The Atlantic City boardwalk is quiet in October. The sky is washed a sandy gray, and most of the carousels and bumper cars are locked up behind a large green fence. The beaches are deserted, save for the lone wanderer who craves privacy while speaking on her smartphone. Trump's Taj Mahal, a once prominent hot spot on the oceanfront strip, now has white bars over the entrance doors, its many slot machines flashing for an audience of one — an on-duty security guard.
But in late October, if you were to wander into the Resorts Casino Hotel, walk past the blackjack tables and shops, and head up the escalator, you'd encounter a crowd of women gathered — all of a certain age, all decked out in sparkly gowns, heels, sashes and lots of makeup. Follow them down the corridor and you'd eventually reach a set of six or so mahogany doors leading inside the Superstar Theater. There, you'd find the 2016 National Ms. Senior America Pageant.
This year marks Ms. Senior America's 36th year. Over the course of three days, 45 contestants between the ages of 60 and 90 gather from across the country to compete. They've each already won titles at the state and county levels. The show revolves around a three-part public competition: Evening gown presentations, talent performances and a special category called Philosophy of Life, where the contestants share a life "mantra," are the main focus of the first two days. There's also a formal interview, during which the women are sent into a hotel conference room to answer questions in private. The theater is filled with an audience of hundreds, mostly friends and family there to cheer the women on. But it's the five distinguished judges — three men and two women — that this year's contestants need to impress the most. They're scoring the women on each category, narrowing the lineup down to 10 finalists, who compete again on the last day. Then, a winner is crowned. She'll spend the next year visiting county fairs and other events nationwide.
DAY 1: SO MUCH GLITZ AND GLAMOUR
Around 1 p.m. on October 20, the curtains open to all 45 contestants, dressed in full evening attire. It's complete eye candy — every color of the rainbow with more sparkles than a country sky at twilight. They're swaying to the beat as Louis Parisi, a founding member of New Jersey's Smooth Sailin' Orchestra, croons an original song for the crowd. "They were wives, they were lovers, reading books to kids under the covers …" The women are dazzling — big hair and red lips — as they walk up to the microphone and introduce themselves, except for one senior in a stunning sequin dress who appears to have her eyes closed. She's in a wheelchair, with her sash delicately placed over her chest. Louis moves closer and places his microphone near her mouth when it's time for her introduction, as a hearty "Ms. Minnesota!" sounds through the speakers.
A few other gowns are also clear standouts. Ms. South Carolina, Pamela Cannon-Cook, wears a dress made almost entirely of peacock feathers, and Ms. Alabama, Elaine Willingham, a 62-year-old ballerina, has perfect posture as she walks in her black lace and velvet gown across the stage. Ms. Mississippi, Trina Schelton, is one of many in red, but crystal embroidery all along the bodice makes it stand out. You can't help but smile watching each woman enjoy a solo moment in the spotlight before walking up to the microphone and presenting her Philosophy of Life.
"Rumor has it life is like a box of chocolates, you never know which one you're gonna get! And I'm determined to try each and every one," says Ms. Senior Alaska, Charlotte Werner Ambrose, who volunteers for veterans and at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
"Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day," says Ms. Senior Texas, Sandy McCravy, a pediatric surgical nurse, who talks about calming parents' fears while their kids are in the operating room.
The contestants all speak with fervor and without notes. During intermission, Gayle King, one of the judges and a former Ms. Senior America herself, talks about what she's looking for in each contestant. "It will be that special someone who will go out on stage and will sparkle," she says. In other words, she just has it.
There are some stumbles in the cadence — a curtain opens too early or a name is mispronounced, but all is quickly forgotten once a performance takes off. This year's competition includes several tap dancers, singers and a cowboy poet, who tearfully describes her youngest son's two tours in Iraq. But it's Ms. Missouri, Peggy Lee Brennan, who brings down the house singing and tap dancing to "People Will Say We're in Love" from the musical Oklahoma!.
DAY 2: THE HEART AND SOUL
The second day is much like the first: A second group of contestants are on tap to share their evening gowns, talents and Philosophies of Life. This time, Dr. Barbara Mauldin, the current Ms. Senior America, is emceeing alongside VinI Lopez, a drummer whose main claim to fame is backing Bruce Springsteen in the late '60s and early '70s. Louis Parisi kicks things off again with his pageant theme song.
"It's been an experience of my life," says Ms. Michigan, Sharon Peters, who performs "How Great Thou Art" on piano for her talent. "Whoever would have thought that someone who lived in Michigan and graduated in '61 would ever be Ms. Senior Michigan."
"I went to the Wheatland Blue Grass festival recently," she recalls. "There were, like, 18,000 people there. I had a tie-dyed dress on, and I walked around with my sash and crown. I couldn't take three steps without someone wanting to take a picture."
This afternoon, she is presenting her Philosophy of Life, but admits she's having a hard time remembering it.
"Last night, I got a call from my one son, that he's been holding things back from me for about two months. He has a tumor on the back of his brain. He said, 'I don't want you to worry, Mom, I'm okay,'" she says. "I could not sleep. All I did was pray and tried to remember my philosophy — and I still don't remember my philosophy. It was a rough night."
Later, in the mint green ladies' restroom backstage, Ms. Missouri, Peggy Lee Brennan, talks about her performance of "People Will Say We're in Love" from the day before and reveals that this pageant is the first time she's admitted her age since she was 23. "My agents wanted me to lie and I'm a good Catholic girl, so I would never tell," the 62-year-old former actress says.
Brennan also confesses a simple mistake she made that morning: She walked into her private interview and stood behind her chair, ready to share her Philosophy of Life. The judges asked her to please sit down for the interview, that she'd get to share her philosophy on stage later that day. "'Oh no,'" she recalls saying, bending her knees beneath her red dress as if she's pleading. "At our state pageant, you do it all at once. That threw me."
The more you talk to her, the more you realize things couldn't have been that bad. In the '70s, Brennan played Frenchie in Grease on Broadway, working with Patrick Swayze. She later met her husband, Geoff Haberer, while working on Applause in 1988. Considering those theater chops, the woman probably knows how to improvise.
Brennan is a mother, but didn't come into motherhood until she was 48. After years of looking into adoption, she and her husband were offered a baby girl from Nepal. Now 15, her daughter Heleena is the reason she got back into pageants.
"I did a pageant on Staten Island when I was 19," Brennan says. "I was first runner-up. I wanted it, but it didn't happen. I've been a pageant chaperone for three years with my daughter, and I got to see the Miss America system is all about service — all about sharing, volunteering, and using your talents to be a blessing in other people's lives."
Near the end of the day, Ms. Minnesota, June Delores Lynne Lacey, is sitting in her wheelchair near the stage podium next to another woman, also in a wheelchair, who looks to be in her '50s with grey hair pulled back in a long ponytail. It turns out her companion is her daughter, Joyce Lacey.
During the second day's performances, the audience learns 87-year-old Ms. Minnesota is a comedian and actress, who has appeared in more than 22 films. During her pre-recorded talent routine, photos of her with celebrities and fans appear on the screen. In September 2014, June was named as Senior of the Year in her state, a nod to her 77 years of community service. Today, June has lost most of her vision — the result of a stroke she experienced just three weeks before the pageant — and can hardly hear or talk.
Joyce does most of the talking instead. She recounts how her mom helped her during her first scholarship pageant, when she was valedictorian in high school. "I went to Nationals and my first dress was $9.99 — I think it was a bridesmaid's dress. It was peach. It was 1980," she recalls.
As an adult, Joyce was in a major car accident. Trying to dodge a deer, she drove her vehicle down a 200-foot embankment; her injuries left her unable to walk. After she was released from the hospital, Joyce and her mother, who took on the role as her Personal Care Attendant (PCA), shared a room at a Days Inn for about $25 a day until Joyce could move into an apartment of her own again. Doctors told Joyce she should've been completely paralyzed, "but I think the Lord knew I would have to do this down the road," she says.
After about 15 minutes of chatting, Joyce volunteers her mom for an interview. When asked, "What does it mean for you to be here this week?" Joyce repeats the question louder for her mother, closer to her right ear.
June is unresponsive, so her Joyce chimes in again: "I know she told the judges that it was such a great honor and privilege, and she would cherish it for the rest of her life."
"Is that true?" she prompts her mom. "Like what you said to the judges? Mom?"
I tell Joyce I just want to ask her one last question: "Do you have a favorite memory with your mom?"
She thinks about it and says, "I have so many, to be honest. I just cherish her so much and I thank God for her every day."
Out of the blue, June speaks up: "It's my dream. Most people don't get that experience. I'm just lucky to get it."
It's not clear if she's talking about the pageant or about being a mother. Maybe it's both.
DAY 3: A WINNER IS CROWNED
By the third and final day of the pageant, the entire audience can practically sing along to Louis Parisi's opening song: " ... but what I know, they cannot hide ... besides their beauty and their pride ... they still all have, the little girl inside."
And if the theater felt crammed before, it looks twice as packed by the finalist round. There are more photographers and reporters in the room, and people are just anxious. After the National Anthem and lengthy judge introductions, which the regulars have heard twice already, the day's emcee, pageant Vice President Louise Ferla, comes to the stage to announce the Top 10 finalists: Alabama, Missouri, California, Mississippi, New York, Maryland, Tennessee, Iowa, Louisiana and Oregon.
Backstage, emotions are raw.
"I'm trying to understand … and crying!" says one finalist, Ms. Tennessee, Noelani DeRossett.
"I'm so elated!" yells another finalist, Ms. Mississippi, Trina Schelton, in passing.
Meanwhile, the pageant coordinator is hollering commands at the final 10. "Take off your crown and banner and get back up there in the order you were told," she says. "Go, go, go!"
For those who didn't make the cut, there is an obvious change in morale. Some of the women, still in their evening gowns, gather with sodas and water around a white plastic table.
"I was sure you were going to be in the Top 10," Ms. Virginia, Rebecca Tebbs Nunn, says to Ms. Oklahoma, Dove Morgan Schmidt.
"That's okay because God governs everything I do," Nunn replies.
Ms. Mississippi reveals she almost couldn't compete today because one of her porcelain teeth fell out and got lost on the dance floor at last night's pageant ball. "I went back to a little corner and started praying and I asked God to bring that crown back to me and praise the Lord he did. Some lady found it and turned it in."
"I never dreamed at 70 years old I would be doing this," she says, smiling in a bright red gown. The singer was married to Troy Shondell, a teen idol from the '70s, but lost him to a seven-year battle with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's in January.
"I was lost when he passed," she says. "I didn't have anything to look forward to and then all of the sudden God brought me this opportunity to meet so many other people. I just feel his spirit with me, he's giving me the strength and courage to do this."
The 10 finalists must go through their routines one more time. With all the passion she can muster, Ms. Mississippi performs "Where the Boys Are," the title song of a comedy film written by George Wells in 1960. Ms. Missouri then nails one last rendition of "People Will Say We're in Love," breathless by the time the song is over. After each finalist performs, the results are tallied and it's time for the big reveal. Family members and friends shift nervously in their seats and the lights blink red, signaling that the emcees are free to announce the winners. Second runner-up goes to Ms. Alabama, a 62-year-old ballerina who performed on pointe. First runner-up is Ms. Maryland, Sherri McGhie, who sang a soulful "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago. And, at last, the winner: Ms. Missouri, Peggy Lee Brennan. She's overjoyed and trades her state crown for the national one.
Brennan's daughter, Heleena, sporting her own Miss Outstanding Teen sash, cheers near the front of the stage. "I knew she was going to win," she says. "I'm just so excited for her because I know this has been a dream of hers since she was 19 years old."
But it's Brennan's husband, Geoff, who seems the most sentimental about Peggy's win: "The moment I first saw her, we exchanged glances from across the rehearsal studio and she had that unbelievable smile. I looked at her and tears came out of my eyes. She's been my soul mate since the day we met."
As the crowd pours out of the theater, a pack of photographers snap pictures of the runners-up along with the newly-crowned 2016 Ms. Senior America on stage. Minutes later, Brennan gets the photographers to herself, and Geoff and Heleena join her and the rest of their family for more pictures.
Ms. Minnesota's daughter, Joyce, looks on from her wheelchair in the curtain wings. Like Heleena, she also knew it was her mother's dream to be at this pageant, and despite her stroke, she was determined to come.
"A lot of people in my mom's situation would just stay home and close the drapes," she had said the day before. "But she's trying to get out there."
And she's right. Winning or losing doesn't really feel like the point of the pageant. It's getting out there — proving to yourself that you can still dance in your 80s, or do your stand-up routine even after life hands you a stroke.
And there's always next year.
Every contestant in this pageant had a story to tell. To read more about them, go here.
All photography by Brian Finke.