Fifteen young women in short black dresses and nude heels rehearse a dance number to the song “Beautiful Now” in the Lincoln High School auditorium. Tomorrow one of them will be crowned Miss San Diego and the other Miss Outstanding Teen San Diego.
Princesses are also in attendance, girls ranging in age from 4 to 12 years old. They don frilly pink dresses. A sticky-faced princess has stripped off her itchy taffeta gown and is sprawled across her mother’s lap wearing only her underwear. She yawns while watching the dance number.
At tonight’s dress rehearsal the contestants are buzzing with nervous energy. Tomorrow night’s winners will go on to compete for the Miss California crown, one of the most coveted pageant titles in the country. Whoever wins will continue on to the Miss America pageant. In the 97-year history of the Miss San Diego pageant, 11 title-holders have gone on to become Miss California and Miss California Outstanding Teen.
Marina Inserra is among the lucky 11. She is the stage manager and in charge of the dress rehearsal. Even in black yoga pants and a T-shirt she screams “beauty queen.” Twice she has introduced herself to me by offering a firm handshake and saying, “Marina Inserra, former Miss California.” Her mother, Issie Inserra, is the pageant director. While Issie gives me a tour behind the scenes I ask her what it was like watching her daughter compete in the Miss America pageant and whether or not she met Donald Trump. She grimaces at the question, quickly correcting my faux pas by explaining, “Trump is connected to the Miss USA/Miss Universe organization. Never confuse the two. Donald Trump is the enemy. They are two very different organizations. Miss San Diego is a Miss America pageant. We are the largest scholarship program for women in the world!”
Back in the auditorium, one of the pageant moms attempts to elaborate on the differences between the two organizations: “Miss USA does not have a talent portion. A simple way to explain it is that Miss USA girls want to grow up and become lingerie models. Miss America girls want to be doctors and lawyers.”
On stage, the former Miss California is joined by her assistant stage manager and former Miss Green Bay Area, the bleached-blonde Jenny Thomas. The two women prep the girls for the talent portion of the night. They usher the ladies on and off stage using headsets to communicate with the sound booth to dim the lights or to turn up or down the music. They offer tips and helpful critiques of each talent routine.
Prior to tonight’s dress rehearsal I have already meet three out of the nine Miss San Diego contestants. Up on stage they morph into different people from the ones I sat down with a few days ago. Chelsea Magracia, with her chestnut-brown hair and petite frame, was optimistic and bubbly when I met her at a coffee shop near her Chula Vista home. Now she appears intense and introverted. She stands apart from the other girls. Stone-faced, she practices a section of the opening routine over and over again, making sure that it is just right. She was the last of the nine women to enroll in the pageant. She joined the girls three weeks earlier, while the others have been practicing together for six weeks.
“Do you think the other contestants hold your late entry against you?” I asked Magracia during our interview earlier in the week.
“I couldn’t say. I barely know them.” She pauses for a moment before adding in her best pageant voice, “They are all terrific and talented girls.”
The porcelain-skinned beauty, Kirstin Roberts, whom I met three days prior in Mission Hills, looks like a ball of nerves on stage. She was so polished during our conversation that her answers seemed scripted. Roberts is the youngest of seven children. She comes from a pageant family. She grew up in a home whose closets were stuffed with formal gowns. Her older sisters competed in the pageant circuit. One of them was crowned Miss Oregon. Roberts feels a tremendous amount of pressure to win the crown. That pressure is palpable as she moves around onstage.
Mallory Murphy is the only one who appears totally herself on stage. She talks and laughs with the other girls. She exudes confidence. I met Murphy five days prior in Solana Beach. She was sitting at an oblong table in a dimly lit Starbucks. I walked past her several times, scanning the room for the blonde whose photo I saw on the Miss San Diego website. Magracia and Roberts showed up to our interviews perfectly coifed, their hair curled, makeup expertly applied, each one in high heels with teeth so white they glowed. Murphy is different. On the night of our meeting, Murphy’s blond hair is frizzy and damp. It is thrown into a sloppy low pony tail. She wears sweats paired with boots. Her oversized sweater is pilling.
While Magracia and Roberts tend to pause before answering my questions in order to formulate answers, Murphy dives right in, often oversharing. Within 15 minutes I have learned that her boyfriend frowns upon the Eiffel Tower tattoo she got to commemorate the four and a half months she spent studying in Paris. She explains that to guys it symbolizes something unsavory. “Don’t Google it!” she tells me with a laugh. I also know that she is hoping the conservative judges don’t ask her opinion on Planned Parenthood because she is a passionate supporter of their programs. She used their services after she was drugged and date-raped in college. I also learn that she is existing on a strict daily diet of one slice of toast, one cup of black coffee, a single grapefruit, a hard-boiled egg, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream during the last five days leading up to the pageant in order to maintain her svelte figure.
“I have a four-pack,” she says, lifting up her shirt to reveal her toned tummy. “I tried for a six-pack but that bottom part of your stomach is so hard to tone.”
When I asked Magracia and Roberts if they thought they were going to win the Miss San Diego pageant, both played it safe. Roberts responded, “I’d like to win but everyone is so talented, smart, and beautiful.”
Murphy didn’t hold back.
“Yes, I think I will win. Whenever I put my mind to something it always happens. I am going to put everything I can, all my heart into this. Whatever happens, happens. But I am going to win.”
Back onstage at the dress rehearsal, Murphy is the first to perform her talent. Days ago she told me that she is most concerned over this portion of the competition.
Taking on a serious tone, she says, “I am not a performer, I am an athlete. I am doing a jump-rope routine to Taylor Swift’ ‘Shake It Off.’ I am wearing Tiffany blue because I am supposed to be Taylor Swift and that is her favorite color. Miss Hawaii won her crown doing a jump routine.”
Tonight, she appears onstage in a pair of boy-cut sparkly spandex shorts and matching blue sports bra.
“Shake It Off” blares through the speakers. Murphy jump-ropes along. At times she sashays the rope around as if lassoing an invisible bull. Her feet get tangled in the rope a few times. She does a move during the chorus where she sits on the floor and uses her behind to bounce in a circle, sweeping the rope underneath her with each turn. She executes the move flawlessly and follows it up with a backbend. With her legs and crotch her only visible body parts the audience can see, Inserra halts Murphy’s routine and whispers to her. Murphy nods her head and redoes the move, this time with a more discreet backbend.
“Better!” Inserra says.
Next up is a baton-twirling number. The contestant, Stivani Athnniel, wears a kitschy white bedazzled leotard with cutout stomach panels and a whole lot of fringe.
Roberts takes the stage afterward. She wears a golden sparkly gown once belonging to her sister, the former Miss Oregon. It has been tailored to Roberts’s liking. She has transformed it into a two-piece with a tight-fitting floor-length skirt and matching midriff-baring top. In a Marilyn Monroe–inspired move, Roberts starts out with her back to the crowd. She sings a karaoke version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Her performance is followed by a few other dance routines, including a sleepy hula number and a pitchy rendition of Julie Andrews’s “My Favorite Things.”
Midway through the talent portion, the princesses pack it up to head home. It’s close to their bedtimes. One of the moms turns to her young daughter and hisses, “I hope tomorrow night you show a little more enthusiasm on the stage than you did this evening!” The little girl scowls at her mother.
The last Miss San Diego contestant to take the stage is Magracia. A hush falls over the pageant moms when she walks onstage in a regal-looking white leotard and matching tutu. The room fills with a deafening silence as she performs a flawlessly on pointe to the “Sugar Plum Fairy” variation from the Nutcracker. She is the picture of elegance.
I overhear one pageant mom say to another mother, “Being on the San Diego Socker girls’ squad gives her an advantage. She really knows how to dance.”
The talent continues with the teen contestants. A lanky young woman does a color-guard routine wearing a black-and-red spandex leotard paired with black sneakers. Another girl takes the stage to perform an off-key rendition of the song “Riptide.” A nearly six-foot-tall 14-year-old sings “Hallelujah” self-accompanied on guitar. Her voice is beautiful. Afterward she has a minor meltdown over the quality of the sound. “My guitar sounds twangy!” she whines. Next, Angela Arce, who is 13 but looks years younger, sings an animated Broadway song in a booming voice. Marina is nearly brought to tears. “I am so proud of you,” She tells the little girl afterward. “We scouted her at a festival in Bonita,” Issie Inserra tells me of the pint-sized performer.
After all 15 young ladies have completed their talents, Marina Inserra tells the girls it’s time to pack it up even though they have yet to rehearse the swimsuit, teen-fitness, or the formal-wear portions of the pageant. The 14-year-old who sang “Hallelujah” screeches at her dad to help her carry her guitar. “Argh! This is so annoying!” she says, her voice echoing through the auditorium.
“Teenagers!” one of the moms says, winking at the embarrassed father.
“Nerves,” he says with a shrug.
“They haven’t gone over everything yet. Will they be prepared for tomorrow?” one of the teen’s moms asks Marina.
“Believe me, if I don’t end this now we’ll be here until 2 a.m.,” she responds. “We can go over all that during tomorrow’s dress rehearsal.”
Before the auditorium empties, Issie Inserra adds, “No mothers tomorrow at the dress rehearsal, only contestants! We love how much you support the girls but you are not allowed to watch tomorrow. You may drop your daughters off but you cannot stay. We will see you again at 6 p.m. for the pageant.”
During the following day’s pageant, the winner of Miss San Diego and Miss Outstanding Teen will be decided based on their scores in five categories: interview, onstage question, swimsuit for the Miss San Diego, onstage fitness presentation Miss Outstanding Teen, talent, and evening wear.
The contestants are scored most heavily on their interview. Their interviews take place the morning of the pageant at a hotel in Mission Valley. Each girl meets privately with the six judges. They grill her on current events, personal questions, and the platform they have chosen to represent, often something like arts in education or breast-cancer awareness.
“They can ask us anything, so it is really hard to prepare for,” Kirstin Roberts tells me. “I am trying my best to prepare for that. I have been keeping up-to-date on current events.”
Magracia prepared by installing an app on her phone called Skim that gives her a brief description of all the latest trending news topics. “In the car, instead of listening to music, I listen to AM 1070 news so I know what is going on,” she says.
Murphy isn’t as concerned as the other two. She explained, “I work for corporate America. I have had multiple jobs and multiple job interviews. My boyfriend’s sister is the executive director of Miss Southland and Ms. Hollywood. She is working with me. I think I’ll do great.”
On my way to the second dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the pageant, I spot Murphy sitting in her mini Cooper in the parking garage, her golden hair in curlers. Her judges’ interview was earlier that morning.
“How did it go?” I ask.
“Not so great,” Murphy admits, “They asked me what two senators, one from California, were debating about. I had no idea. I even got her name wrong. I said Diane von Fürstenberg, you know, the designer, instead of...what’s her name?”
“Dianne Feinstein,” I offer.”
“Yeah. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I still don’t,” she says, looking deflated. It gets worse. Murphy tells me, “I tried to be really funny and charming but I think I came off as dumb, not funny. They were, like, ‘You lived in Paris for four and a half months. What did you miss most about home and how did this help you find your way as a young woman?’ I was, like, ‘You know what, they don’t sell peanut butter in Paris and I really love peanut butter.’ I went on about how much I missed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches,” she says with a laugh.
Inside the auditorium I run into teen contestant Jena Marie Mafnass-Serran. I ask her how her interview went.
She shrugs. “I think it went well. I got stuck on one question. They asked, ‘If you could change one law what would it be?’ I didn’t know what to say,” she tells me.
Kirstin Roberts is equally disappointed after her interview. She was asked to describe the Republican and Democratic parties without using adjectives.
“I don’t think that is even possible,” she says. “I just said, ‘I will get back to you on that one.’”
When 6 p.m. rolls around, the start time of the Miss San Diego pageant, Marina Inserra is still in sweat pants and the contestants are milling around. People line up out front to get inside. A pack of Boy Scouts stand in one corner ogling the contestants. They are set to do a color-guard presentation at the start of the pageant. Their pack mother is upset that the pageant has yet to start. “One of the moms is saying if her son doesn’t go onstage soon, she is taking him home,” she complains.
At around 6:30 the doors open and people begin filtering in. Anxious loved ones and dozens of crowned beauty queens from all over Southern California enter the auditorium. The beauty queens usher people to their seats. Some sell raffle tickets. Others sit in the audience poised and perfect-looking. Many of them are making an appearance to fulfill mandatory community-service hours required in order to keep the crown and cash prizes that came along with their titles.
I am wedged between Roberts’s and Thalia Maigue-Bendorf’s family and friends. The Roberts hold cut-out signs of Roberts’s face affixed to yard sticks. Thalia’s loved ones whoop and holler and chant her name.
I can’t help feeling nervous for Roberts, Magracia, and Murphy. I find myself rooting for them.
At around 6:45, Marina Inserra takes the stage. “I am so sorry for the late start,” she apologizes to the audience. “One of our judges got sick earlier in the day and had to go to the hospital.”
The lights dim and all 15 contestants take the stage along with Diamond Alexander, Miss San Diego, and McKenna Faydo, Miss Outstanding Teen 2014. The girls perform their opening dance routine while the current title-holders shimmy around the stage holding their crowns in their outstretched arms.
The evening continues with a few glitches. The music is not queued up for a few of the talent routines. Contestants are left staring blindly into the audience while the problems are fixed. The baton-twirler drops her baton and it rolls toward the back of the stage. She manages to recover gracefully. At one point during Murphy’s talent number she gets wrapped up in her jump-rope.
During the swimsuit competition, Roberts wears a black strappy bikini that looks like something borrowed from the wardrobe department of the Fifty Shades of Grey film set. The most stomach-churning event of the night are the onstage questions. The contestants’ nervous energy is palpable as they pull questions from a fish bowl and hand them off to Diamond Alexander who reads them aloud. They are each given 20 seconds to answer.
Roberts answers a question on student debt gracefully. Murphy stumbles when asked if she supported the Keystone Pipeline. It’s unclear if she knows what it is. She mutters something about climate change being bad before leaving the stage.
Danielle Di Lorenzo is asked whether she agrees with Donald Trump’s idea of building a large wall at the Mexico/U.S. border. In her elegant black gown with crystal neckline, she addresses the audience, saying, “Yes I agree. We are two different countries and we need to be separate.” I expect a reaction. It comes in the form of a man in one of the front rows clapping vigorously to her response.
Magracia is asked about her views on the Confederate flag and whether she thinks it should be banned. “No, state flags represent our communities,” she responds.
The teens are given simpler questions. When Cassandra Shellum is asked what she has learned from being a part of the Miss San Diego Outstanding Teen Competition, the first thing out of her mouth is, “That the way you look really does matter!”
When the pageant has come to a close and the girls have strutted their stuff in bikinis and formal wear, it is time for the judges to deliberate and calculate the girls’ scores. The audience members shift in their seats as they await the crowning.
After about 20 minutes, the 15 contestants take the stage and await their fate. Murphy is in a floor-length red gown. Magracia wears an aquamarine number that looks like something Princess Jasmine would own. Roberts sticks out among the other women. Among the pastels, glitter, and jewel-encrusted gowns, she has chosen an edgier style. Her floor-length dress is royal blue and sea-green. See-through panels begin at her mid-thigh, alternating between blue and green striped fabric.
As the host announces the winners, beginning with the third runners up, followed by the second and first, the contestants not named try their best to remain cool and calm. None of the three girls I interviewed are runners up. By the time the winner is announced I find that my stomach is in knots.
“Our next San Diego Outstanding Teen is Thalia Rose Maigue Bendorf,” The announcer shouts. Her family erupts into madness behind me. Some of them are weeping. When the crowd recovers, the announcer declares, “Our 2015 Miss San Diego is Chelsea Magracia!”
Magracia leans down as Diamond Alexander bobby-pins on her crown. Roberts stands in the background, attempting to remain composed. She is sporting a wide toothy smile. It looks like she is about to cry. Murphy is hiding behind a forced smile as well. Behind the smiles their disappointment is clear. It’s hard to watch. As the auditorium clears out, I leave with the crowd. I don’t have the heart to follow up with Rogers and Murphy.
A few days later I speak to each girl over the phone. Murphy says, “I knew Chelsea was really good at her talent because she is a professional dancer, but for her to win the whole thing… I was definitely very surprised. But, I am really happy for her. I think she is going to do a great job as Miss San Diego.”
Roberts is more emotional. She gets choked up when we speak.
“I felt like I really let my family down. I am disappointed. I think I may have been a little too fashion-forward for the judges. Mallory and I are competing in the Miss Southland and Ms. Hollywood pageant in December. I am going to be a bit more Patty Pageant for those,” she says.
“I think our chances are good in the Miss Hollywood/Miss Southland pageant,” Murphy says. “I am going to do my same jump-rope routine and keep the same wardrobe,” she says before hanging up.