Never Too Late
The ladies of the Ms. Senior Universe Pageant prove that dreams have no expiration date
As the international queens and finalists of the 2018 Ms. Senior Universe Pageant waited patiently backstage in bedazzled gowns of sequins, capes, tulle, and glitter for their final walk before the announcement of the winners, they all agreed that Halloween falling during the pageant week raised the concept of fun and glitz to a new level. Held at the Saxe Theater within the fabulous Planet Hollywood Resort, the pageant finals capped a Las Vegas style week of excitement and surprise.
The week began with the pageant finalists arriving from points across the globe to represent their countries and heritage. To qualify, each finalist was required to have earned a national or regional pageant title, or in the alternative, was recognized to represent a member nation of the United Nations General Assembly with the permission of their host country’s embassy or consulate. There are two categories: Senior (minimum 60 years of age) and Super Senior (minimum 75 years of age). National titleholders can return each year.
The pageant finalists in the Senior category were Gailyn Saahir (family from Israel and Egypt), Shelley Gish (Canada), Sherry Strother (Native America – Choctaw Tribe), Vickey Rose (National Title – Ms. Senior Sweetheart), Catherine Szerszen (Ireland), C.J. Marie (Italy), Cherie Kidd (Regional Titleholder), Michelle Weston (South Africa), and Sara Jo Burks (National Titleholder – Ms. Senior USA 2018).
In the Super Senior category (75+), the pageant finalists were Sharon Maloney (Ireland), Sandy Ratajik (Okinawa-MAC), Joanie Helgesen (Norway), Charlotte Ambrose (Poland), Tamara Swihart (Germany), Nancy Berhorst (France – her great-grandfather penned the current version of the French National Anthem), Nancy Long (National Title – Ms. Super Senior USA 2018), Sally Beth Vick (National Title – Ms. Super Senior USA 2017), and Sharon Friendly (Canada).
Beginning with a special welcome at Planet Hollywood, pageant week was hectic, jam-packed, and so much fun. Each finalist was personally welcomed on arrival at the hotel with a special bag of treats, goodies, and shopping opportunities. A video crew was always on hand to record each day’s activities and individual documentary interviews.
The following day the finalists attended the Queens’ Breakfast at Café Hollywood surrounded by the photos and memorabilia of Hollywood celebrities. Here, the sisterhood was reaffirmed for the queens, many of whom have known one another for twenty years and more, and the new “girls” were welcomed into a lifetime club. The queens then boarded special transportation to the grounds of the Tournament Players Club – home of the Shriners Hospitals for Children FedEx Cup PGA Tournament. This was especially significant, as the first meet and greet for the pageant had been held on these same tournament grounds only two years earlier. Each year, the tournament begins with the “Kick Off Your Heels” Luncheon and Auction – by women for women. The true stars of the day were the “Patient Ambassadors,” who in the afternoon, recounted to the crowd of more than 500 women how their lives had been changed by the unwavering support and generosity of the Shriners.
On the way back to the hotel, the queens were treated to shopping at Dubarry Fashions. Owned and operated by Rita David (former Miss Belgium Universe) and her husband Derek David (original member of the Platters), Dubarry’s Fashions is known the world over as “Bling and Gown Central” – if it has a crystal stone, it is likely to have a place in the store. That evening, Saxe Productions hosted the queens for a special showing of Viva, Las Vegas!
With judges’ interviews or rehearsals each morning, the afternoons were filled with public meet-and-greets in the theaters and balconies of the Miracle Mile Shoppes and a special Halloween Queens Masquerade Ball hosted in the resplendent Doumani Mansion by the first Super Senior and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Cindy Doumani. Ms. Doumani was such a gracious hostess and went beyond everyone’s expectations. Joining the pageant finalists at the Masquerade Ball were current and past queens who presented a volunteer corps to assist in the week long production: Debbie Miller (Senior USA 2017), Betty Aden (Super Senior Universe 2017), Donna McGuffie (Senior Universe 2017), Dr. Toya Andrew (Super Senior Virgin Islands 2018), Correan Baker (Senior Ohio USA), Estelita Paulin (Senior Philippines Universe), Linda Allbright (Senior Washington USA), TangLi Ping (Senior China Universe), Peggie Fowler (Senior Georgia USA), Janet Winegar (Senior Scotland Universe), Dr. Ida White (Super Senior Virgin Islands Universe 2017). Also present were members of the new “Baby Brand” (50-59), Liz Palmer (Senior Nevada United States) and Vicki Lobodocky (Senior Michigan United States). The queens were treated to a delicious buffet dinner and champagne to celebrate the upcoming pageant, with Super Senior Sally Beth Vick and her husband Jimmy dressed in the Phantom of the Opera theme. The pageant finalists and queens provided the entertainment for the evening with singing, dancing and a comedy act. All that was needed was Juliette to step out on the Romeo and Juliette balcony in the entryway of the mansion.
With each Senior USA and Senior Universe Pageant held, the queens learn and realize that “It is Never Too Late!” From the age of sixty to the age of “whenever,” they are each still making exciting plans for the future. Their life paths have been very versatile. However, all agree their lives have taken a right turn after getting into the senior division of pageants. For them, sixty is the beginning of a new and exciting life. They are no longer a “disposable commodity,” but an active, contributing, and very necessary part of society. Many were, and still are, professionals: teachers, doctors, CEO’s of corporations, dancers, PhD’s, motivational speakers, artists, comediennes, and singers. Many had dreams that were put aside due to demands made on them by family, or professions, or their country. Some are still actively employed, but most are retired, with their children no longer at home and their grandchildren grown. They can now dust off their dreams and turn them into reality. Bucket lists that were put aside have been dug out of drawers and reviewed to check to see if these goals need editing — such as parachute jumping from a plane at eighty! They have found that dreams really can come true.
Friendships have been renewed, and through the universal world of pageantry, new friends have been found from all over the world. Through involvement in pageantry, senior women have mastered the art of computers, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and phones with no long-distance costs! Through these new media, far apart participants in the Ms. Senior USA/Universe Program stay in contact. It’s just like having a sister next door who rejoices in your successes, laughs at your bad jokes, prays with you when you have problems, and cries with you in your sorrow. To those not blessed with a sister, having a sister queen is wonderful. Age should never be a deterrent!
As the pageant finalists entered the theater stage area in their national costume (or for Super Seniors, the choice of time period or era), they were greeted by the photos of celebrities who had performed there: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis, Jr., and so many others. This was a lifetime of memories for the queens in the short week provided by the Saxe Productions family.
Because the production was being filmed as part of a future documentary, all the pageant finalists, not just the top five in each category, performed. Family members and supporters could enjoy watching all the contestants perform with state-of-the-art sound and lighting effects. Special effects included fog moving across the floor or a soft wind produced to make capes and wings appear to float. The audience was awestruck by the contestants’ portraits displayed on 30 foot tall light panels as each woman performed her talent and offered her philosophy. During the program, the show honored Lenny Kaplan, the founder of the senior pageant movement in the early 1970’s, with Ms. Senior Sweetheart of America. Along with Lenny Kaplan, six ladies who were with Lenny during that founding period and who are now a part of the Ms. Senior USA/Universe organization, the “Originals,” were honored: Dr. Ida White, Dr. Toya Andrew, Dr. Tamara Swihart, Dr. Charlotte Ambrose, and Dr. Sharon Maloney. A seventh Original, Athena Mislewski, was known by her sisters as the “Greek Goddess.” Along with Patricia Davis, the mother of Saxe Productions coordinator Mic Shaun Jones, Athena and Patricia joined the “Angels Pageant” as the week began. The show and pageant video were dedicated to their memory.
Dozens of applicants from across the globe started the process, winding down to the finalists arriving in Las Vegas. After days of preliminary competitions and in a style only possible in Las Vegas, the top five of each category were announced. For the Senior category, they were Sherry Strother, Catherine Szerszen, Cherie Kidd, Michelle Weston, and Sara Jo Burks. In the Super Senior category (75+), the top five were Dr. Sharon Maloney, Joanie Helgesen, Dr. Tamara Swihart, Dr. Nancy Long, and Sally Beth Vick.
As the remainder of the finalists waited patiently backstage for what would be their final walk of the pageant, each of the top five in the Senior and Super Senior categories then entered the stage in their gowns, approached the microphone, and engaged the judges and audience by stating their individual “Philosophy of Life.” As the last of the queens completed this phase of competition, all the pageant finalists entered as a group for their final Parade of Gowns before the announcement of the winners.
Before announcing the winners, special announcements were made. Two new categories were welcomed for June 2019. The first formal pageant for the “Baby Brand” for ladies 50-59 years of age was announced, with Nicole Duffel being named as Ms. Senior United States to succeed the term of Lauren Monahan, who originally launched the brand concept in 2017. A second category, “Ms. Grande Dame Universe,” was announced as a special honorary award for ladies 90 years of age and over.
Earning special recognition were Catherine Szerszen – National Costume, Sharon Friendly – Talent, and Sherry Strother – Evening Gown.
Finally, the big moment arrived. Winners in the Senior category were: fourth runner-up Catherine Szerszen, third runner-up Sara Jo Burks, and second runner-up Michelle Weston. With only two remaining, Sherry Strother was named Ms. Senior Universe 2018 over first runner-up Cherie Kidd.
Super Senior (75+) quickly followed with fourth runner-up Dr. Sharon Maloney, third runner-up Joanie Helgesen, and second runner-up Dr. Tamara Swihart. With only two remaining, Nancy Long captured first runner-up accolades. With the announcement, Nancy reached out and touched the shoulder of the winner and stated, “Sally Beth, you’re the winner. You need to step up and take the crown – it’s yours!” With that, Sally Beth Vick had captured the crown of Ms. Super Senior Universe.
Pageant moments are special memories that will endure for the remainder of the lives of those who participate. After returning home, they will each continue to do what they love to do and have been doing – actively encouraging senior women to pull out the bucket list, and if it says put on a chute & jump from a plane, take a trip to Europe, drive a racecar, or dig out your old music sheets or dance shoes and enter a senior pageant, then just DO IT! Many will continue to sing and perform for nursing homes, veterans’ homes, assisted living and retirement centers. Nothing could be more rewarding than to be singing songs from the 50’s or the “Great American Songbook” when suddenly, someone with Alzheimer’s disease who has not spoken for years begins to sing along. Then, the senior queens will have changed lives for the better, forever!
The original directors had a dream that turned into an amazing pageant that allowed senior women to get back into the game and relive those talents and dreams that were left behind many years ago. The Senior USA/Universe organization breaks many traditions – encouraging the contestants to really participate in the concepts and productions to make it a better and more interactive pageant. The directors ask the participants what would make the pageant better and more enjoyable for them. By doing this, the Ms. Senior USA/Universe Pageants have evolved from the expected to the unexpected, and it is constantly evolving and improving.This is why they proudly state: “We are the women and daughters of The Greatest Generation. We are strong, savvy, goal-oriented, wise and aware.”