The Greatest Generation

91 and still not done

Marilyn O’Connell is 91. She is an active swimmer, an entertainer, a multiple Gold Medal winner at the Senior Games and a World Pickle Ball Champion. During the Ms. Senior USA Pageant in the Saxe Theater at the fabulous Planet Hollywood Resort, Marilyn became the oldest crowned queen of a major pageant, earning the title of Ms. Grande Dame Universe for ladies 90 years and older, capping a Las Vegas-style week of excitement and surprise.

This was the latest in a series of ever inclusive events created by the Senior Pageants Group for its Ms. Senior USA Pageant consisting of three categories: Senior (minimum 60 years of age), Super Senior (minimum 75 years of age), and the inaugural “Baby Brand” (50-59 years of age).  The Ms. Senior USA Pageant finalists receiving the “Golden Ticket” to Las Vegas were chosen from more than one hundred applicants and nominees.

Pageant finalists in the inaugural Ms. Senior United States Baby Brand were Donna Robertson (Alabama), Tusi Alston (American Samoa), Elizabeth Palmer (Nevada), Cheri Doane (Tennessee) and Kathie Truitt (Texas). The Senior division welcomed Cherie Kidd (Washington), Linda Allbright (Arizona), Christina Anderson (Virginia), Donna Harris (Alabama), Barbara Travis (Mississippi), Sherron Savage (Arkansas), Mari Lewis (California), Teresa Vicario (Connecticut), Lynn Perry (Minnesota), Holly Joy Pearson (Massachusetts), Shan Carrasco (Missouri), Vickey Rose (Oklahoma), Aileen Brady (North Dakota), Paula Lee (Texas), Shelley Gish (Utah), and Peggie Fowler (Georgia), with the Super Senior category showcasing Joanie Helgesen (Florida), Marilyn O’Connell (Southwest), Nancy Berhorst (Arizona), Barbara Reincke (Texas), and Charlotte Ambrose (Michigan).

As the ladies arrived for their exciting Las Vegas week, they were treated to gold and silver goodie bags filled with treats from sponsors like coupons and shopping opportunities for the Miracle Mile Shoppes valued in excess of $2,500. The Ms. Senior USA delegates were also met by a documentary crew from Europe who had been embedded with some of the queens for over a week and traveled with them from their homes to Las Vegas. Halal Doc is a well-respected and award-winning film organization from Amsterdam led by director Sophia Dros, producer Tess Vermeer, and a camera and sound crew consisting of Boas van Milligen, Job Michel and Lykle Tuinstra. Daily pageant photography was provided by Gary Duffel, with Nikki Segal providing assistance with hair styling and make-up.

The inaugural day began with an orientation and special training followed by the Queens’ Breakfast at Café Hollywood, surrounded by the photos and memorabilia of Hollywood celebrities. Here, the new “girls” were welcomed into a lifetime club where everyone was provided a folder containing the information they would need throughout the week. They were joined by pageant veterans Ida White (Ms. Super Senior Virgin Islands), Correan Baker (Ms. Senior Ohio USA), Estelita Paulin (Ms. Senior Philippines Universe), TangLi Ping (Ms. Senior China), Carolie Swindle (Founding Ms. Senior Nevada USA), and Salve Edelman (Ms. Senior Asia Pacific Universe). These ladies had traveled to volunteer their welcomed assistance with the pageant, and to attend the first ever “Showgirl Bootcamp” hosted at the Saxe Theater.

In all, more than forty contestants, queens, and volunteers attended the Showgirl Bootcamp. They learned and reaffirmed their stage presence, presentations, makeup, and just had fun! The Saxe Theater is a working venue with multiple shows each day and evening. That night, courtesy of “ButtsinSeats,” the queens attended Las Vegas, the Show and were able to see an actual working production on the same Las Vegas stage where they attended the bootcamp and would later rehearse, perform and compete in the Ms. Senior USA finals.

Rehearsals started the next day, followed by the round robin interviews. In the evening, the queens attended a public meet and greet at the American PBR Bar, with a blinged and crowned mechanical bull.  The public was entertained and surprised when the queens, most in their 70’s and 80’s, were witnessed riding the mechanical bull, with all of the festivities caught on camera by the ever omnipresent and vigilant documentary crew.

Later in the week, the queens were treated to a limo-bus ride for a shopping excursion at Dubarry’s 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 or rhinestone, it is likely to have a place in the store.

Following a full day of shopping, the Queens’ Ball was held in the evening, bringing the day to a glamorous close.  The Ms. Senior USA Pageant has diligently searched Las Vegas historical sites to host this ball. The queens have been to the Liberace Mansion, the Doumani Mansion, the Hart Mansion (Las Vegas home of Elvis Presley), and this year, the famous Italian American Club featured in the movie “Casino.” For sixty years, the Italian American Club was the business center and entertainment hub for many of Las Vegas’ more notorious residents. In recent years, the club’s memorabilia has found its way to the Las Vegas Mob Museum ñ another Las Vegas landmark which was the actual courthouse where the Kefauver Congressional Hearings were held on the Mafia. These hearings were featured in “The Godfather II.”

The theme — you guessed it — was a “Mobster’s Ball.” The entertainment featured former pageant judge Jeanie Brei, and gave the ladies an opportunity to perform before the preliminaries began the next day. With great appreciation, the Pageantry magazine Spirit Award was presented, and the new inductees into the Senior Hall of Fame were announced as Nicole Duffel (Ms. Senior United States 2018), Michelle Weston (Ms. Senior South Africa), Donna Robertson (Alabama), Cheri Doane (Tennessee), Kathie Truitt (Texas), Tusi Alston (American Samoa), Donna Harris (Alabama), Sherron Savage (Arkansas), Mari Lewis (California), Teresa Vicario (Connecticut), Holly Joy Pearson (Massachusetts), Shan Carrasco (Missouri), Aileen Brady (North Dakota), Christina Anderson (Virginia), Barbara Reincke (Texas), and Rebecca Nunn (Virginia).

It was time to crown the new queens of the 2019 Ms. Senior USA and Ms. Senior United States Pageants. The judges were selected from a well-developed pool of experts. To insure fairness and consistency, judges should not know the participants, and no judge can repeat for at least two years.

After days of activities, rehearsals, preliminary competitions, and in a style only possible in Las Vegas, the pageant finalists entered the Saxe Theater stage area, replete in their state costume (or for Super Seniors, the choice of a time period or era ensemble). As they moved from the dressing rooms to the stage, they were greeted by the photos of the celebrities who had performed there – Sinatra, Elvis, Sammy Davis, Jr., and so many others, providing a lifetime of memories for the queens.

Since these productions were filmed as part of multiple documentaries, family members and supporters unable to travel to Las Vegas could enjoy the contestants’ performances via live-stream with state-of-the-art sound and lighting effects. There is nothing to compare with the audience seeing contestant’s portraits on lighted panels 30 feet tall as they offer their talents and philosophies!  In true Las Vegas style, special effects included fog moving across the floor and a soft wind, providing the illusion of capes and wings appearing to float.

Dozens of applicants from across the nation had begun the process, culminating with the Ms. Senior USA Pageant delegates arriving in Las Vegas, competing throughout the week, and finally, the selection of the Top 5 in each division. As the remainder of the finalists waited patiently backstage for what would be their last stage presentation of the pageant, the Final Five in each the categories 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 the competition, all of the Ms. Senior USA delegates entered as a group for the Parade of Gowns showcase before the announcement of the winners.

The announcements began with the presentation of the Best Costume Trophy to Shelley Gish of Utah. The Talent Trophy was awarded to Teresa Vicario of Connecticut who wowed the audience with a classical operatic performance in French. The Gown Trophy went to Shan Carrasco of Missouri. Peggie Fowler, of Georgia, received the Congeniality Award, and named Ms. Senior Sweetheart in honor of Lenny Kaplan, who founded the senior pageant movement almost fifty years ago.

“Ms. Grande Dame Universe” was announced as a special honorary award for ladies 90 years of age and over. Marilyn O’Connell was surprised and moved to tears as she was crowned.

In the Ms. Senior United States “Baby Brand” (50-59), third runner up was announced as Donna Robertson (Alabama), then second runner-up Tusi Alston (American Samoa). Because of unforeseen circumstances, it was discovered that the category winner would be unable to fulfill the duties of the position. Cherie Doane (Tennessee) became first runner-up. Kathie Truitt (Texas) was named as Ms. Senior United States 2019.

In the Senior (60-74) category, the fourth runner-up was Barbara Travis (Mississippi), with the third runner-up was Donna Harris (Alabama). Second runner-up was Christina Anderson (Virginia) followed by first runner-up Linda Allbright (Arizona). Last year’s first runner-up, Cherie Kidd (Washington), was crowned as Ms. Senior USA 2019.

Super Senior (75+) quickly followed with Charlotte Ambrose (Michigan) named fourth runner-up, third runner-up as Nancy Berhorst (Arizona) and second runner-up Rebecca Nunn (Virginia), leaving two ladies nervously awaiting the announcement. Barbara Reincke (Texas) was named as first runner-up, with Joanie Helgesen (Florida) was awarded the title of Ms. Super Senior USA 2019.

The original directors had a dream that turned into an amazing pageant system which encourages senior women to get back into the game and pick up those talents and dreams which were left behind many years ago. This dream continues with an organization which breaks many traditions ñ encouraging the participants to learn and to really participate in the concepts and productions, ultimately to make it a better and more interactive pageant. By doing this, the Ms. Senior United States/USA/Universe Pageants have evolved from the expected to the unexpected and it is constantly evolving and improving. As always true to their motto, the Ms. Senior USA women personify the credo, “We are the women and daughters of ‘The Greatest Generation’”… “We are strong, savvy, goal-oriented, wise and aware”.

To read the entire feature in PageantryDigital, Click Here