The Atlantic City boardwalk is quiet in October. The sky is washed a sandy gray, and most of the carousels and bumper cars are locked up behind a large green fence. The beaches are deserted, save for the lone wanderer who craves privacy while speaking on her smartphone. Trump’s Taj Mahal, a once prominent hot spot on the oceanfront strip, now has white bars over the entrance doors, its many slot machines flashing for an audience of one — an on-duty security guard.
But in late October, if you were to wander into the Resorts Casino Hotel, walk past the blackjack tables and shops, and head up the escalator, you’d encounter a crowd of women gathered — all of a certain age, all decked out in sparkly gowns, heels, sashes and lots of makeup. Follow them down the corridor and you’d eventually reach a set of six or so mahogany doors leading inside the Superstar Theater. There, you’d find the 2016 National Ms. Senior America Pageant.
This year marks Ms. Senior America’s 36th year. Over the course of three days, 45 contestants between the ages of 60 and 90 gather from across the country to compete. They’ve each already won titles at the state and county levels. The show revolves around a three-part public competition: Evening gown presentations, talent performances and a special category called Philosophy of Life, where the contestants share a life “mantra,” are the main focus of the first two days. There’s also a formal interview, during which the women are sent into a hotel conference room to answer questions in private. The theater is filled with an audience of hundreds, mostly friends and family there to cheer the women on. But it’s the five distinguished judges — three men and two women — that this year’s contestants need to impress the most. They’re scoring the women on each category, narrowing the lineup down to 10 finalists, who compete again on the last day. Then, a winner is crowned. She’ll spend the next year visiting county fairs and other events nationwide.
DAY 1: SO MUCH GLITZ AND GLAMOUR
Around 1 p.m. on October 20, the curtains open to all 45 contestants, dressed in full evening attire. It’s complete eye candy — every color of the rainbow with more sparkles than a country sky at twilight. They’re swaying to the beat as Louis Parisi, a founding member of New Jersey’s Smooth Sailin’ Orchestra, croons an original song for the crowd. “They were wives, they were lovers, reading books to kids under the covers …” The women are dazzling — big hair and red lips — as they walk up to the microphone and introduce themselves, except for one senior in a stunning sequin dress who appears to have her eyes closed. She’s in a wheelchair, with her sash delicately placed over her chest. Louis moves closer and places his microphone near her mouth when it’s time for her introduction, as a hearty “Ms. Minnesota!” sounds through the speakers.
A few other gowns are also clear standouts. Ms. South Carolina, Pamela Cannon-Cook, wears a dress made almost entirely of peacock feathers, and Ms. Alabama, Elaine Willingham, a 62-year-old ballerina, has perfect posture as she walks in her black lace and velvet gown across the stage. Ms. Mississippi, Trina Schelton, is one of many in red, but crystal embroidery all along the bodice makes it stand out. You can’t help but smile watching each woman enjoy a solo moment in the spotlight before walking up to the microphone and presenting her Philosophy of Life.
“Rumor has it life is like a box of chocolates, you never know which one you’re gonna get! And I’m determined to try each and every one,” says Ms. Senior Alaska, Charlotte Werner Ambrose, who volunteers for veterans and at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.