At Oakton High School, seniors ruled the stage on Saturday.
No, it wasn't the school’s 2006 graduation — Oakton was the site of this year’s Ms. Virginia Senior America Pageant. Throughout the afternoon, sequined women, all over the age of 60, danced, sang and imparted wisdom until a winner emerged to move on to the national competition in Las Vegas in the fall. A panel of 10 judges ranked the eight contestants in the categories of Interview, Evening Gown, Inner Beauty (as evidenced by contestants’ stated philosophy of life) and Talent.
The reader who has never heard of such a thing is not alone. As a nonprofit organization with no advertising budget and notably lacking in scandal and notoriety, the Ms. Senior America Pageant is not well known, quipped Helen Halpin McCarney, the reigning Ms. Senior America. However, she assured, “I reject the idea of becoming a serial killer to get publicity for the pageant.”
She and other speakers emphasized that staff and, especially, winners are touring the country, speaking and volunteering at nursing homes and other senior-oriented establishments to draw attention to the organization.
Among the contestants at this year’s Virginia pageant were Edna Knicely, 75, of Vienna, and Bichthu Nguygen, 68, of Fairfax.
Competitors’ first real chance to interact with the audience was when each stated her personal philosophy. Knicely, who remarried last summer after 24 active years in Parents Without Partners, where she filled several positions including president, and who volunteers at the Kennedy Center, told the audience, “It’s a good thing we don’t know what God has planned for us because we would just try to change it.” She also added, “Life should be like a one-liner — good to the last word.”
Nguygen, who graduated from law school in Saigon, has worked for the Corcoran in D.C. and became a certified senior accountant in 1995, compared life to roses, the thorns of which should be discarded and the buds cherished. The flowers in her life, she said, are love of God, family and friends, and living in the world’s greatest country.
Other words of wisdom included: “Love many, trust few. Always paddle your own canoe,” which Gladys Bowles of Richmond credited to her mother, and “Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional,” from Betty Mann, also of Richmond.
Most talent demonstrations consisted of song. Nguygen sang “Any Dream Will Do” to bare piano accompaniment and with no fear of the high notes.
Knicely, however, took the stage in a top hat, a white coat and vest and a black skirt and tights and twirled a cane while she did a soft-shoe to a wordless recording of “Doin’ What Comes Naturally.”
Perhaps the most novel talent display was a rendition of “Jamaica, Farewell” played on the steel drum by Delicia Porter-Ali of Chesapeake.
Gayle Rogers, 64, of Woodbridge, ended up winning the talent category for her dance to “Whatever Lola Wants,” in which she used a long feather boa and a short, black dress to her advantage, strutting and shaking a figure that would make many a younger woman envious.
In the end, it was Nancy Lee Martin, 64, of Mechanicsville, who got the coveted tiara and the trip to Las Vegas, as well as the year’s community service award. Knicely took Best Interview, and Nguygen, who arrived in a fashionable, lightweight beige gown, won in the Evening Gown category. Knicely also was named for selling the most advertisements in the program book.
“What really sticks out in my mind about Edna, besides her interview, her smile, her kindness and warmth, was that great soft-shoe she did,” said Linda Dienno, one of the judges. “In her interview, she was warm and witty and funny,” Dienno said, adding that Knicely had remained active in spite of her single status and had “helped a lot of people over the years.”
“She seemed to be very relaxed, very confident and very pointed in her answers,” said Ben Garrett, another judge.
“I left ‘em laughing,” said Knicely, who was Edna Skiados until she remarried last August. She competed in the pageant three years running in the late ’90s and told the pageant’s state director, Pinky O’Neil, she would give it another go when she turned 75, “so she wouldn’t bug me,” she said. Although it may not have netted her a tiara, her previous participation landed Knicely a few modeling jobs, most recently in a group picture for Social Security Plan D.
This was Nguygen’s first year competing. “Last year I went to see the pageant,” she said. “So I said, ‘Oh, it’s fun, so I’m going to do it next year.’” It still took some convincing from her daughter, who once was in a Miss Teen Virginia pageant, to get her to follow through, she said. It was also her daughter who helped her pick out her winning evening gown.
Dienno emphasized that judges rated how the contestant “made the gown,” rather than vice-versa. “The way she carried herself was very well put-together and elegant,” she said of Nguygen. “For celebrating the ‘age of elegance,’ that seemed very appropriate.”
“We’re in a culture that worships youth, so the younger Miss America is very popular, but this is just as newsworthy,” said Jim Seeley, who was on hand for the event. Seeley hosts the television show “Forever Young,” which broadcasts from Merrifield. He cited the rich life experience, talent and volunteer efforts of the contestants as evidence of their continuing importance and value to society. “It’s wonderful to have this, so everyone can be inspired by their example,” he said.
Knicely, too, noted that the pageant demonstrated that at least some seniors “aren’t sitting in a rocking chair or sitting around baking cookies.”