Jeff Zaslow wrote the definitive piece of journalism about the Miss Cass Pageant two years ago. (Most of you probably aren’t WSJ Online subscribers, so the link takes you to a forum, where someone has cut and pasted the article. Cntrl/F “zaslow” and you’ll find it quickly.) I won’t try to top it, but he and I saw different pageants in different years, so maybe I can add something.
I was privileged to attend the pageant for the first time this year, this past Saturday. My friend Kate was a judge last year, and she told me it was like nothing I’d ever seen. She was right. You don’t attend a beauty pageant for developmentally disabled women every day. Yes: Retarded women. (I know that word is un-P.C.; I just want to put it in the strongest possible terms.) And men. In a pageant. With Broadway show tunes. And an evening gown competition, and talent, and an on-stage interview. And, at the end, a queen. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Cass Community Social Services agency serves people with disabilities in one of the poorest parts of Detroit; it’s a ministry of the Cass United Methodist Church. This was the 11th year for the Miss Cass Pageant, and if you’ve taken the time to read that WSJ story, you know that not everyone is crazy about the idea. There’s a fine line — no, a thick line — between supportive and mocking, but the laughter sounds the same. And the evening was full of laughter. When a contestant is asked what her favorite store is, and she answers “Farmer Jack” (a grocery store), and then asked what her favorite aisle is, and says “Kroger,” people laugh. It’s funny. What can I say? You had to be there. Much of the audience consists of group-home operators, family members and others whose dedication to the mentally disabled is hardly in question. They’re entitled.
This year’s musical theme was “Annie,” and the opening number was “NYC.” Three men stood at center stage, each holding a large N, Y or C. Every time the phrase is sung, their job was to thrust their letter high in the air. Other members of the community contributed by walking across the stage showing representations of the lyrics. Others danced. Everyone sang, or tried to. That other town has the Empire State / And a mayor five foot two — a man held up a photo of the Empire State, followed by a very short, rotund client with Down Syndrome, in a tuxedo and plastic top hat. I don’t want to say it was heartwarming, as it implies pity and condescension, but that’s really the only word that works. These folks have been rehearsing this since summer, and it went off without a hitch.
Then it was time for the talent. The ladies came out one by one and danced, or sang, or otherwise performed. One waved a tambourine back and forth to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” while the audience clapped along enthusastically. Another did a pretty fair Michael Jackson dance impersonation. Another recited a Maya Angelou quote, and almost flubbed it, but didn’t: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.” You could hear the audience sigh with relief. No participant appeared to be having anything less than the time of her life.
The male escorts were introduced, each wearing a donated rented tuxedo. They performed “Fully Dressed,” and then it was time for the evening gowns. We learned a little about each woman — one has a goal of learning to print her name, another wants to get a job. Betty, Miss Cass 2004, came out for an encore of her remarkable talent: She has a strong singing voice, and sang the Lord’s Prayer. As she reached the climax, her evening gown started to slip off one shoulder. As it fell lower and lower (Betty was oblivious), it became clear she wasn’t wearing a bra. A breathy “ahhh!” started in the crowd and built until two attendants dashed to her side and took a little drama out of the “amen,” but saved her from disaster.
“And you thought only the Super Bowl had wardrobe malfunctions,” the M.C. said.
Everybody performed “Tomorrow,” waving ribbons on sticks. Six finalists were named, and the interview took place. One woman could only repeat her name. Others told us their favorite colors and TV shows. And then it was time for the big moment.
Geraldine was crowned Miss Cass. She immediately wrung the M.C. in a bear hug, then stood for her crown. I checked my notes; I think her talent was dancing, with an umbrella, to “It’s Raining Men.” Her favorite color was pink. She was led to her throne and wore her tiara with grace and dignity.
The final number was “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” after which we all filed out. The Rev. Faith Fowler, minister of the church and director of the agency, said the participants will talk about this night until July, at which point they’ll start learning the songs for next year. I hope I can be there again.