Before directing a senior pageant, as a young military officer in the early 1970s in both the United States and Israel, little prepared me for what would become those next phases in life. Returning home, I adopted and raised children, rode a Harley each morning to a job with the railroads that was a man-boy’s dream. Eventually, circumstances transpired or conspired, depending on who is telling the story, and I was recruited from that way-station existence in the rail yards and put into law school by the world’s largest casino entertainment corporation. Rising to become the director of the legal department, I was fortunate to be mentored by the first African American gaming attorney and founder of the International Association of Gaming Attorneys, Jim Butler, who himself had been chosen and mentored by Merv Griffin.
With children grown and the first whisps of grey becoming more of a blizzard, I entered a phase of early semi-retirement teaching motorcycle riding safety. Later, I was asked by a federal agency to help develop training for motorcycle trauma, then emergency response, then more. That program developed and grew into thousands of students, both domestic and international. Today, it continues to evolve and includes training curricula for law enforcement and military personnel.
Yet still, none of this really prepared me for what was to come, and for what is here now. I often describe myself as being not too politically correct, and probably more straight forward than most comfort zones allow. So, I was surprised when a friend wanted me to sponsor her daughter for a pageant. Okay, but only if I was not required to attend. This was then followed by an older contestant in a “Mrs.” pageant—a friend of the friend. Then, I was introduced to the mother of the friend, a contestant who was at least three times older than the next oldest woman on stage. Closer to my age, it sounded interesting and fun—Why not? Curiosity was starting to get the better of me.
Those contestants were successful. The experience engendered a greater awareness of the sudden change in the largest single demographic in the United States—the aging population. In just a few years, the median age in the United States had crossed the threshold of fifty years. The growth of the senior population now outpaced the growth of all other age categories, and in fact, most other demographics. As the globe was becoming younger, we, as a society were becoming older. Yet, the concept of seniors in mainstream pageantry was, and in many ways still is, a novelty.
In 2015, with feet wet from the initial toe-dipping sponsorships, an opportunity presented itself to take the next step and sponsor a “new” senior brand. This was not merely a sponsorship request but would involve real effort beyond writing a check and possibly sitting in an audience. I soon learned pageants are hard work, especially senior pageants. They take energy, dedication, funding, promotion, but above all, patience, and time. Many aspects involving senior pageants are similar to the standard pageant format which is seen throughout the industry. Many more aspects are not. This is best typified in all the differences imaginable between a teen or twenty-something young woman at the beginning of her life competing and a seventy-something senior in the final third of her life competing. There is a half century more of experiences, frustrations, global conflicts, social unrest, children and grandchildren raising from which the younger pageant contestant is free of. Likewise, without age produced complications, the director of a younger oriented pageant is freer to create the production masterpiece the public has come to expect from the industry.
The question of leadership itself is an issue. This question is not one of a good-business-person versus a not-so-good-business-person. It is a simple question of age. Senior pageants are usually created and run by one or more seniors. There are issues of finances and health often not present or not as prevalent among younger pageant contestants and directors.
So, in 2015, I found myself, a truly non-pageant person and a senior, becoming the director and owner of a senior pageant—Ms. Senior USA, and its eventual sequel, Ms. Senior Universe. Thanks in part to the casino entertainment industry, I was perhaps better prepared than at first believed, but only just a bit. Three needs were immediately identified—brand recognition, financial sustainability, and generational survivability.
Brand recognition refers to the ability of the public to identify a specific brand by its attributes. It is considered successful when people can recognize a brand through visual or auditory cues such as logos, slogans, packaging, colors, or jingles rather than being explicitly exposed to a company’s name. Brand recognition creates a symbiotic relationship with the public that is critical to financial sustainability. Most senior pageants tend to isolate and hold themselves out of the mainstream—both mainstream society and mainstream pageantry. For our first brand, Ms. Senior USA, we formed a team who chose deliberately to be “out there,” as in very public, and to not be shy about claiming equal space with the younger crowd in a way which is non-threatening and gives the younger queens love, support, and the benefit of generations of experience. The first senior queens in this organization were brand representatives always looking for opportunities to wear the sash and crown, whether it was joining a crowd at the local airport to welcome home the veterans of an Honor Flight, volunteering to sing the National Anthem at an event, or cheering the Wounded Warriors at a senior softball game. Then and now, we look for opportunities to “show the banner.” Of the many memories of the not-so-distant early days, one memory which stands out involved a day when we loaded a van, attended 5 events in Las Vegas, the last one very formal at the Venetian Hotel, then drove to Los Angeles and changed clothes in a parking lot to attend Fashion Week.
The brand was formally introduced to the pageant world in December 2015. Our original, founding queen attended Miss Universe at Planet Hollywood. The younger queens gravitated around the senior “Mama Queen.” While walking through the casino to the news conference, the brand was presented with the photo opportunity of a lifetime. The photograph of the senior queen with Steve Harvey went viral. The public’s perception of senior pageants was no longer one of “I didn’t know,” or that it is just a novelty, to now becoming publicly accepted. This acceptance continues to be nurtured through participation in mainstream media, and especially in building a relationship with the industry publication and “Gold Standard,” Pageantry magazine. For a non-pageant person, having the friendship of CEO and Publisher Carl Dunn has been invaluable and the single most important factor of many to which this organization can point.
The brand, while recognizable, is much more than a mere symbol or just pre-calculated attributes. For the Senior Pageants Group and the Ms. Senior USA and Ms. Senior Universe Pageants, the most recognizable brand element is the senior women themselves—their history, their stories, their dreams. The Mission Statement honestly says it:
#EMBRACE, #ENCOURAGE, #EMPOWER
Our organization honors and celebrates the accomplishments of women over 60. We encourage women as they approach 60 to embrace who they are, encourage them to understand what they can still accomplish and what they have to offer the world. We are the women and daughters of the “The Greatest Generation.” As Senior Women, we have nurtured our families, our careers and our local communities while surviving personal tragedy, economic depressions, regional conflicts and world wars. We have been present while the nations of the world went to the unthinkable brink of Nuclear Holocaust. We are strong, savvy, goal-oriented, wise and aware. We display these characteristics in our everyday lives, as people, and as humanitarians who always seek to improve the lives of others. As an organization, we seek to further empower women of all ages, nations and cultures to strive for equality, to achieve their personal best, to make real and meaningful changes and to individually redefine what it means to be a Senior Woman and role model to the communities of women who will follow us.
Pageant directors, whatever their age, are judged more critically and indeed more harshly than any of the contestants seeking the crown they offer. For senior pageants, the goal is to receive the criticism and to take the differences caused by age to mold a pageant organization which fulfills the needs of the senior queens and provides a good experience for product sponsors. For example, over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic became the first truly global event since World War II ended 75 years ago, where multiple generations experienced the same history, albeit in ways processed by differing ages and memories. In too many instances, especially in the last year, seniors were marginalized. This ignored the fact seniors hold both the raw spending power and the wealth of society’s experience. Despite the age and nursing home debacle, the biggest difference seen throughout this last year is how the older individuals, the seniors, tended to band together, to use their collective experience, to rise above the fray and to help one another and their communities to move past a common enemy.
In 2020, with many organizations choosing to skip the year or go virtual, the Ms. Senior USA Pageant chose to brave the prevailing elements and set an example for responsible in-person participation within the confines of COVID mandated restrictions. In March 2020, with the United Nations closed for International Women’s Day, the Senior Pageants Group sought accreditation as an “NGO” (Non-Government Organization). Ms. Senior USA, Cheri Kidd, and Ms. Senior Poland Universe, Charlotte Ambrose were allowed to attend the session. Ms. Kidd became the only pageant queen of any age to be crowned on the floor of the General Assembly as a Senior Goodwill Ambassador. Following that event, as the State of Washington was closing events, more than a dozen senior queens appeared, and showed support for a pageant awards show. 91-year-old Grande Dame, Marilyn Kohler opened the show. Ms. Senior USA, Cheri Kidd was awarded “Best Titleist” among all ages and pageant systems present. Ms. Senior Cayman Islands Universe, Celina Dilbert was awarded “Best Talent.” 82-year-old Ms. Super Senior Universe, Sally Beth Vick received the “Legend Award.” Likewise, when Ms. Senior USA held its pageant in Las Vegas, and passed the crown to Philly Arnold from Texas, the hospitality industry marveled “several dozen seniors and much older women accomplished what billion-dollar corporations seemed unable to do.”
Being beautiful when young is a congruence of genetics, molded and coached to a perception of perfection. Being beautiful when old is a work of art—true beauty does not have an expiration date. As a woman ages and becomes a senior, she knows who she is. She becomes bolder, the “filters” become paper thin or non-existent. This is not the same as brash, speaking without thinking, or brave. Brave is jumping into the unknown, because often, the fear for the young and inexperienced is as unreal as the dangers. Bold is jumping, knowing full well what is there and the dangers in ways a younger woman cannot yet fathom, but still deciding to jump.
The senior understands aging is more a question of mind. While the body may change, the spirit stays young and devises ways to work around physical limitations. A senior woman can act as young as she feels without hesitation because she recognizes growing older itself is a goal denied to many. With that recognition of the truth of age comes sense of entitlement, and when nurtured, becomes the fulfillment of dreams.
A senior pageant incorporates many of the same formats as younger pageants, albeit with a wink towards the age factor. Rather than an “opening number,” there is a parade of state or national costumes. For the Super Seniors and Grand Dames, they have the added flexibility of choosing an historical period. In the first Ms. Senior Universe in Las Vegas, the costumes included an 1800s Mardi Gras ball gown, and the actual military uniform worn by a contestant during World War II.
The interview is important, as is poise in the gown presentation. The senior queen is likely to spend more time after the pageant in interviews or in some form of personal interaction. Ms. Senior USA is fortunate because social media has played a part since the inception of the organization. Contestants are viewed as interviewing for a position, no less than any workplace. Social media is reviewed as a reflection of character, as well as interaction with individuals outside of the pageantry realm. Senior queens have a fanbase every bit as devoted as the younger ladies, often more so. Because society across the globe has become so divisive, social media is important to send positive messaging.
As the rest of the world returns to a more “normal,” the use of online access, social media and virtual communications has proven to be an easier and less expensive format and, for some, is likely to stay. For the senior pageants such as Ms. Senior USA and Ms. Senior Universe, many of the innovations forced by COVID-19, such as group calls and virtual meetings, were already in use as tools to keep the senior queens informed and active. For the seniors, the personal interaction, however, can never really be replaced by a machine.
The Senior Pageants Group believes a talent element is essential to the process. Non-classical talents such as oratory and even a special balloon outreach program are as important as classical talents such as singing, playing music and dancing. The concept is to encourage the contestant to embrace and develop whatever talent/media they possess. All pageants have a final winner. For senior pageants, the key is to be able to work with each senior using a “Forever Queen” format which recognizes their needs and provides an outlet for continued activity and participation.
A pageant is still a business. Less than 35% of all American companies have a long-term plan or strategy for corporate survival. Before 2020, more than one-half of new, start-up companies did not see a fifth anniversary. Business failure rates have increased during the pandemic. A senior pageant to survive long-term, and to gain its own life beyond that of its founders, needs a Board (especially one exercising flexibility to changing situations), emergency funds through “key-man” insurance, and a relationship with a major media organization. After five years, and with COVID-19 raging across the planet, the Senior Pageants Group went from a concept to becoming the first and only senior pageant to sign a production contract with a major media outlet to produce for live network television.