Drop Dead, Gorgeous

Congratulations, you're Miss Arizona. Better keep your friends close and your enemies closer

The dissent is affecting the state's pageant business: Arizona crowned 22 local winners in 2001, but will have only 16 this year -- the minimum required by Miss America for a three-night pageant.

And yet again, money is tight. The Riches have moved the pageant back to a high school and slashed the titleholder's scholarship in half. The foundation's most recent tax returns show a $33,000 debt.

It's easy enough to laugh at feuding beauty queens, and the pageant's cash-strapped status only makes the idea funnier: Practically speaking, these well-coifed women are fighting over crumbs.

Does this woman look like a beached whale to you?
courtesy of Kapri Rose
Does this woman look like a beached whale to you?
Irv, Corrie, and Trudy Hill with Monica and Steve Rich in happier times.
courtesy of Trudy Hill
Irv, Corrie, and Trudy Hill with Monica and Steve Rich in happier times.

But Miss Arizona has never been about the money. Most contestants spend thousands more dollars preparing for competition than they'll ever earn in scholarships. The appeal is in the thrill of competition, the gorgeous clothes, the gossipy girl talk. Pageant staffers love molding fidgety teens into poised young ladies, love getting credit for that transformation -- and love being friends with a winner.

As for those winners, they often attend pageant events for years after their victory. Miss Arizona is more than a line on their résumé: It's part of who they are.

The rest of the world may laugh, but to these women, pageants matter enormously, and that gives this battle its meaning.

"I do not want one more girl to have to endure what I endured," says Corrie Hill. "Everyone Monica has pushed out feels very strongly. She has to be removed, or the pageant system in Arizona will be destroyed."

As the stepdaughter of an Air Force staff sergeant, Trudy Hill moved frequently as a child. There was money for his alcohol but not for pretty dresses for her, she says, and as the family moved from New Jersey to Germany to Wisconsin to Washington to California, she'd sometimes catch the Miss America pageant on TV and wonder about its appeal. It was too alien to be anything other than depressing.

"I didn't know anyone who looked like that, who dressed like that," she says. "I thought girls who did pageants were born beautiful and had really rich families. It made me envious."

Now she's matriarch to one of those rich families, perched on a plush sofa in a gorgeous home in a gated community in the nicest part of Gilbert. She and her husband, Irv, never graduated from college, but they did work hard, and he's now vice president at a manufactured-housing company. Pageants have become Trudy's world, which she freely admits, even while laughing at how silly it seems. She laughs a lot.

In Corrie's five years competing for Miss Arizona, Trudy and Irv invested thousands of dollars in dresses and lessons, and Trudy spent countless hours at pageants, driving to pageants, and talking about pageants. Even though her daughter's year as Miss Arizona ended last July and she's never held an official position within the organization, Trudy still talks to pageant people about pageant business several times a day.

She couldn't be more pleased to have a reporter in her home asking about Miss Arizona.

"This is just so much fun," she trills -- and it is. For all the Hills' financial success, Trudy is still every bit the new girl in school, friendly and eager to be liked. She's offered to pop in a videotape of the Miss Arizona pageant, but she does more than push play: She provides running commentary.

Women involved in pageants slice and dice one another's flaws in a way that can be disconcerting to outsiders. We may all bemoan our big butts and whisper with our friends about other women, but it's idle, chatty, catty. With pageant women, the critique has a scientific precision: This girl needs a different haircut. That girl has fat arms. This girl is too thin, but if she gains weight, it goes to her stomach.

Broken down into a series of imperfect parts, the contestants are suddenly less threatening.

Trudy can talk shop with the best of them. You don't spend five years listening to people critique your daughter without developing an expert eye. Trudy is matter-of-fact about Corrie's breast implants, even though it's usually the first thing people use to attack the family.

Trudy is unfazed. "Corrie has such muscular legs from dancing, and she's really small-boned on top," she says. "She had to balance it out." The proof is in the pudding: Corrie started winning the swimsuit portion of the state pageant immediately thereafter.

Trudy hits fast-forward, and beautiful women in evening gowns fill the TV screen. Corrie looks tall and lean in a black dress cut to show off her shoulders. When they announce the second runner-up, then the first, and suddenly it's clear that Corrie is Miss Arizona, her image onscreen gasps with joy and is mobbed by also-rans hugging her, gasping with her, crying.

Trudy, who's been narrating cheerfully, is quiet for a moment, watching. This, she says, is why she's decided to take on the Miss Arizona organization.

"I hope someday Corrie can look back and truly remember this joy, because this is before we knew things would not be what we expected," she says, her eyes intent on the screen. (Corrie is still hugging people.) "Even though her year didn't turn out like I thought, it was still a wonderful moment when she won."

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