Sunday, January 16, 2011

"There she is..."

Last night was the anual Miss America Pageant.

This is probably the first Miss America I've gotten to watch for quite a while. Up until a few years ago, Miss America was held in September and always seemed to be the same weekend as our anual sales meeting. Then, for whatever reason, (probably the move to Las Vegas) the pageant was moved to January. It has hopped from network to network, but was finally back on ABC.

I was bummed that Miss Alabama, Ashely Davis, did not make the finals, despite being a fitness and quality of life winner. But the thing that blew me away was Miss Arkansas's talent routine. Ventriloquist Alyse Eady and her two "friends" Rosa and Rocky sang "I Want To Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." It didn't blow me away because it was good, or even unique. What blew me away was that I'd seen something similar before...only better.

I've always loved the Miss America pageant, but never more than September 198o. That was the year that Paige Phillips of my tiny hometown of Leeds, Alabama, rocked the stage. It did not matter to me that she was eventually named first runner up to Susan Powell. She was and always will be, Miss America in my eyes.

In tiny Leeds, Alabama, nearly everyone knows (or is related) to everyone else. Paige's parents owned a mom-and-pop shoe store called Phillips' Shoes. The carried the best shoes, all the latest styles and if they didn't have what you were looking for, they could get it. And the Phillips' knew my biggest secret; at the tender age of ten years old, I wore a ladies size ten shoe.

My feet have always been a big problem (pun intended), nearly from day one. Because I began walking, exclusively on my toes, my first shoes were weighted in the heels to keep my heels on the floor. I owe a kickin' set of calf muscles and ability to wear heels for hours on end to this misguided attempt to make me stay flat footed. This was followed by several years when my right foot was a full shoe size larger than my left. I spent a lot of time stuffing tissue in the toes of shoes and if I wanted something like a sandal, it just had to flop around. I was somewhat relieved when my left foot started catching up, until we realized that my right foot, not to be outdone, started growing uncontrollably too. It was then that I moved from Buster Browns to the ladies department.

These days, it is easier to find larger ladies sizes, but once upon a time, they were much harder to find. Unlike most women, I really, really hate shoes. For me, they represent the unattainable.

I have never been able to swap shoes with my friends or borrow shoes from my mother (or lend shoes to my girls) or buy the cutest, latest style. I am limited to wearing either very cheap shoes or very expensive shoes, and sometimes, men's shoes. I spent all of my youth in mens sneakers (I learned early that a ladies' size 10 is a men's size 8) and would have happily done so forever.

Now it is important to know that someone with feet as large as mine face a few obstacles that people with normal feet do not. My feet don't fit well on pedals or stair steps or many other things meant for feet. It can cause one to be rather clumsy. A particularly embarassing memory from sixth grade was tripping up the stairs (yes, I said up) and loosing one of my bargain store tennis shoes with the big "10" stamped in the heel. It rolled to the feet of one of the popular girls, a junior high cheerleader, who promptly picked it up and loudly announced to everyone that I was wearing a size 10 shoe. She called me "Sasquatch" the rest of the year.

Shopping for dress shoes was the most humiliating process ever. I'd pick out cute shoes, like the ones my friends were wearing, only to be told that either the store didn't have them in my size or [gulp], they weren't made in my size. Or worse, I'd get "the look."

Because of my aforementioned dual shoe size dilema,my mother would always insist that my feet be measured. The clerk would put my foot in the Brannock device ( which always tickled) make all the adjustments (sometimes pushing on my foot several times to insure it was all the way to the back of the plate) and then I'd get "the look." The look of shock and disbelief that someone so thin and gangly would have such a great,big, foot. Imagine, if you will, someone is measuring your foot, and your big toe raises up to them and says "Wazzzup?!" and then they look up at you. Yeah, that's "the look." Needless to say I'd rather eat dirt than shop for shoes.

This all changed when we met the Phillips.

The store smelled like new leather, a scent really high on my list of favorites. Eddie Phillips never blinked an eye when he measured my feet. He never gasped or said anything, except "well, let's see what we have." This greatly improved my shoe shopping experience. The best part of this new shoe shopping experience was, if the Phillips didn't have it in my size, they could almost always order it.

Paige was in high school when I first met her. She was a cheerleader, which to me was the ultimate height of beauty and popularity. Unlike many of the beautiful, popular girls I'd encountered, she was not snotty or condescending to me. Despite knowing my "big secret" she never belittled me. She was always bubbly and sweet and always spoke kindly to me. I was painfully shy then (if you can believe it), but the fact that this cheerleader chose to speak to me did more for my confidence than all the self-help books in the world.

Another very interesting fact about Paige was that she was a ventriloquist, a skill developed from a very young age. She is amazing and much like popular comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, gives each of her "friends" their own, distinctive voice. She also has a beautiful singing voice all her own.

I remember the Sunday after she won Miss Alabama like it was yesterday. My brother had gone out to get the paper and there she was. It was amazing. Nothing ever happened to anyone from Leeds. The article said she had recieved a standing ovation for her talent routine, a medley of Southern standards, sung with not one, but two "friends," Dinkle and Darlene.

I don't know if other little towns celebrate quite like Leeds does, but we pull out all the stops. I saved every article and picture I saw in both the Birmingham News and Leeds News. August 15th was declared "Paige Phillips Day, " complete with luncheons, meet and greets, a parade and a variety show. I had begged my parents to take me to the variety show, which included the talents of her fellow Alabama top five finalists, a sneak peek at her wardrobe, a proclamation from city hall and a drawing for a trip to Atlantic City. This was all followed by an autograph signing and photo op, that my parents would not let me stay for. I remember being very, very upset about that.

A few weeks later, with the beginning of school looming near, it was time again to shop for shoes. While waiting for her dad to find my shoe selections in the back, Paige swept in to drop something off to her parents. I was awestruck. I told her that my parents had made me leave the show before I could get a picture with her or an autograph. "Well, we can fix that" she had said, opening a folder she was carrying. Off the top of a stack of 8x10 black and white glossies, she plucked the photo (above) , quickly signing and handing it to me. I told her that I knew she would win, she thanked me and hugged me and then she was off. This prized possesion spent many years in a frame in my room, before being permently preserved in it's own scrapbook.

The night of Miss America, my dad had grilled steaks, my mother had made her bacon horsdevors and we had little shrimp cocktails while we watched. It was so exciting to see someone that I knew, on t.v. Back in those days, you saw the top ten in all phases of competition. There was none of this reality show schtick that has become so popular. Paige, once again, recieved an unprecedented standing ovation for her talent routine. How a girl singing opera on a telephone beat that, I'll never know.

This event became a turning point in my own life. I started fixing my hair, rather than just letting it do what it did. I started wearing make up, more girly clothes and I became interested in pageants. Five years later, my senior year, I competed in the Miss Leeds pageant. Not seriously, just for some practice. Paige was the emcee.

Flash forward another 15 years. I marry my darling hubby. Paige, after years away, moves back home to Leeds. I learn that Darling Hubby's grandpa is the older brother of none other than my shoe man, thus making me a cousin by marriage. (and in Alabama, that counts!)

Paige is just as beautiful and amazing today as she was when I first met her. She is a wife, mother, woman of God: every bit the role model as she was as Miss Alabama.

Now she is more than just MY Miss America. Now she is my friend.


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