The recent headlines about the homeless Miss Colorado USA 2011 pulled me back in time to March 1979. Nearly 32 years later, the memories are clear and not blurred by time or my advancing age...
|Jene getting a hug after being crowned|
I focused on finding a swimsuit that would minimize that fact that I had no bust to speak of, and highlight my twenty-two inch waist. I found one for seventeen dollars. My aunt went to work sewing my pageant dress. She didn't buy a pattern - she made her own out of grocery store paper bags. The cost of the material was under seven dollars. The dress was off-white with a slit up the side and a dramatic drape in the back. We were both frustrated over that drape. It just wouldn't hang properly until my aunt got the brilliant idea of sewing a penny into the seam and it was perfect after that.
|The family home|
|Grandma, Aunt Annie, Mom & Jene|
My Grandma, truly a no-nonsense woman who never voiced any opposition to this project, my Aunt Mitzi, who was a master seamstress and spent 60 years working at St. Mary Corwin Hospital, my Aunt Annie, who was a tough cookie despite her diminutive size, and my Mother, who raised four daughters by herself and lived with the stigma of being "that divorced woman" for much of her adult life. My Mom was disabled in a terrible car accident in 1955. She broke her back and was told she would never walk again. She not only walked, she danced her way through the next few decades. Mom was very lucky to be alive, but lost the use of her left hand. I still marvel at how much she is able to do with just one working hand... We all lived together in a very modest two bedroom, one bath home with a surly little poodle. It was the same place that my Mother and her siblings were born, it’s where my three sisters were also raised, and it is the same home where my Grandma and my Aunt Annie took their final breath. It was the home where I shared a bedroom with my Grandma and where the clacking sound of Aunt Mitzi's ancient sewing machine was putting the finishing touches on my pageant dress...
Finally, the big day was here. I made the hundred mile journey to Denver armed with my homemade dress, my swimsuit, an interview outfit that I borrowed from my sister, two pairs of L'eggs pantyhose (the kind in the silver egg), and the desire to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Total cost for competing in the pageant: less than thirty dollars. My brother-in-law's corporation, Mauro Brothers Farms, put up the steep $500 entry fee.
|Jene in 1979|
What followed was and is still a blur. I remember one of my friends, who was a fellow contestant, hugging me and knocking off my crown. It still has the dent. I never had it repaired because it gave it character. Then came hugs from my family and tears from my Mom. My niece, who was three at the time, announced that she was going to put that crown on her head and she did. The realization didn't hit until I was presented release forms and contracts to sign. I had precisely twenty two days to get ready to compete in the Miss USA Pageant. I was given a $500 check and the instructions to buy a pageant gown, have three other "formals" to wear in addition to my seven dollar dress, and to come up with a state costume and state gift. I would receive a round trip ticket to Biloxi, Mississippi where the pageant was being held. Wow! There was a lot to accomplish in short time frame.
|My beloved Aunt Mitzi|
|That lovely dress!|
My fondest memory is when we got home. My Aunt Mitzi was unable to attend the pageant because she and Aunt Annie were caring for my Grandma. She had made a banner that said, "Welcome Home, Miss Colorado!" and hung it over the door. I still have it. Time has faded her penmanship, but the memory is vivid. The state costume was easy. The United States Air Force Academy cadets were the official escorts for the pageant, so I would be a "cadetette" in sequined hot pants and a borrowed hat. The state gift was easy too. It was a beautiful statue of the bighorn sheep, which is Colorado's state animal. Aunt Mitzi went to work on the three required "formals" and they were stunning. How she was able to pull it off in such a short time is still baffling all these years later. Clack clack... Her sewing machine driven by her amazing skills turned out a beautiful sea foam green Grecian-style dress, a steel blue two piece gown with a daring open back, and my favorite of all -- a black and white pantsuit with stove pipe legs and a swinging jacket. She was truly something else. The competition gown was another matter. The first one I tried on was very expensive but incredibly beautiful. It was a gold beaded Lily Rubin that cost $700. I only had $500, and the state costume was going to cost $200. The state gift was fifty bucks, so that left me with $250. No other dress compared to that first one. My family all kicked in what they could and I was able to get that gorgeous dress. I remember writing the check and my nephew, who was ten at the time, shouted, "You don't have that much money!" Despite the odd looks from other patrons at this very elegant store, I smiled sweetly and left as quickly as possible with my gold beaded treasure fluttering behind me.
The journey to Biloxi was very interesting. I had been on an airplane precisely one time prior to that trip. My carry on items would have never been accepted under today's standards. I had my crown and banner in one box, the state gift in another, my prized Lily Rubin dress, my state costume, a borrowed trench coat and a dozen roses. A toddler kicked the back of my seat all the way to New Orleans where I was picked up and transported in a "limousine" which was actually a big white bus that was fetching several pageant contestants. We had a flat tire along the way...
The preparation for the pageant was unlike anything I had ever expected. First of all, April in Mississippi means humidity. I had never experienced that before, and my naturally wavy hair was out of control. People were asking me for my autograph! Most of the other contestants were models or actresses and I was nothing but a student who had no clue about what the future would hold. I had never given it a moment's thought. We had grueling rehearsals where we learned three dance numbers. I ended up weighing 105 pounds on my 5'7" frame after those two weeks. I remember the day the swimsuit segment was shot. I was suffering from cramps, my hair was a disaster, and the weather was worse. We were taken out to the docks and the Gulf of Mexico was very rough that day. I thought for sure I was going to lose my breakfast as the dock swayed with the tide. There was a photo shoot later that day at the hotel pool and I remember the picture that was in the local newspaper. I was the only one looking the other way as that picture was snapped and as a result, stuck out like a sore thumb.
|The dreaded swimsuit competition|
One wardrobe fitting in particular still makes me blush. In one number, we all wore Vicki Vaughn dresses. The outfitters could not figure out why mine looked odd until, to my horror, I realized I had put it on sideways! The bow that was supposed to be in front was under my armpit. Oops. Problem solved. Then there was the competition swimsuit category. We all wore the same style, but in different colors. Mine was electric blue. I have already alluded to the fact that I was not well endowed, but this swimsuit highlighted my deficits. It had a plunging neckline and I lived in mortal fear that what little I had would pop out at the most inopportune moment. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I developed the skill of teetering on five inch heels while making my way down the steps of the riverboat set without looking down. I still remember that trick, though I have never had the occasion to use it again.
|The opening number|
After all of the preparation came the big night. On April 30, 1979, I was the 28th woman to represent Colorado in the Miss USA Pageant. I belted out my name and my hometown as I stepped into the spotlight. Actually, I was more fascinated by the production itself than by being part of it. It was sort of an out of body experience. I met Bob Barker when he still had brown hair and marveled at the sensation that was Leif Garrett. I was more into Neil Diamond at the time and thought Leif was rather dorky. Most of my spare time was spent behind the scenes, watching the director and curiously skulking around observing the technical crew. I found what they did much more fascinating than what I was supposed to be doing. And so a producer was born...
I was little more than a prop during the Miss USA Pageant, but that was okay. It was much more than I ever aspired to be. My natural clumsiness reared its ugly head a couple of times. I spilled a glass of champagne all over the tuxedo-ed Mr. Harold Glasser, who was the president of Miss USA/Universe. When Eileen Ford of the Ford Modeling Agency (and a pageant judge) complimented my treasured Lily Rubin dress, I mumbled a response that wasn't quite English or any other language. Perhaps I was speaking in tongues...
|Jene in the control room|
|Mom & Jene in 2009|
In conclusion, here are a few thoughts from a former Miss Colorado USA to the current one. It is a privilege to represent our state and to be part of Colorado history. However, today's media darling can quickly become tomorrow's villain. There are always consequences to choices and they are the responsibility of the person making the decisions. I urge you to do some volunteer work at a shelter and meet people who truly have nowhere to call home. The title you now hold is an honorable one, but it will not define who you are or who you will become. Walk like a winner and never wear the shroud of a victim. Enjoy the journey, and may your memories be as joyful and colorful as mine when you look back on this very special time.
Jene Nelson is a multiple Emmy award winning journalist and recently released a documentary titled I Breathe, which is an in depth look at the multi billion dollar commercial dog breeding industry. She is passionate about fair and humane treatment of all living things.