To open our 2017 season, we have an #ownvoices story by the multi-talented Imani Josey — In “Crowned,” Robyn wants to win the Miss Teen City on the Lake Pageant, but only on her own terms.
By Imani Josey
Name. Age. Telephone number. Address. My hand moved as if possessed to fill in the form. Today a brunette handled registration. She wore a fair amount of MAC make-up, but couldn’t have been much older than me. I had determined the high-end cosmetics brand as she’d left the black makeup cases with neat, white calligraphy strewn around, so we’d see and admire her expensive taste.
I wondered if the registration girl suspected the lump in my throat, or butterflies swarming my belly. The nervous flutter had worsened with each step closer to the registration table in the gymnasium, and since I’d arrived, they’d grown even worse. The other junior girls had known they were going to sign up for the show since school started, but I’d only decided that morning.
My fingers dove into my fro, instinctively twisting a tendril as I neared the end of the questions. Why was I doing this? I’d wondered, though already knowing the answer. I had to. If I didn’t, his laughter would chide my thoughts the entire semester. Robert, my summertime, some-timey boyfriend, was ancient history, but as I scribbled final details on the form, it was like he stood in front of me, mouth twisted and finger jutting at my curls.
My upper lip stiffened as I finished writing and extended the paper to Registration Girl. “Robyn, what a pretty name,” the brunette almost sang, though she didn’t take the form. “Don’t forget the back.” When I flipped the sheet, I found enough questions for the Spanish Inquisition. “You don’t have to fill it all out here.”
“No one is this opinionated,” I said.
“You’d be surprised what comes to mind with the right questions. Some girls like you are a bit shy when they first register for the show, but then all this personality comes out of them.” I nodded, though I hated being called shy. Not being loud only means shy to extroverts, but I didn’t make a point of it with her. I glanced briefly at the seasonal gourds in the corner of the gym. We were slipping into fall, the gourdiest time of year.
My face must not have been convincing. “Well, I can take the top sheet now,” she continued, her sweet voice encouraging me to return my gaze. “And you can fill in those other details with the electronic form on our site. Lots of girls do that.” Her high ponytail bobbed as she adjusted in her seat, pulling a fuzzy wrap around her shoulders.
“Thanks,” I said and handed over the front page I’d completed. The back had questions asking how I’d bring peace to the Middle East and other things the UN would be more suited to worry about.
I hadn’t realized we were bartering, but in exchange for my form, she handed me a folder emblazoned with a shimmering, pink tiara design. “Good luck!” she said as I turned away, realizing I’d signed up for the Miss Teen City on the Lake pageant, but still not truly believing what the hell I’d just done.
The electric hum of the sophomore and junior girls in the gymnasium buzzed around me as I clutched my registration packet and headed for the exit. I maneuvered through the swell of bodies just as the bell rang, signaling the end of ninth period. Not everyone had a 9th period class, explaining the gathering of the female-chromosone’d in the gym. “Robyn?” a familiar voice called out. My eyes shot toward the exit where my sister Denise leaned against the door. I had forgotten she was picking me up, despite her reminder text that morning, and wondered how she knew to find me in the gym. I cursed under my breath as I made my way over.
“You know they have a laundry on your campus,” I said to her smirk. Three years older than me, Denise drove in from River Forest, a northern suburb of Chicago, whenever she ran out of food or laundry detergent. Her college was only thirty miles away, and though she graduated from Roosevelt almost two years ago, she still haunted the halls when she visited home.
Her eyes danced around before settling on me. “Are you signing up for Miss City on the Lake?” she asked.
I clutched my registration materials. “Teen City on the Lake,” I corrected her. She angled her head, expecting more information, and her dark hair spilled onto her shoulders. It was a stark contrast to my mane, which I’d stopped straightening over the summer. My hair had coiled out in a springy afro since. With a curt nod, I breezed past, repeating our mom’s catchphrase: “Don’t you have some business?”
Her snorting laugh followed me. “Why are you entering the Miss Teen City on the Lake Pageant?” she asked my back, trotting to catch up as we made our way to the parking lot where our dad’s old Explorer waited. Crisp air circled us until I reached the passenger door. She rushed past me and leaned against it, blocking my way. “Why?” she asked again, grinning. Her probing eyes would suit her well when she was a lawyer. But at that moment she was just a PoliSci major asking too many questions.
“Maybe because you did the pageant and I want to be like my big sister.”
“And when have you ever done what I have?” she scoffed. “You’ve actually done everything Jam and I haven’t on purpose. We did track, you did tennis. We did that pageant, and you said you’d rather kiss a toilet seat.”
I lifted a brow. “Is that a direct quote?”
“I don’t know. You were eleven.”
“And now I’m not eleven. I changed my mind.” I folded my arms to let her know she wasn’t getting anything else out of me.
She laughed again before easing off the car door. I opened it. “You have five minutes to tell Mom when we get home,” she said, rounding the front toward the driver’s side. “Or I will.” Her grin stretched ear to ear now. “And I can’t wait for the fireworks.”
I bit my nails the entire ride home, an unattractive habit that resurfaced whenever I faced unforeseen consequences for my decisions. Denise was too busy with the XM radio to notice me sweating, praying that signing up for the pageant wouldn’t be a big deal to our mom, Jeanette. Denise did the Miss Teen City on the Lake Pageant her sophomore year of high school and our older sister Jamilah competed seven years before her. Even then my mom, a court reporter, couldn’t see why smart girls would prance around in heels for scores, especially in a form of competition that could count its winners of color on one hand.
But that didn’t matter. For as long as our mom hadn’t wanted us to do pageants, our aunt Cecile was Miss Teen City on the Lake’s biggest cheerleader. She was quite literally the girliest human on the planet, despite also working in law administration. It was the greatest irony that she had a multitude of boys, none even interested in set work for extra credit. Her nieces, however, were a wonderland of opportunity.
When we pulled up to the house, Mom was already waiting. She stood at the door with her arms folded, tapping her feet and watching Denise and I make our way up the concrete steps. She hadn’t changed from her work clothes, and wore a gray suit with the white sneakers she usually put on before hightailing out of the office. I glared at Denise. I should have known she was texting Mom, and not one of her friends, at the red light a few miles back.
My sister whizzed past us to watch our exchange from the relative safety of the steps leading to the second floor. I stood frozen before my mother, clutching the shining packet to my chest, and wondered if I had gotten all of my affairs in order.
“She finally got to you, too.” Mom’s voice was clipped.
I touched my neck. It wasn’t sweaty, nor did it hurt, but touching it seemed like the thing to do. “Hey, how was your day?” I asked by way of an answer.
Mom angled her head. “Robyn.” My name grated out of her mouth.
Before I could speak, Denise whistled from the steps. “She’s a persuasive lady that Cecile,” she said.
Our mom scowled at her. “Let Robyn talk.”
Denise continued anyway. “Remember, she emailed me all the time before I jumped in? She’s like that old army poster…” Denise pointed at the pair of us. “We want you.” My aunt was the first African-American winner of Miss Teen Capital City in the early 90’s, which gave her a local cult-like following. She used to bring my sisters and me by the annual rehearsals when we were younger, where the contestants would clamor to speak to or take photos with her.
“Mom, I just registered,” I said.
She sighed. “I thought I had a child on my side.”
“I don’t have a side,” I said, perking up. “I’m Switzerland.”
She placed her hand on my shoulder, a gesture as unnerving as it was caring. “Then why get on stage and have a bunch of strangers tell you how pretty they think you are?”
“It’s not like that.”
She folded her arms again. “I think it’s exactly like that.”
I adjusted the packet in my arms. “I don’t, Mom,” I said softly. “Jam and Denise did the pageant. They turned out fine.”
She glanced at Denise. “Jury’s still out on that one,” she said.
“Hey!” my sister objected.
“Come on, both of you,” she said, nodding toward the living room. My heart lifted as my sister and I made our way behind her. There might be a chance I could win this argument. Mom folded into one of the oversized La-Z-Boys while Denise and I sat across from her on the couch. I placed the packet in my lap. “Pageants are so old fashioned,” she said. “They only emphasize beauty, and usually the kind that isn’t natural to you as a woman of color.” She shook her head. “I just don’t want you to get discouraged.”
I thought about it for a moment. “If you really don’t want me to, I don’t have to do it.”
“Robyn,” she said, eyes softening. My mom had strong opinions, but she wasn’t one to crush dreams. “I’m never going to tell you that you shouldn’t try what interests you, and you’re right, your sisters did it.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t believe in pageants and that’s okay. It’s also okay that you do. But I want to make sure this is your choice and not Cecile’s.”
My voice came out faster and clearer than I thought it would. “I want to try.”
Work on the packet kept me up into the wee hours of Friday night as I tackled the opinion questions on the back page of the registration form. I should have expected it to be challenging. With Homecoming a few weekends away, the winner of Miss Teen City on the Lake would be guaranteed a spot in the court. Judging by the tough questions, the Homecoming committee wanted her to earn it.
The back page also served as a way to help the judges get a better sense of us, essentially filling in everything the straightforward first page left out. I felt incredibly accomplished as some distinct opinions came to mind, and like earlier, I tore through the questions. The roll ended abruptly, however, with the final query.
Why do you want to be Miss Teen City on the Lake?
I sat for a moment, blinking, wondering what would be the best way to answer that. Sure, Robert had gotten me to the registration table, but could I give him all the credit? Was he the only reason I’d thrown my hat in the ring? I was grateful for the knock on the door that drew me back into the real world. “Come in,” I said and swiveled around in my desk chair.
“Hey,” Denise said as she slipped into my room, wearing the cotton pajama bottoms I’d gotten her last Christmas. She plopped down on my bed. “So you didn’t answer from earlier.” Her eyes settled on me, and I knew she wanted to continue where we’d left off in the gym. Why was this question coming at me from every angle? “What made you change your mind about the pageant?”
My mouth pursed as I debated if I should tell her the truth. I knew my sister; she wasn’t going to leave me alone until she had an answer. But her voice was quiet and even-toned this time. This was Concerned-Sister Denise, a side I liked much more than Detective Denise. “Robert,” I reluctantly said.
She arched a brow. “Robert? Who is that?” She wouldn’t know him, though he’d lived a few streets over for about a decade. Denise was never really interested in the neighborhood boys.
“The guy I was sorta dating over the summer,” I began as his face came to mind.
“He told you to do the pageant?”
“No,” I said. “Him laughing at my fro told me to do the pageant.” Robert loved my hair straight, or practically straight. But I didn’t think his admiration was conditional until I poured water over my head and watched my hair become cotton candy. “It was so humid and I was just throwing away money pressing my hair.” I shook my head. “So I decided I wouldn’t again until it got colder out.” A strained chuckle escaped my throat. “Then came the fro.”
“He laughed at you?” Denise asked softly. I ignored the question, but the memory of his laughter rang in my ears. She scooted closer. “Robyn—”
When did my face get so hot? “I never actually spoke to him about the pageant.”
Her dark eyes filled with something. Sympathy? Pity? “That guy’s a jerk. You don’t have to do this because of him.”
The words hung in the air for a few moments before I hopped to my feet. “I need to finish the application,” I said, my hands landing on her back. She eased up and allowed me to guide her toward the door.
To say my aunt Cecile was thrilled when I called her the next morning would be an understatement. She actually shrieked into the receiver, leaving this pinging echo in my ears. Despite her excitement, she was still a busy woman. It took days to pin her down to a rehearsal time, time I didn’t really have. That left me with roughly a week and a half until the show.
Our first meeting was on the Monday after the pageant organizers selected the twelve students who’d compete. Luckily, I was one of them. The organizers, including Registration Girl, who actually went by Natalie, informed us that we’d rehearse daily after school until the show. Cecile then alerted me that I’d rehearse with her daily following that.
It wasn’t too hard to meet Cecile for our first rehearsal. Her house was fifteen minutes from ours, and without a car of my own, I gathered my belongings for the bus ride after the first contestant meeting. When I arrived, I rang Cecile’s bell just as the door swung open. My aunt, a tall, elegant woman with skin like mahogany, stood before me with a Cheshire cat-like grin. Her long arms wrapped me tight as I managed a hello. She then ushered me to her living room, an ornate space with egg shell walls and porcelain wares on numerous little stands.
I perched on her stiff leather couch. Like my mom, she wore her work clothes long after working hours, tonight’s attire a coral work dress that fit her frame nicely. Her salt and pepper hair was pulled back in some sort of bun. I waited for a customary greeting, but Cecile took a moment to speak, opting to pace before me in her plush slippers. “What?” I asked, clenching my hands as I’d grown more nervous than when I was filling out paperwork. Cecile glanced my way, and nodded before disappearing to a back room.
When my aunt reemerged, I was reminded the she was beyond statuesque, height I didn’t inherit, and she made you aware of it as she glided around, or in this case, to me. She now carried a square box covered with a blue velvet sheet. I leaned forward with hungry eyes. “That’s not,” I began.
Cecile placed the case on my lap, though I was afraid to touch it. “Don’t let it drop!” She laughed as it near tumbled. I caught the side and glanced up to Cecile’s wide smile. She looked just like my mom, and nothing at all like her. “It’s my crown.” She pulled off the velvet sheet to reveal the round, bejeweled headpiece. Though it was about twenty years old, it still glistened.
“Do you have it cleaned?” I asked as it gleamed in the light.
“Not often.” She usually kept her crown locked away. I hadn’t seen it in ages. “I’m sure your mom has been telling you all the downsides of pageantry since you signed up.”
My voice was flat. “Mom wasn’t thrilled.”
“Jeanette has to see the utility in things before she can allow herself to like them,” she said. “And to her, only the small bit of scholarship money the winner receives counts. And of course we want you to get all the scholarship money you can, but I know you want to win for more than that.”
“And I have to advise you, this isn’t the form of competition where, say, the person who reaches the line first wins. I know that bothers your mother as well.” Cecile shrugged. “But when I was competing, she did come to my rehearsals to watch the pretty gowns on stage,” she added with a wink. “You’ll understand this more as we continue our work, but know it takes a lot of discipline to be in a pageant, and more to win.”
“Mom said it’s silly to allow a group of strangers to judge you.”
“Groups of strangers judge you every day, sweetheart. It’s wise to know how to turn that judgment in your favor.” She thought for a moment. “I really think you can win this, Robyn, if you take it seriously. A woman of color hasn’t won in the last,” she paused for dramatic emphasis, “ten years or so. And she could be you.”
“You think so?” I asked.
She nodded. “We got close with Jamilah. And poor Denise was great with the interview portion, but she wasn’t strong by way of talent. If all the girls have a strong interview, the talent will be the deciding factor. And with that lovely voice of yours…” Her eyes twinkled. I wasn’t Audra McDonald or anything, but I’d made it through Girls Chorus alright. “You turned in all your paperwork?”
“That’s how they picked the contestants. Pretty much every junior girl signed up.”
“I can see why they picked you, considering all of your extracurriculars. They like a well-rounded girl.”
“I guess,” I replied, lifting my chin. “What do we need to do between now and the show?”
“Work our asses off,” she said. “Jamilah can help with your stage presence. She was great at walking patterns, and Denise will do your interview coaching.” She thought for a moment. “But is there anything that you’re concerned with?”
“Q and A,” I said quickly. “I hate Q and A.”
“But you’re so bright!”
“Yeah, but saying something really good and fast with everyone watching and judging.” I shuddered. “Scary.”
“I see.” She thought. “Just find me when you answer. I’ll make you laugh, as if it’s only us having a conversation.”
I smiled and nodded. “Okay. And what about clothes and stuff?”
“Well, because it’s a teen competition, they’ll want you polished but not too rehearsed. And your clothes have to say— ‘I’m a responsible teenager who likes to have fun.’ Your make-up has to be healthy, blushing, but not fake.”
“This is a lot of strategy to try to look natural.”
She smiled. “It’ll make more sense when you start rehearsing on stage.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, and I can take you to Miss Adeline’s for hair. I’ll need to make you an appointment for the night before if it’s going to be fresh for the show. She did an amazing job with Denise, and your hair is just like hers. It’ll be gorgeous.”
Oh yeah, that.
Robert’s face flashed across my mind only to be ironically replaced with Denise’s. When she competed, she had one look in mind: Victoria’s Secret Angel. It wasn’t a bad look. In fact, I was kind of jealous of the way her hair bounced for days. But I didn’t want to press my hair, let alone bother with adding more to it. Whenever I imagined competing, it was only with natural hair. I patted my fro before saying, “I don’t think I’ll need help with my hair.”
Cecile furrowed her brow. It wasn’t what she expected hear. “Honey, I love your hair, but that’s not the pageant look.” A long silence crept between us. My aunt’s eyes traveled back and forth, but if there was one thing she knew how to do, it was choose her battles. “We’ll talk about it later. We’ll also need to work with a talent coach and pick a song that complements your voice.”
Though all of the hard stuff lay ahead, exhaustion already pressed down on me. “Did Denise do all of this?” I asked.
She touched my face. “The beauty part is only for social media. Everything else is work.”
I needed the training, but if Jam or Denise had told me how hard Cecile worked them, I wouldn’t have registered. Firstly, we didn’t talk about the hair appointment later. My loving aunt took it upon herself to schedule one, and I was positive her personal beautician couldn’t wait to fry and lay my hair to the side. Secondly, I had to comply with Cecile’s abundance of lists. Carbonated beverages? Heavens no. Pizza with my friends? Sacrilege. Unflattering social media posts? Not for a potential titleholder. Up your privacy settings and forget you had a life: you’re in the Miss Teen City on the Lake Witness Protection Program.
Luckily, my school and rehearsal time became a glitzy trailer of itself where I waltzed on stage, tried to stay awake in Trigonometry, and sang until my vocal chords were hoarse. I sneezed, and my week and a half was spent. It was Friday night dress rehearsal at the school and I’d just finished rehearsing the intro dance number with the other girls.
As I wiped my brow, waiting to practice Q and A, I noticed a group of girls huddled in a circle in the wings. The Gigglers, I’d secretly named them. They crowded together during any spare moment, sometimes alternating a member or two. The Gigglers, however, never attempted to rotate me in.
The funny thing about wearing your hair natural when everyone, including the other three black girls, wears hers straight, is the absolute silence. The Gigglers reminded me of it during their daily chats about their pageant night looks: cascading locks, stiff hair sprayed into an updo, weaves, and clip-ins. They reminded me every time their avoidance seemed to say: how are you going to compete against us, with that?
“Robyn,” Natalie called to me from the house. “Let’s switch out evening gown for talent and Q and A.” I looked down at my cell. I’d been watching the Gigglers so long I’d wasted the short break, the one I’d intended to use to tell Cecile I’d canceled my hair appointment over my lunch period. Dammit, I thought and wandered onstage.
Natalie wore a headset and sat in a crimson, front row seat. “Is your voice okay to sing? I don’t want you hoarse for tomorrow.”
“I’m okay,” I replied. My voice was better than it had been thanks to tea with honey, but nerves were getting to me. As I settled onstage, a glance toward the Gigglers revealed that though they didn’t want to talk to me, they had stopped to watch me. Electric pink tape marked a semicircle with two big pieces in an X downstage. I stared out into the dark house as “Soon as I Get Home” from “The Wiz” started faintly. I signaled the sound guy to increase the volume, and a flood of notes filled the auditorium. They poured out of me, shaky at first, but growing stronger with each measure.
I wanted to block everyone and everything out, so I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sweet hum of music washing through me. When I opened them again, the faces of my opponents were caught up in my song, which filled me with a strange pride. I’d only sung in choruses before. This solo business, the swell of notes on my tongue and my pauses for inflection, was a trippy experience. Clapping began before the music stopped.
“Beautiful,” Natalie said amongst murmurs from my competitors. “You just have a magnificent voice. Okay, let’s do Q and A, and get you out of the hot seat.” I nodded, as Cecile and I had prepared a few answers to the questions that the judges might ask. A beat passed. “Why do you want to be Miss Teen City on the Lake?”
Except that one.
The house fell pin-drop silent, and unfortunately, so did I. Words just vanished from my mind, and I stood like a replica of myself. “Sweetheart,” Natalie whispered. “Do you want me to repeat the question?”
“I’m just thinking,” I stammered, though an answer wasn’t coming. Why did I want to be Miss Teen City on the Lake? Did I want to prove a brown girl with a fro could win? To Robert? To my bruised ego?
I distantly noticed I’d placed the microphone back on its stand. “Robyn?” Natalie’s voice called out to me as I made a swift exit stage left, away from the girls’ deafening silence and the harsh lights, away from everybody and everything.
I aspired to hop in my bed and nestle under my covers, but when I got home that night, my living room was occupied by my mom, my sister Denise, and of all people, Cecile. Jam was coming in the morning, so she could watch the pageant, too. During my bus ride home, Cecile had called me a few times to ask why I’d canceled the hair appointment, and I’d ignored all of her messages. Apparently she’d texted Miss Adele for some before and after shots, and was dismayed to find there’d be all before and no after.
My eyes found hers first, already knowing the reason for the glint behind them. But after my Q and A disaster, I didn’t feel much like speaking to anyone, let alone explaining my decisions. In a fluid motion, my mom rose from her seat. But before she could get her thoughts out, Cecile also stood. “It’s the night before the show,” Cecile said. “And Miss Adele said you canceled your appointment?”
“Look, I had a rough practice,” I said.
My mom shot Cecile a look, before returning to me. “Robyn, you were so excited about this pageant and now you look like a deer in headlights. What’s wrong?”
“Is it because of the hair thing?” Denise asked before catching herself, and glancing between Mom and Cecile. “Or the boy thing?”
“What boy thing?” Cecile and Mom asked simultaneously.
“Can I tell them?” Denise said.
“Well, you already kind of did, but sure.” I shrugged.
“This boy laughed at her fro,” Denise said as my eyes found the floor. “And Robyn wants to win to show how pretty it is.”
My mom and Cecile exchanged glances.
“You really know what you’re doing,” I finally said, my words taking my aunt’s gaze from my mother’s, “and that’s why I didn’t want to disappoint you, or anyone, by not getting my hair done before the show. It’s just that if I win, I can’t see it with my hair straight. Even if it’s not the pageant look.” I hesitated. “Have you ever competed with your hair natural?”
“I haven’t,” she confessed. “And I’m sorry I said that. None of us were wearing our natural hair back when I competed, let alone in a pageant.” Her voice lifted. “But sometimes I wish I had. Sometimes, I wish I was braver like you.”
She rubbed her hands together. “I got too wound up about this,” Cecile continued. “You’re my last niece. I just wanted to someone to take the torch. But I put too much pressure on you. The truth that people forget about pageants is that authenticity makes a winner.” She thought for a moment. “Well, that and a white gown. Your hair is a part of you, and if they’re smart, they’ll love it.”
I stood in the dressing room, a tea-length blue dress clinging to my body, finding it strange that the night was finally right here, right now. I’d been ready for thirty minutes. The nerves rose with the hairs on my arms, and I tried to pay little mind to other girls squeezing into their intro number dresses. Even the Gigglers didn’t have much to talk about amid everyone’s growing nerves. The dressing room was thick with hair spray and locks sizzling through flat irons or tugged around hot rollers. My wooly, brown halo only required water, gel, and the gentle encouragement of bobby pins.
The first portion of the show— opening number and introduction —breezed by. This worked well for me, as it was talent I waited for. “Robyn, you’re up,” the stage manager called out, wearing a headset resembling Natalie’s and a black turtleneck. I glanced around at the other girls crammed in the wings, at their glittering dresses, before taking a deep breath and stepping onstage.
The house lights dimmed as I found my place amongst the specks of dust illuminated by the spotlight. “Contestant number nine,” said Natalie over the system. I took the mic and wondered what the audience saw before them. Robyn’s shaking knees? Her tea dress? Her hair bending and curling like cursive script? Would they laugh and point as Robert had?
I skimmed the sea of faces until three rows back, behind the table of judges, I found those who’d influenced me most: my mom, my sisters, my aunt Cecile. Their smiles encouraged me to begin “Soon as I Get Home,” a slower, sweeter version escaping my lips than I’d even practiced. The music slipped through my vocal chords. The audience leaned forward at my whim, at the loveliness of my song.
When the music finished, the hum of approval rumbled from beneath my feet, escorting me offstage with a shower of applause. “That was contestant number nine,” Natalie’s voice sang behind me. I flew to the dressing room and changed into the ivory, beaded gown on loan from Cecile, which I’d wear for the Top 5 announcement.
They were soon ready for us. We walked back onstage, and I searched the audience and judges for their reactions, maybe their eyes focusing on the girls they knew would move on, even if they didn’t mean to be so transparent. As twelve girls avoided each other’s trains, it was more shuffle than waltz. Natalie, directed us to stand along a semicircle on the stage. We breathed as best we could, our chests rising with excitement. Our smiles trembled at the tips.
The names started flying. Each name that wasn’t mine served as a tiny pinprick in my side. From the audience, Cecile signaled that I should keep smiling even though my smile was more likely to crumble to the floor. Then the fourth name called began with an R, and every face in the room turned to the girl with the fro.
“Go,” the contestant next to me said, shaking my shoulders. My feet moved without my knowledge, and I found myself next to the quickly breathing girls in the Top 5.
As fast as we’d shuffled onstage, we shuffled off. Q and A lay ahead, and after the previous night’s fiasco, I wished I’d inherited Denise’s smart mouth and pithy quips. This night, we were all given a question, one at a time, while we waited separately backstage. When it was my time, a middle-aged woman I’d seen helping Natalie came to fetch me. They had the same narrow eyes, and I assumed she was her mother. “Robyn,” she said and signaled me back toward the bright lights.
Once under the brightness, my ivory evening gown became a wash of shimmer. Natalie appeared from the wing opposite me. “Robyn!” she squealed. “How are you?” The audience chuckled at my strained face with an embellished smile. “Okay, stupid question. Let’s get to it.” She grinned at me before asking, “Why do you want to be Miss Teen City on the Lake?”
Again? Really? My eyes danced over the crowd as my mind went to nothingness. Utter blankness, everything I’d feared. Panic rose up my spine. No, no, no. I’d kill talent just to lose it all in Q and A. This couldn’t happen again.
I searched the audience until I locked eyes with Cecile, who wiggled her nose and stuck out her tongue. I laughed a little, before something flickered in my mind’s darkness. Words. Pure, sweet, perfect words. “I’m the youngest of three girls,” I began. “My sisters are talented and interesting, and my aunt is one of the original winners of Miss Teen City on the Lake, so to say I’ve known about this title my whole life would be an understatement.”
The audience chuckled again. “But for someone who comes from a family that people already know about, I’d like the judges to understand I’m not here because of them. I didn’t participate because of tradition. I’m here because I’m different, and that’s why I want to be Miss Teen City on the Lake. But I don’t have to walk away with a crown to know I’ve won something.” I drew a breath and patted my fro as Natalie nodded me on. “I already have. I won a battle over my fears, and know how brave I can be.”
It happens in near silence in my mind, the eruption of the audience jumping to their feet, shrieks swirling up to the rafters, bright lights dancing on my brow because Natalie just announced my name as Miss Teen City on the Lake. In the chaos, last year’s titleholder appeared almost like the burning bush, and said, “Kneel.”
The command met my ears in slow motion. “What?”
“Kneel,” she repeated. I bent my wobbly legs, trying to ignore the new ringing of cheers in my ears. From the corner of my eye, I caught my family swarming the stage as the poor girl behind me struggled to pin down the tiara.
“Oh hell,” Cecile announced, leading my mom and sisters through the swell of girls toward me. It was her house first after all. “Let me help,” she said, taking over the tiara-pinning duties.
My mom touched my face with a pride as Cecile worked. Denise leaned forward. “You really did this for you,” she whispered.
Warmth coursed through me. “Denise, let her be still. I’m almost done.” Cecile secured the tiara and came around. “Well, aren’t you something?”
I smiled up at her. “The pageant look?” I asked.
Her grin stretched even wider. “Oh you have the look, alright!” said Cecile. “You are the pageant look.”
Imani Josey is the debut author of the YA fantasy “The Blazing Star” (Wise Ink, 2016). After graduating Howard University, Imani received her Master of Science in Communication from Northwestern. In her previous life, she was a cheerleader for the Chicago Bulls and won the titles of Miss Chicago and Miss Cook County for the Miss America Organization, as well as Miss Black Illinois USA. In recent years, she spends the majority of her time working on backstory, and cuddling with her American bulldog, Thor. For more info, please visit www.imanijosey.com.