Senior Moment

When Bert Parks sang "There she goes . . ." about Ms. Senior America, he might well have meant it. The contestants at this pageant are judged on beauty, poise and continence. Insert other cheesy old-lady-pageant joke of your choice here.

But seriously, folks, this Ms. Senior America stuff is the real deal. Just ask 64-year-old Herme Sherry, the reigning Ms. Senior Arizona. She's out to set the record straight about Grandma, and she just might change the editorial policy at the Arizona Republic while she's at it. She's a woman who isn't afraid of the word "suck," who's raised her kids and buried her mom, and now wants to help change the way we think about our oldsters.

Hours before she left to represent our fair state in the Ms. Senior America Pageant in Las Vegas -- a contest that doesn't offer a college scholarship as a prize, natch -- Sherry met with me in her gracious Scottsdale home to discuss her duties (grand marshaling the Alzheimer's Association Memory Walk; performing song-and-dance routines at old folks' homes) and to put to rest those pesky rumors about backstage hair-pulling.

The winner will be crowned Saturday, November 13.

New Times: Hey. Where's your tiara?

Herme Sherry: Oh, it's in a box in the other room. Do you want to see it?

NT: I was kidding. You really have a tiara?

Sherry: Yes. I don't wear it to the grocery store, but there have been people in the past who have. I wear it when I'm out speaking or performing. I went on a cruise that was part of my Ms. Senior Arizona prize, and I wore my sash and crown to dinner every night. It was fun.

NT: I'm guessing that part of the point here is to dispel the notion that all older women are shriveled-up grannies who sit in rockers and knit.

Sherry: That's exactly it. A lot of the young people I know came to the pageant because I was in it, and they were totally blown away. One of the guys said to me, "I never knew that ladies over 60 could be so vibrant and alive." A lot of people don't pay attention to the pageant because they think, "Oh, a bunch of old ladies in rocking chairs."

NT: Well, your logo does sort of scream "Grandma!" It's a cameo of a lady with her hair in a bun.

Sherry: But our slogan is "ladies of elegance." We don't have canes and walkers. Our performing group goes out there to the senior centers, and we get there, and the people have been waiting for hours, just waiting for someone to come see them.

NT: That's depressing as hell. You're a beauty queen, and you go visit your peers who've been shoved into homes --

Sherry: Just waiting for someone to come see them. I know. It is depressing, but I feel good that I can do something for them.

NT: You must feel even better that you didn't end up that way yourself.

Sherry: I do in a way, but it helps to know I can make a difference for them. It's an absolutely life-changing experience.

NT: So, apparently, is the Ms. Senior Arizona Pageant. I'm guessing there's no swimsuit competition.

Sherry: There's no swimsuits, and no wet tee shirts. Thirty percent [of your score is based] on judge's interview; 30 percent on talent; 20 percent on evening gown; and 20 percent on philosophy of life. Which I found to be the hardest part. First of all, you have to have a philosophy of life.

NT: That's a good start.

Sherry: Then you have to write it down and memorize it and say it in 35 seconds. Do you want to hear mine? It doesn't take long.

NT: I know. Thirty-five seconds. What's it about?

Sherry: How I think a smile can change someone's life.

NT: But there are things -- particularly as we get older -- that aren't worth smiling about. Memory loss, broken hips --

Sherry: All kinds of things. But as sad as that is, you can still find something in life to smile about.

NT: Like a beauty pageant for women over 60.

Sherry: And you know, it's one of the biggest pageants in the area. They draw between 2,000 and 3,000 people. But it gets less attention than anything. I was at Mrs. Arizona in June, and there wasn't probably 200 people there, but they got a two-page write-up in the Arizona Republic. And I had to wonder why it's so hard to get coverage for Ms. Senior Arizona, when we draw more people [than Mrs. Arizona].

NT: Maybe they draw fewer people because their pageant sucks.

Sherry: Well, it didn't suck. But I don't feel that the seniors get the coverage they need. When I was crowned, I got a little tiny article in the Republic. Something's not right here.

NT: Maybe you should make that part of your platform: to change the editorial policies at the Arizona Republic.

Sherry: I've been trying! I spoke to the Kiwanis Club about it, and one of the gentlemen came up to me and said his wife is a reporter for the Republic, and that he would have her call me. I've heard nothing.

NT: That mean old Republic.

Sherry: I think it's the senior thing. People think of [the pageant] as just a bunch of little old ladies up there with their walkers.

NT: But shoving our old people aside is an American tradition. Like bitchy backstage behavior at beauty pageants. You must have some of that.

Sherry: No. Everybody's pulling for everybody. I can't tell you that maybe somebody didn't get upset [when they didn't win], but you don't see it.

NT: Tell me the truth: What if a wrinkled-up granny shows up and wants to compete?

Sherry: She can compete! Anyone 60 and over can compete. They don't look at whether you're wrinkled or not. We've got all kinds in here. We have a little lady right now who is 87 and does the polka. It's not a beauty pageant. Now, I'm not saying that nobody in that pageant has ever had a face-lift -- but these ladies are more natural.

NT: Not entirely. I looked at some of the photos on the Ms. Senior Web site. Some of those gals are yanked quite far back.

Sherry: In our pageant? Um, I know of one ex-queen who's had a face-lift. I'm not against it, and I'm not saying I won't one day have it done.

NT: What are the talent competitions like? Do they involve needlepoint?

Sherry: Absolutely! Two years ago we had a lady who was a seamstress, and she showed some of the stuff she made. Three years ago we had a winner who was an artist, and she was legally blind. She showed some of her paintings onstage. We've had everything. It's not just singing and dancing. They tell the contestants, "Everyone has a talent, and if you don't, we'll find one for you."

NT: But what if your talent is playing canasta?

Sherry: Well, we'll build something around it. No matter what it is, you can build a two-minute-and-45-second performance around it.

NT: Canasta?

Sherry: Well, I don't know anything about canasta, but you could build something around it if you're crafty. We're not all rocking-chair-bound or on canes or walkers.

NT: Good luck at the pageant in Vegas -- and don't stay out all night gambling the night before. You've got to get up in the morning and look 54.

Sherry: Thank you. I'll do my best.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela