Vegas Strong & Senior Strong

The women of the Ms. Senior Universe Pageant teach us all what it means to be #VegasStrong

“We are the women and daughters of the ‘The Greatest Generation.’— We are strong, savvy, goal-oriented, wise and aware.” The Mission Statement of the Ms. Senior Universe Pageant cannot begin to underscore the strength and resilience of the senior women who participated in the inaugural event. Hurricane Irma, possibly the worst hurricane in US History, destroyed the home of Ms. Senior Virgin Islands Ida White. The earthquakes that followed in Mexico City affected delegate Emma Escuivel, who supervises emergency services and community outreach at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Mexico City, and thus was unable to attend. After being seriously injured in a car crash, the raging fires in California nearly forced the evacuation of Board of Governors member and founding Ms. Senior California USA Myrna Motzer. Then, there are those times when age and life itself get tangled, such as when Queen Lauren Monahan spent several days at the hospital bedside of her husband, or when Queen Charlotte Ambrose survived open heart surgery.

On October 1, 2017, Las Vegas experienced the worst mass shooting in United States history. One of the founders of the Senior Pageants Group, a responder trainer, was one of the first on scene. Ms. Senior Universe, Kathleen “Kat” Ray, took action in helping organize the Blood Bank efforts. Standing in the road in sash and crown, Kat refused to let people pass until they donated blood and was credited with personally bringing in over 1750 donors in less than 3 days.

While support poured in from around the country, and indeed from around the world, there were other considerations. Events throughout the city were postponed or cancelled outright, and new security measures made events difficult to manage and much more expensive. The City of Las Vegas, Clark County, and indeed everyone, were working to grasp a world that would never be the same.

The senior Queens of this organization include military veterans and women who have raised their children through some of the most difficult times in modern history. The City of Las Vegas is the home of their pageant. Showing support for their city and pageant, senior representatives from several countries came together at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, which was also hosting the Miss Universe Pageant, to begin #VEGASSTRONG pageant week where they were joined by the first ever Super Senior representatives for women over the age of 75. The hotel extended a warm welcome for the delegates, beginning with a goody bag that included a $2,000 gift and coupon book for the Miracle Mile Shops and daily brunches at Café Hollywood with the room costs for the finalists covered by the pageant. The contestants and their guests were then treated to personally attend the televised finals of the Miss Universe competition and became the first to see its new competition format.

Pageant week continued with the ABC Las Vegas affiliate hosting the queens at the Morning Blend television show. This was followed by “bling” shopping at DuBarry’s Fashions, hosted by original member of the Platters, Derek David, and his wife Rita, a former Miss Belgium. Martyn Ravenhill and Ivan Serna, owners and investors in the renovated Liberace Mansion, hosted the Pageant Interviews at the Mansion with the Ms. Senior Universe Pageant Queens Ball held in the main hall. Kat Ray and Michael Susara of High Flyin’ Entertainment emceed the event, and the delegates joined in with entertaining the crowd. Scotty Winegar, a native of Scotland and perennial in the pageant world, was honored as Ms. Senior Scotland. Videographer Vincent Caprice was honored as a new member of the Board of Governors.

Throughout the event and the days that followed, the queens were shadowed by author Carl Honoré. A guest of the pageant and published in more than 35 languages, Mr. Honoré was completing a process that began earlier in the year with interviews in New York City of Kat Ray, Board Member Virginia Werner, Ms. Senior USA 2016 Carol Thomas, and Founding Queen Lauren Monahan. The book, Age Inappropriate, emphasizes the personal lives and indomitable spirit of senior woman in today’s modern, youth-oriented world, noting the pageant resembled a family. In true family style, Charlotte Ambrose, unable to be present in person, was present in spirit with her picture appearing at each event and the delegates dialing her telephone number so she could listen in.

For the big event, a sponsor purchased all venue seats, making the Ms. Senior Universe finals free to the public. The finalists took the stage for the inaugural Ms. Senior Universe Pageant consisting of Salve Edelman (a native of the Philippines representing the Asia Pacific Islands), Sharon Friendly (Canada), Tang Li Ping (China), Dr. Gayla Kalp Jackson (England), Nancy Berhorst (France), Tamara Swihart (over 75 and a Super Senior, also representing France), Marilyn O’Connell (Ireland), Sharon Maloney (Isle of Mann), Ida White (Virgin Islands), and Donna McGuffie (USA).

In this first Ms. Senior Universe, the Board of Governors had voted to allow national and international titleholders from other pageant systems who had reached the minimum age of 60 years to compete. This included Ms. United Nations USA from the ’90s, Sherry Strother, who had become the organization’s Ms. Senior United Nations Ambassador to the UN Commission on the status of women, and Ms. Senior Transatlantic and runner-up in the Ms. Senior USA competition, Debbi Miller. In another first, the over 75 category invited women to compete for both the coveted Ms. Senior Universe title and the Ms. Super Senior Universe title. These contestants were Betty Aden, Sally Beth Vick, and World War II veteran Gladys Hughes.

With the music of the International Olympic Theme as a backdrop, the finalists brought the audience to its feet during the national costume presentation. The Super Seniors elected to each represent a special era — Betty Aden came in as Elvis for the Rock ’n Roll era, Sally Beth Vick wore a stunning white Antebellum Mardi Gras gown, and Gladys Hughes donned her actual military uniform from WWII.

The Talent Competition and Parade of Gowns concluded, the scores were tabulated, and it became evident that the competition was much tighter than expected. The scores were tabulated again and verified by the auditor. During this time, Michael Susara led the audience in a song and dance medley followed by the contestants arriving on stage receiving their finalists’ awards.

Donna McGuffie was announced as Ms. Senior Universe 2017-2018. In the Super Senior division, Betty Aden was crowned as the inaugural Ms. Super Senior Universe for ladies 75 years of age and older. Sherry Strother was announced as the first runner-up. Debbi Miller was the second runner-up. Rounding out the Top 5 were Dr. Gayla Jackson from England and Tang Li Ping from China. Tang Li Ping also won the Talent Competition and requested that her award be presented at the Chinese Cultural Center with her students and media representatives from China present.

But, the night was not over. Betty Aden and Debbi Miller had been runners up to Donna McGuffie in the May 2017 Ms. Senior USA competition. Because both Donna McGuffie and Betty Aden had captured new titles, the rules of the Ms. Senior USA Pageant allowed Debbi Miller to succeed and complete the term vacated by Donna McGuffie winning the Ms. Senior Universe Title. Sherry Strother, whose energy and enthusiasm for the organization was apparent throughout pageant week, and whose oration during the talent competition touched the hearts of so many in attendance, was asked to join the Board of Governors as the International Director.

The Las Vegas community and the incredible fortitude of the finalists made the first Ms. Senior Universe Pageant an unparalleled success. For her efforts, the founder, Kathleen “Kat” Ray, was later informed she was nominated by the Global Talent Awards for Best Volunteer, Best Pageant Director, and Best Titleholder.

The participants in the inaugural Ms. Senior Universe pageant have developed a true pageant family, and the words and feelings of those in attendance reveal that they are not only #VegasStrong, they are also #PageantStrong. In the words of the women representing the greatest generation:
“In 2013, at the age of 61, I entered the first pageant of my life. At age 65 I competed in the inaugural Ms. Senior USA Pageant in Las Vegas. I believed that I could not achieve any higher honor when I was crowned Ms. Senior USA 2017. Six Months later, as Ms. Senior USA, I competed in the inaugural Ms. Senior Universe Pageant, also in Las Vegas. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of being crowned and winning this incredible title! Truly, my cup runneth over!!” — Donna McGuffie

“The Ms. Senior USA and Universe Pageant has been a highlight of my senior life. It’s not about competition. This pageant gives senior women an opportunity to meet the most amazing, talented, energetic, intelligent women who display genuine feelings and emotions. It’s the inner being that is shared with others. We care, we love, and we treasure God’s gift of being with women who love and appreciate this gift. I’m thrilled to be included with the women who were blessed to be a part of the Senior USA/Universe Pageant. I never participated in a pageant until I was 73. It’s exciting to dress in gowns, meet people, dance on a big stage, and experience a different feeling of excitement. At 76, I became the first Ms. Super Senior Universe. Thank you for providing an opportunity for senior women to become a part of this amazing adventure.” — Betty Aden

“Love, respect, and the family that you become a part of throughout the international community is what this organization is about. We are all intense competitors. We have different backgrounds, religions, and political views, but we are also sisters and friends, and so much more. I am proud to be a part of such a wonderful community that recognizes us for who we are and what we still have to offer, to one another and to our communities and the world.” — Debbi Miller

“Other than a high school pageant at age sixteen, my first real exposure to big time beauty pageants was in 1981. Needless to say I did not Win, Place, or Show! My lifelong career can be summed up in one word: Service. I believe service to individuals, corporations, and to oneself in the form of personal crusades is the highest form of accomplishment. I am extremely proud that my over thirty-five year love affair with the beauty industry provided the vehicle by which I was able to perform acts of wide human interest and appeal.

I thought my competition days were over, until a friend shared with me a system for women 60 and over. A system where the word competition is replaced with the word ‘celebration!’ I was intrigued and this past November, I was honored to be announced as the first runner-up at the inaugural Ms. Senior Universe pageant. The Ms. Senior USA/Universe Organization bestowed upon me the title of International Director for Universe delegates. I want to say that as women today, we find ourselves getting caught up in the needs of others and fail to set goals for our lives. It is important to meet the needs of those we care about, but are you not equally as important to have your own set of personal goals?

I hope you feel that passion, and I hope it carries you to a place of fulfillment and joy. One of my favorite quotes is, “Many things in life will capture your eye, but few will capture your heart…pursue those!’” — Sherry Strother

“As a little girl from China, I never thought I would grow up to live the American Dream! Being honored and respected in my homeland, and now in the United States with this pageant is beyond anything that I can describe. So I just say ‘Thank you’ so much for this opportunity and for the love and respect we all share for one another.” — Tang Li Ping

“I started my very early professional life as an actress and model, however, I soon learned that it did not pay the bills. I returned to college, earned my Ph.D. in Business and for the next 30 years worked very hard creating a successful international training company. When my daughter suggested I enter a pageant, I laughed. I was a serious business woman! Those ‘Beauty Queens’ were mere ‘Barbie Dolls’ who floated across a stage! I was given the great honor this year to be asked to represent England in the Ms. Sr. Universe Pageant. I was thrilled to win 4th place! I am now very proud to say that I am now on the Board of Governors for the Ms. Sr. USA/Universe Association.

Why did I finally compete and become so involved? I was so ‘Barbie Doll’ WRONG!! The women in these pageants are intelligent, wise, have beautiful souls and have had incredible lives. We all have amazing stories to share about our lives that touch and help everyone. At this age and point in our lives, jealousy, mean attitudes, physical envy and economic status mean nothing to these women. We are just thrilled to be with women who are happy to be doing what they love, performing, and being with fun, kind, and inspiring women. I love my life with my pageant sisters and plan to be involved performing and helping until I fall ‘in the hole’ (preferably singing!).” — Dr. Gayla Kalp Jackson, Ph.D.

As the Miss Senior Universe Pageant bid “Adieu” to Las Vegas, one thing was certain; not only were they #VegasStrong, they were #SeniorStrong.