The ladies who participate in the Ms. Senior USA pageant prove that “age ain’t nothing but a number”
Seventy-two happy, excited, and sophisticated Senior Queens, representing the Founding Board of Governors, the 50 States, Washington D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, descended on the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada for a week of activities leading up to the Ms. Senior USA Finals. It has been only two years since the original Advisory Board gathered Carol Thomas, Kathleen “Kat” Ray, Connie Ross-Karl, Elizabeth Purtee, Mary McIntosh, Caren Mislinksi, and Virginia Werner into the Founding Board of Governors. During those two years, the pageant has grown to cover all states and territories in the United States. The pageant family also includes more than thirty foreign countries, such as Russia, China, Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, Asia Pacific Islands, Philippines, Vietnam, France, Caribbean, Jamaica, Canada, Atlantic, Puerto Rico, Italy, and Brazil. Kat Ray, of California, residing in Las Vegas, was designated as the Founding Ms. Senior USA 2015 and brand leader. In 2016, Carol Thomas of Michigan won the title and succeeded Ms. Ray as Ms. Senior USA.
In such a short time, the pageant has launched two books, celebrity television appearances including its own television show—Seasoned, and a future clothing line for seniors. The first book, 60 over 60 (Stories of Inspiration under the Crown), authored by Michael Bennett, is a compilation of the biographies and stories of the state queens and members of the Board. The second book, Age Inappropriate, is being authored by international writer Carl Honoré and examines today’s attitudes towards aging and seniors.
The Senior USA Pageant is unique. It is also the only “queen owned” pageant managed by senior women, for senior women, where the Queens themselves also serve on and advise the Board of Governors. As a brand, it operates within the 35% demographic of Americans designated as “seniors.” Have you seen a Harley-Davidson or insurance commercial lately? Both feature older individuals and soon-to-be empty nesters because the average age of the motorcycle customer is now over 50. The most important factor in the uniqueness of Ms. Senior USA comes from the participants themselves. The average age of the queens is 72, with twenty queens being 75 years old and above. Two queens are in their nineties. This means that all of the aspects of aging must be considered in a format where participants are universally young. There are two Mother-Daughter teams: Super Senior Gladys Hughes, a World War II veteran, and her daughter Bonnie; along with Norma McGhee and her daughter Sherri.
The queens formed and maintained their own independent dance troupe under the leadership of Cherilynn Paris, Ms. Senior Hawaii and founder of the Paris Dancers. Linda Anthony, Ms. Senior West Virginia, formed the Queens Choir. As a group, the ladies have more than 250 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Of the seventy-two Board Members and State Queens, fifty have served in the military or in a military support organization. Many hold advanced degrees. For example, Ms. Senior Washington Sharon Maloney went back to school and began earning advanced university degrees at the age of 71. Then out of boredom, she became a Zumba instructor at 78. These ladies are hard-wired for community service. Each and every queen is a volunteer somewhere. A wonderful example involved the recent Gatlinburg, TN fires. Ms. Senior Tennessee, Lauren Monahan, managed the volunteers and even set up shelters for rescue pets. Ms. Senior U.S. Virgin Islands Ida White, deployed as the FEMA Supervisor, worked directly with Lauren during the tragic circumstances.
Ms. Senior USA and Ms. Senior Universe do not require exclusivity and believe this acceptance and encouragement serve to better increase the exposure of the brand. This means the queens are not restricted to a single pageant family, and many choose to participate in more than one. Likewise, in Ms. Senior Universe, ladies from other national pageant families who have reached 60 are welcome. For example, Ms. Georgia USA 1952, Elizabeth Garrison, is now Ms. Senior Georgia USA and a Super Senior. Sherry Strothers was the 1999 Ms. United Nations USA, bearing a national title. She has now reached 60 and will be joining the family at Ms. Senior Universe.
Arrival and check in at the hotel was effortless for the participants, as the pageant directly paid for all of the rooms and local transportation, as well as amenities such as show tickets, breakfast each morning, and even motorized wheelchairs for the queens and their companions. The event is longer by a few days than most similar competitions because Ms. Senior USA is the only pageant where both Talent and Personal Accomplishment are given equal judging weight and their own place in the preliminary rounds alongside Interview, Formal Wear, and Philosophy of Life. Unfortunately, eight of the original fifty-three state queens were unable to compete due to a physical condition, injury, or family issue. Taking into account that everyone is over 60, those ladies were allowed through their state to designate an additional “Competing Queen.”
In Las Vegas, the preliminary competitions were part of a schedule that also included an outdoor meet-and-greet open to the public, featuring food and entertainment provided by the best of Las Vegas’s tribute artists, including Rob Garrett as Neil Diamond singing under the lights of the Statue of Liberty. Later in the week, the queens were escorted to, and participated onstage in, the Las Vegas productions of “Menopause the Musical” and “Bronx Wanderers.”
After a fun-filled week, and before a packed house, the state queens and Board members received their inductions into the Senior Pageant Hall of Fame, where each was presented with a Pageantry Spirit Award. Then—the inevitable. The Top Ten Finalists announced were Sheri McGhee (New Jersey), Sally Beth Vick (Louisiana), Cherilynn Paris (Hawaii), Jill Beam (Texas), Dr. Gayla Kalp Jackson (California), Lauren Monahan (Tennessee), C.J. Marie (New York), Debbi Miller (Virginia), Betty Aden (Mississippi), and Donna McGuffie (Alabama). This year, five of the Top Ten Finalists were 70 years of age or older, with three ladies over 75. Gladys Hughes, 94 years of age, was recognized as the oldest delegate, while Jill Beam was awarded Ms. Senior Congeniality.
Following the announcement of the Top Ten, the field was winnowed to the Top Five: C.J. Marie, Lauren Monahan, Debbi Miller, Betty Aden, and Donna McGuffie. As the excitement grew, the Top Three—Debbi Miller, Betty Aden, and Donna McGuffie—were announced. Before the final announcement, the category of Super Senior was awarded under two criteria. One award recognizes the highest scoring competitor 75 or older, and one is awarded by virtue of nomination and vote. The Super Senior crowns were awarded to Gladys Hughes and Sally Beth Vick.
Finally, it was time for the announcement of Ms. Senior USA. First Runner-Up was 75 year old Betty Aden. Amidst a hushed crowd, Donna McGuffie captured the title of Ms. Senior USA. Donna was crowned by the 2015 Founding Ms. Senior USA and now Ms. Senior Universe, Kat Ray, and the outgoing Ms. Senior USA 2016 Carol Thomas. As the enormity of the title became a reality, Ms. Senior USA Donna McGuffie stated, “I am still in a bit of shock at the outcome of the pageant. I never thought I would actually win! I must say that I was so honored and blessed to be in the company of the most beautiful, talented, and loving ladies in the USA! I am humbled by the fact that I won this title amongst the high caliber of talent, beauty, and intelligence of the other contestants. My heart is so full with love for this group of women and for the Board of Governors and the Founders of the Pageant. Job well done! I plan to use the title to advocate for Veterans Charities while promoting this pageant, which brings to the forefront the wonder, grace, accomplishments, and capabilities of the amazing senior women from the ‘Greatest Generation!’”