We never conducted a dress rehearsal on the short runway. Hundreds of people, mostly family members of the contestants, gathered around the runway cheering their favorites. I don’t think the crowd wanted that icy strut that Guy favored, but a smiley, friendly, girl-next-door approach. But I walked down mean and serious for the judges.
We all waited on our heels at a dress store behind the runway as dancers and singers entertained the crowd in between our walks. At that point I wanted to rest my sore feet more than I wanted to win. I learned firsthand why feminists don’t like heels. They can be torture.
Finally, I heard my name called on the microphone. To my surprise, I won this year’s new category, “Havivat Hakahal” (Mall’s Favorite). I guess it’s like the popular vote.
I don’t know the criteria for this award. Maybe the mall management was afraid that if I didn’t win I’d write something nasty in the papers (and maybe I’d have been a little less diplomatic in my narrative had I not taken a title). Maybe they wanted ethnic balance. The second runner-up was a 33-year-old (blonde?) Israeli, the first runner-up was a 31-year-old Arab- Israeli, and the winner was a 39-year-old Russian-Israeli. Or maybe, we just all deserved it, although I know some wouldn’t agree.
I do know that it feels really good to have won something and to have participated in the contest. When done with taste, I personally believe that beauty contests are an excellent way of honoring women and helping them boost their confidence, sense of self, and personal style – for a better future for our children, of course.