Ms. Hysterical Contest – 1975

Les Nickelettes at the Mabuhay Gardens 1975

In the 1950s and 1960s the annual Miss America Pageant was huge. Young girls all over America tuned in to see who would become the fairest of them all. We were told this was the highest achievement any woman could hope for, the ultimate honor; to be declared the prettiest, the most talented, the sexiest woman in a swimsuit in all of America. I tuned in every year to raptly listen to Bert Parks sing; 

            There she is, Miss America

            There she is, your ideal

And I dreamed that someday I could be up on that stage being crowned the most beautiful woman in America. “An American fairytale came true,” crowed Bert

The second-wave feminists of the late ‘60s blew the whistle on this deceptive dream and called it out as sexist and racist. In 1969, outside the pageant venue in Atlantic City, women libbers protested by throwing false eyelashes, bras, girdles, and curlers into a trashcan. They wanted to set it on fire but the police said they didn’t have a permit. Still, the myth persisted that these wild women burned their bras in protest. The establishment was aghast. How could these women criticize something as American as apple pie? This was the spark for my feminist awakening. 

And it provided a rich parody for Les Nickelettes. In our debut at the Mabuhay Gardens in 1975 we introduced “The Semi-Annual, Bi-Weekly Ms. Hysterical Contest”.

Our version features host Bert Farts introducing the Ms. Hysterical contestants: Ms. Stake, Ms. Conception, Ms. Information, Ms. Behave, Ms. Begotten, Ms. Understood, and the outgoing Ms. Hysterical— Ms. Laid. I played Ms. Stake and performed a talent culled from a cartoon of Jules Feiffer: Dance to Spring.

Bert Farts (one of our troupe in male drag) presides over the talent portion of the contest. “Ms. Stake’s talent is interpretive dance,” announces Bert to the audience.

“My Dance to Life is a poetic interpretation of life itself, Bert,” says Ms. Stake breathlessly as she launches into her piece:   

Life is a never-ending stream of consciousness. 

            …Up the mountains, down the valleys, up the mountains, 

down the valleys, up the mountains, down the valleys, 

until finally, ta da . . . death!” 

She ends by falling dramatically prone and lifeless on the stage floor.

“Very poignant, Ms. Stake,” remarks Bert. “Next, is Ms. Conception, who will sing a song.”

“Thank you, Bert,” says Ms. Conception. “My song is called ‘The Birth Control Blues’”

I tried the pill they said it was the way, 

Take a pill at breakfast and you can screw all day

But the pill made me fat, and gave me blood clots, too

So I got me a diaphragm, guess that’s the safest thing yet

But oh, it’s slimy, and easy to forget

‘Cuz when I see you, honey, you know I sure get wet

“Very slick, Ms. Conception,” comments Bert. “Next up, is Ms. Behave from No No Nevada.” 

Ms. Behave plasters a smile on her face as she sings (to the tune of “Has Anybody Seen my Gal?):

I’m 5’ 2”

Eyes of brown

Horniest woman there is around

Does anybody need Ms. Behave? 

Could she blow?  Could she suck?  

Could she, could she, could she fuck? 

The music speeds up and Ms. Behave grabs a jumping rope and sticks a kazoo in her mouth and proceeds to jump rope while simultaneously playing the kazoo.

“Multi-talented to say the least,” observes Bert. “Now we have Ms. Understood who is proud to have no ambition.”

“This is dedicated to Ritchie Valens,” Ms. Understood tells the audience. “Too fast to live and too young to die!” (To the tune of “Java Jive”):

Give me cocaine and give me speed 

And give me lots of that old evil weed

Uppers and downers they give me a thrill

 Pop a, pop a, pop a, pop a pill.   

“Very interesting Miss Understood,” says Bert. “Maybe we can meet in the alley behind the theater after the show? Now, let’s welcome Miss Information from Washington, D.C. Exactly what do you do?”

“I’m reluctant to scatter dirt after it’s all been neatly swept under the rug but I just had to leak those damning documents. I wrote this little song after Watergate. (To the tune of the Rolling Stones “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)”:

If I should dig down deep in my file

Spill it all over the stage

Would it satisfy you, would it slide on by you

Would you think the girl’s insane, she’s insane 

I know it’s only espionage but I like it. 

I know it’s only sabotage but I like it, like it, yes I do …

“Sounds like a CIA plot, Ms. Information,” comments Bert.

“Thank you, Bert. And, by the way, I read your file, and I will not reveal that nasty incident in Morocco in 1955.”

“Okay, Miss know-it-all.” Bert says dismissively. “Get out of here!” 

“And Finally, we have Ms. Begotten, as the wrangler cowgirl Farfa Knout: “This contest is fixed, it’s rigged,” puffs Ms. Begotten. “And I have as much chance of winning as a fart does in a windstorm in hell. Anyway, here is my song”:  

I’m an old cow turd from a grand old turd

And I don’t give a damn 

If I smell like spam

Bert puts his arm around Ms. Begotten. “Shit fire, you’re a real down home gal, Farfa.”   “Now let’s bring out the reigning Ms. Hysterical, Ms. Laid, who will relinquish her crown tonight.”

“Don’t count on it, Bert,” replies Ms. Laid.

“Tell the audience” continues Bert, “How does it feels to be the most glamorous girl in America.”

“My greatest thrill was servicing America’s military men,” answers Ms. Laid as she launches into her song (tune of “Man o’ War”): 

When he advances, can’t keep him back

So systematic is his attack

All my resistance bound to crack. . .

His bayonet makes me cry for aid

Oh, how he handles his hand grenade

He’s my man ‘o war 

“You’re the real deal, Ms. Laid!” says Bert. “Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the musical chair competition to choose the new Ms. Hysterical.”

            We never plan in advance who will win, so the game is for real. The contestants push, shove, elbow each other in the face, pull chairs out from one another, and any other trick that will win them the coveted seat in the last chair. After the winner is announced Ms. Laid refuses to relinquish the crown, and runs offstage with Bert hot on her heels, “Give me that crown, you bitch!” 

The left-behind contestants decide to reject the contest. When a battered Bert returns with the crown no one wants it. “But every girl in America wants to be Ms. Hysterical,” says a shaken Bert.

“No they don’t!” yell the contestants. Bert withers, then suddenly, straightens, and strips off his suit to reveal a silver lame swimsuit underneath, and shoves the crown on his head.

Les Nickelettes made fun of this “beauty meat market” in 1975, but none of us foresaw the dwindling influence and dramatic shifts that would occur within the pageant in the years and decades to come.  

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