Lydia Tanne was being treated for cancer, but that wasn’t going to keep her away from the Superstar Theater, a 1,350-seat auditorium at the Resorts Casino Hotel here, the site a few weeks ago of the most recent Ms. Senior America Pageant.
“I tell my doctor I have to come,” Tanne, 90, a resident of Palmer, Massachusetts. (via Cannes, France, and Trieste, Italy), said in thickly accented English. An opera singer, Tanne returns every year to cheer on her friends and to relive her own moment of glory. In 1994, she won Ms. Massachusetts Senior America, and lest anyone forget, she was wearing a black satin jacket with her title embroidered on it.
“Mimi,” as Tanne is known, isn’t alone in her devotion to the decades-old pageant for women “between 60 and death,” as one contestant jokingly puts it.
Unlike the Miss America beauty pageant – the two pageants are not related – Ms. Senior America, which was held Oct. 18-20, caters not to women on the cusp of adulthood but to those who have experienced life in all of its joys and sorrows.
They are doctors and nurses, business owners and executives, dancers and singers. They have escaped wars, survived illnesses, lost spouses and children. And yet, they are still kicking – and kicking high.
“If you were taken to a Russian prison, you learn to do anything,” said Krystyna Slowikowska Farley, 91, Ms. Connecticut Senior America, who was dressed in a long-sleeve, mint green beaded dress, rhinestone earrings and a tiara. Farley was born in Poland in 1925. After imprisonment in a labor camp in the Ural Mountains, she joined the Polish army in exile as a nurse’s aide before coming to the United States, where she became a dental technician and raised five children.
She clamped her teeth together. “These are my real teeth,” she said. “Young people today, they don’t take care of themselves.”
Ms. Senior America is the creation of Al Mott, who ran the Asbury Park Senior Center in the early 1970s. He decided to hold a pageant for the members, but it wasn’t as easy as he expected.
“The women all needed permission from their families,” Mott recalled. “They said, ‘Mom, act your age!' I said, ‘You go back and tell them you’re the age of elegance.’” That soon became the logo for Ms. Senior Citizen, which became Ms. Senior America in the early 1980s. Pageants were held in various locations around the country until 2008, when it returned to Atlantic City.
There are others that aim at the same demographic. Ms. Senior USA has been held in Las Vegas for 30 years; the first pageant will be next November. For 36 years, the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant, the subject of a 2012 documentary, “Pretty Old,” was held in Fall River, Massachusetts. It stopped in 2014 so its founder, Len Kaplan, could care for his ill wife and daughter. (A version was held this year in Barbados.)
What makes a woman participate in an event like this, especially someone with no previous beauty pageant experience? Why spend $1,550 in fees – which includes food and lodging at the Ms. Senior America pageant but doesn’t cover gowns, costumes or jewelry?
The reasons vary. For some, like Dolores Hofman, 69, Ms. New York Senior America, it was simply a lark. For others, like Claudette Erek, 78, Ms. Utah Senior America, it was about self-expression. For Trina Schelton, who represented Mississippi, it was about healing.
Schelton, 70, spent seven years caring for her husband, the musician Troy Shondell, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. After his death in January, she could barely get out of bed.
“I was in a state of depression,” she said. “I had no hope.”
Her two daughters encouraged her to rejoin life.
The pageant “revives you,” said Schelton, a songwriter who once owned a Nashville, Tennessee, recording studio. “I love singing, I love performing, but there was no real outlet for it. I had sort of given up. I think a lot of ladies my age do.”
Sharon Maloney, 78, from Wyoming, is a retired medical technologist whose first job was under Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide advocate. “When they stamp my final words in stone, I want them to say, ‘She was one sexy babe!’” she said.
The schedule is taxing: rehearsals, costume changes and lots of standing around. There is a dinner dance, an alumni event and a talent showcase featuring past winners and other guests, including a synchronized tambourine group. (Really.)
“None of us has been eating,” Erek said. “We’re too nervous. And we have to fit into our dress.”
Make that dresses, plural. Hofman did her dance routine, which mixes the Charleston with Latin and Anaconda moves, in a black and gold beaded mini. “I’m known for the moves I can do with my backside,” she said, noting that she “go-go danced through college, back when go-go dancers wore clothes.”
“I had no idea that these pageants existed,” she said later, now beaming in a one-shoulder matte jersey red gown, which was lent to her by Runway Couture in Long Island, New York. (retail price: $2,400).
Hofman always loved flouncy skirts and fancy coiffures, but she said she was also the first woman to drive a forklift and unload trucks at Kennedy Airport, where she is now program manager of the Queens Air Services Development Office.
There is no swimsuit competition. Contestants are judged on talent, a private interview with the judges, an evening gown component and a segment in which they must summarize their philosophy of life in 35 seconds.
Politics is not mentioned. Neither – overtly – is feminism. But it gurgles beneath the surface.
Last year’s champion, Dr. Barbara B. Mauldin, 62, is a dentist and competitive ballroom dancer from Petal, Mississippi. She remembers a time when women couldn’t get a loan without a man’s signature.
“I can’t tell you the most amazing transformation I’ve seen in many women from my era,” she said. “We were there in support of our husbands, our fathers. We were the women behind the men. For many candidates, this is a real step out of their comfort zones.”
On the final day of the contest, it was hard to know what was more blinding: the rhinestones glittering from ears, wrists and necks; the lights twinkling on stage; the beads and crystals sparkling from gowns; or the iPhones snapping pictures.
The women on stage swayed gently as Louis Parisi, a local entertainer, serenaded them with a song he had composed just for them, “The Little Girl Inside.” “More than crowns and sashes … pretty makeup and eyelashes … she'll always have that little girl inside.”
Springsteen he was not.
But then, he did not have to be. This was not a tough audience.
“Every time he sang that song, I cried,” Hofman said later. “What little girl doesn’t want to have a crown on her head? This is like a fantasy come true.”
During the talent portion, the women displayed childhood hobbies or talents they never abandoned: tap dancing, singing and poetry. There was a baton twirler, a hula dancer, a pianist and a yodeler. One woman recited Portia’s plea to Brutus. The Streisand songbook got a workout.
Peggy Lee Brennan, 62, Ms. Missouri Senior America, sang “People Will Say We’re In Love,” from “Oklahoma,” and then tap-danced. Brennan, who grew up on Staten Island, New York, and lives in Branson, Missouri, had an advantage: She is a professional entertainer. She played Radar’s girlfriend in “M.A.S.H.,” circa 1979, and was in “Grease” on Broadway with Patrick Swayze.
For the last three years, she has chaperoned her 15-year-old daughter, Heleena, to pageants. Brennan and her husband adopted Heleena when Brennan was 48.
“My philosophy is, it’s never too late for anything,” she said.