Backstage, “queens” representing their heritage waited in office chairs in flashy dresses of sequins, capes, tulle and glitter. The gown portion of the Ms. Senior Universe was about to start, and one could hear founder Kathleen Ray on the microphone emphasizing that the judges will critique not the dress, but the woman in the dress, her poise and confidence, and how she owns the stage.
Many of the women, who are split in competition between Ms. Senior Universe for ages 50 to 59 and Ms. Super Senior Universe for ages 75 and up, have earned that confidence with their age. They’re cancer survivors, single moms, business owners.
“We’re still powerful, beautiful women who can make a difference,” said Shelly Gish, the Miss Senior Canada for the event and who was crowned Miss Senior Utah in June.
Contestants for the Miss Universe Senior Pageant are required to have won a national or regional title. For Miss Universe, contestants pick a country of their heritage. Pageant officials receive permission from the country’s consulate or embassy.
Contestants compete in a talent portion and a gown portion, and get an opportunity to speak about their life philosophy. Officials organize the pageant into a weeklong event of social activities so the experience is less about competing and more about celebrating.
On Saturday afternoon Ms. Native America Sherry Strother covered her face as Kat Ray announced her as Ms. Senior Universe. Ms. Super Senior Sally Beth Vick hugged her competitor Ms. Super Senior USA Nancy Long as she won the title of Ms. Super Senior Universe. Whitney Houston’s version of “I’m Every Woman” blasted across the stage as women embraced and posed for photos.
The senior pageant world is small, for now, and women who were already friends expected they would see one another again soon.
“I love every minute of it,” said Ms. Super Senior France Nancy Berhorst, 78. “I hope to continue doing it for the rest of my life.”
Gish’s daughter, Echo Neilson, said the show was an opportunity for women to show their granddaughters or daughters that age can’t take away from lifetimes of experience.
“I love watching her do something for herself that she loves, and to see her empowered,” she said of her mother.