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Fiction Teens & Young Adult Coming of Age

Seven bright vanity bulbs nearly blind me as I stare into the mirror, Mom beginning to unravel the big curlers from my bangs. My age group is up in fifteen minutes and no matter how many times I do this, my mind still slips into a different world as soon as the opening music for the toddler’s evening wear category plays. I can feel the wisps of hair fall just right across my forehead. Feeling even a single hair out of place is the biggest OCD tick my lifestyle has given me, because even before I can remember: I did pageants. I would honestly bet that my first steps were taken in a sparkly, cupcakey dress. My mother would prefer that my last steps be taken in a similar fashion. I mean, how else would anyone expect the one and only Pimmy Marten's daughter to go out, if not in sparkly stilettos?

From the early years I do remember, Mom started bleaching my hair when I was six. I was already a blonde, technically, but Mom's blonde was honey and mine was strawberry, and they needed to be the same if I was going to win nearly as many pageants as she did. My braces went on the moment they were able. Mom didn't want me wearing something called a flipper. She said I'd look like a horse on stage, between a flipper and my nose, and since I was too young for a nose job the only logical thing to do was get braces at nine. Mom didn't bully me though, she prepared me. That's what she always said, and honestly she didn't even prepare me enough. Those little girls were brutal.

They still are. The difference is, we aren't little girls anymore. We're seventeen. We're young women now, but if you ask any of our mothers we're still those naive and bright eyed six year olds spinning in a salon chair.

My mom was an absolute pageantry legend when she was younger. She wasn't raised on it like I was though, which is why I was. She didn't start until she was nine when she found out about the pageant world from some of the girls in her grade at school. She begged my Nana Jean to let her enter "just one", but after she won 'Little Miss Rocket-Pop' that July, it became very clear that she wouldn't really be stopping at one. She kept going, doing nearly thirty pageants a year and winning top prize at nearly every one. There was never a time in Pimmy Winslow's pageantry career that she did not place.

But, of course. Every great performer has to have an eventual downfall, which is why I say Pimmy Winslow never lost; Pimmy Marten did.

Once Mom turned eighteen, she pulled the classic move of taking off to New York and chasing after more in the modeling world, but she quickly recognized all the differences between herself as a pageant girl and all of the true models of the city. Even girls she passed on the street bore more of a resemblance to the type of women all the agents were scouting in New York. Due to this, it's safe to tell you that she didn't fall into the Vogue-esque career that she thought she would. Instead, she fell in love. Specifically, she fell in love with my father: Sean Marten. And while that part of her life was good, the city was simultaneously chewing her up and spitting her back out. She remembers being told verbatim at various casting calls that it meant absolutely nothing to be known in a town that nobody could even point out on a map. Holding titles in a small town in Louisiana wouldn't get her anywhere. Nobody really knew who she was, and the way things were going nobody ever would. That's when I think she changed.

When she met Dad she had still been the same southern pageant girl, wearing her big, blonde curls and gaudy rhinestone earrings. They got married almost instantly, before she'd even really given her dream gig a shot. Dad supported her in what she wanted, but it wasn't enough. The whole of her New York stay proved to have just been a chaotic whirlwind, and when she eventually left Dad and New York after four months and came back to Farmerville, she was just a hollow shell of that girl. She still had her southern accent, but she wasn't using it to say the same types of things anymore. The pageant world itself had of course left its mark, but New York had done something way beyond that. Before, she'd just been a girl excited to have found and experienced something that made her a part of something and gave her a name. She'd followed girls--her own competitors--into bathroom stalls on numerous occasions to console them after their mothers and coaches berated them behind the sparkly curtains. Now, she was the one who pointed out flaws. "It's better that I let you know than someone who doesn't care about you.", was her excuse for every insecurity she bestowed upon me in my more formative years.

Mom chose the pageant life for herself, but in my case I could have never avoided becoming Mom's carbon copy in the pageant world. She’d gotten back from New York and tried her hardest to make a seamless return to her pageantry roots, but she soon found out that she was pregnant with none other than myself. Of course, she didn’t know I was a girl, but of course she prayed that I would be. It wasn't out of the question to think that the second she got back the genetic testing results, she called her dress designer about newborn gowns and my fate was sealed. My opinion was never even desired in order for her to make the ruling decision that at six months old I'd be entering my very first regional pageant. It was in the City Center downtown, and you could probably predict that I won Tiny Miss Cherry Pit. Mom said that it was my big, blue eyes that helped me win, but everyone else said that it was her being Pimmy Marten that helped me win. Regardless of what my winning factor was, I did win, and just like with her own first win Mom was hooked on me having the glitz and glam she did for a short time. She just wanted to make sure mine started even earlier and lasted even longer.

It didn't take Mom long though, to realize that her pregnancy weight had melted off and she was once again the petite trophy winner she had always been. It also didn’t take her long to recognize that the opposite of what she’d been told in New York also applied. If she lived in the city, maybe it wouldn’t be significant for anyone in Farmerville to know her name; but we lived in Louisiana, not New York, and maybe having local celebrity status was all she really needed anyway. Just like how nobody knew her name in New York, nobody knew what had happened to her in New York either. Nobody knew she’d been shut down by company after company, but nobody had to. Everyone was awed to see their very own Pimmy resubmerge as a divorced mother to who they all considered a ‘breathtaking’ baby girl. Enter me: her little Madi-Jo Marten. Legally, I’m Madison Joelle, but I think we can all agree that Madi-Jo is a much cuter name for a toddler prancing across stage.

With Mom back in the scene and me starting out, mother-daughter pageants quickly became a no-brainer for us. Doing those is actually one of the big reasons why we started dyeing my hair in the first place. Mom and I needed to look identical if we wanted to win any Mommy & Me competitions, and for a while we did. Until, of course, we didn’t… and it became obvious to Mom and the judges that while I’d gotten her features, I was actually becoming strikingly resemblant to my Grandmother Lucia up in Tarrytown.

The problem was that Grandma Lucia was Dad’s mother, not Moms, which meant she wasn’t exactly the southern belle beauty standard. She was rougher around the edges, she was a New Yorker after all. She had darker hair and eyes, a broader nose than Mom’s, and smoked cigarettes. That's where the nose Mom grows less and less fond of by the day comes from, but I think it fits my face well. Even though I never had a relationship with that side of my family growing up, I couldn’t help but sense that my changing looks gave Mom a feeling she didn’t like. I’d only ever seen pictures of Grandma Lucia , so I didn’t understand what the threat to Mom was, but I quickly understood once I aged out of the Mommy & Me playing field. I started being entered into my own age category and Mom still competed where she could, but something had changed. I started winning solo and she started losing again. 

That’s when she started really digging in on me with the criticism. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was jealous. I do know better, though, because out of the fourteen boxes of tiaras and sashes we have up in the attic, Mom’s take up nine. I knew that because she always made sure to remind me how many more she won than me when I wasn’t in the mood to practice my routines. That’s when I started to learn that the thing about doing pageantry as the daughter of an esteemed pageant queen is the fact that the competition isn't really your competition. Your mother is. It’s so much worse that way because after a real pageant, you can go home and leave all of your competitors behind; when it’s your own mother you’re dealing with, there really is no leaving your competitor behind.

After Mom realized she really had reached the end of her career, pushing mine forward escalated on her list of priorities. I’d been in dance and acro since I was a toddler, but now I was being told I would be taking up gymnastics once a week as well. My grades and social life started to struggle for the first time in my life and I immediately nixed that development. I was going into middle school at that time and I knew I didn’t need to continue slipping. I think that made Mom jealous too; the fact that at eleven I could distinguish between what was actually good for me when she still wasn’t fully able at eighteen. 

“Madi-Jo.”, Mom’s voice wipes all the thoughts from behind my brow bone. I spin suddenly out of my thoughts and into cognizance. Deluded by the possibility that maybe she’ll undo every bad thought I just had about her essentially forcing this lifestyle upon me by what she’s prepping to say to me, I hum in response. My eyes are still closed from the combination of the blinding vanity lights and Mom’s eyeshadow application a few moments ago. I wonder every time I compete in a pageant what is going through her mind as she curls my bleached locks and watches me float across the stage. Is she proud of me? Does she actually regret the life she gave me as much as I often found myself wishing she would? The music fades in for my age group’s line-up and I instinctively suck in a tight breath, the rhinestones on my purple bodice pricking my suddenly goosebump ridden skin. I stand up from the makeup chair, readjusting my mermaid gown in a waddle-like walk, still waiting for Mom to finish her statement; and then she does. She purses her lips together and leans in close for a whisper. The local outlets would flash the sneakily taken photo of this moment on their pages, captioned with something about how the great Pimmy Marten gave her daughter her greatest advice before showtime. Nobody but me would know the truth of what she said, as always.

“Remember to suck in. Remember who you’re representing."

July 26, 2023 14:41

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5 comments

Adara Thomas
04:57 Feb 02, 2024

Really great read!

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Kelly Sibley
01:20 Aug 03, 2023

Oh goodness, it's so sad because it's based on reality. You held my attention all the way through, really well written.

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Ashlynn Altman
15:30 Aug 07, 2023

Thank you so much for taking the time to read. I really appreciate it

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Rabab Zaidi
03:48 Jul 31, 2023

Very well written !

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Ashlynn Altman
15:35 Jul 31, 2023

Thank you! I appreciate it ◡̈

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