- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

TUCSON, Ariz. — They gulp chardonnay, eat cheeseburgers and fries, and stay up past 10 p.m. Sometimes they play dress up, and have pajama parties with champagne and strawberries.

This is not your ordinary beauty pageant. The title of Mrs. America will go to one lucky housewife here tonight, and stick-thin, cello-playing, Vaseline-lipped, breast-taped babes need not apply.

“We’re all adults,” Brenda Cullen — Mrs. District of Columbia and the mother of six — said over lunch. The 38-year-old petite blonde, who works as a personal trainer and is married to an internist/pediatrician in Washington, added, “You don’t need a talent. Which is a good thing. I would have to be doing a liturgical dance.”

The Mrs. America Organization is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The show started in Las Vegas, and according to David Marmel, president of Mrs. America Inc., “It began because no one allowed married women” to compete in other beauty contests. “I saw that there were beautiful married women so I created it.”

Not to be confused with the prizes on Miss America, Mrs. America wins a Hyundai car, some jewelry, a diamond watch and a shearling coat. The show will be televised Sept. 23 on WE, the Women’s Entertainment cable network. There are 51 contestants, aged 23 to 44, and most have children.

There are no rules, except show up on time and wear your state banner in public. Their husbands can be spotted in baseball caps wandering the carpeted halls of the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, drinks in hand. Parents have shown up, in casual polyester, carrying takeout to their rooms past the giant cactus.

“It’s not about beauty,” Mr. Marmel said. “Their talent is juggling babies, home and careers all at once.”

Down the hall, Mrs. Nebraska is chasing her naked toddler, who just removed his diaper.

“It’s been pretty surreal,” said 31-year-old Erica Kirwan, Mrs. Virginia. “We did a scavenger hunt, and it was funny. My roommate took a shot of tequila, jumped in the pool and jumped back out.”

Professional pageantgoers rub elbows with newbies here.

“Some of these women have done this before. I’m an amateur,” said Patty Markos, a stunning 33-year-old hairdresser from Silver Spring. She said she entered the Mrs. Maryland pageant as a result of an early midlife crisis.

“I had never heard of ‘Mrs. [pageants]’ before. It was too funny to me,” said the mother of a 6-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl. “We do costumes [at Mrs. America], and I was in the top ten, which I didn’t expect.”

Her costume is titled “The Dawn’s Early Light,” for which the tall and willowy woman has a billowy floor-length battery-operated light-up skirt to represent bombs bursting in air.

“I’m so worried the batteries will die before the final show. You squeeze them to light up,” she said.

The women say they have totally bonded, with Mrs. Congeniality (Mrs. Nevada) reportedly spending her time complimenting the other women on their hair.

“There’s none of that cattiness you find with younger, insecure women. We have other things to go home for. It’s not like this is it for us,” Mrs. Markos said. And yes, she says, the women have been enjoying the buffets. “I’ve been pigging out.”

Mrs. Kirwan said she works out, but is not a fanatic.

“By the time you’re a little bit older, you’re not going to starve yourself,” said Mrs. Kirwan, a Capitol One employee from Richmond, adding that “there are lot of accomplished, articulate women here.”

On Tuesday, the reigning Mrs. World arrived. She is Sofya Arzhakovskaya, a 19-year-old brunette from Moscow who will appear on the show. The statuesque former ballerina is married to Russian businessman Sergei Veremeenko. The women love her. Indeed, there’s not a tinge of envy.

“I think by the time you’re married and parenting children, you know exactly who you are,” Mrs. Kirwan said. “Your life isn’t going to fall apart if you don’t win Mrs. America.”

As far as talent, she mused, “By the time you’re married and have children, that’s your talent.”

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