A small-town pageant is like the first audition for adulthood. It's not your peers judging you — it's complete strangers.
At the Miss Shrimp Festival pageant in Fernandina Beach, Fla., the girls march onstage in brightly colored prom gowns. It's hard to tell them apart. It's a blur of big smiles, National Honor Society and so-and-so enjoys going to the beach. By the 10th contestant, people in the audience are turning to their neighbors and asking, "How many girls are in this thing?"
There are 27 girls in this pageant, but like everything else in high school, if you know their reputations, you know who to pay attention to. Even the contestants seem to agree on the two frontrunners.
"Emily Garvin. She is pretty much like the Pittsburgh Steelers of the pageant," says one contestant. "Like, you know she's going to do good."
"Sarah Parker," says another. "She has that thing, that one thing about her, when you walk into a room and she's just like, bam."
Emily and Sarah. Sarah and Emily. Sarah Parker, the other contestants tell me, is the most popular girl in school. This year she was homecoming queen. She displays the crown proudly on a bookshelf in her bedroom.
"This is my homecoming court crown," she says. "Won that, it's really cute. Yaaaay!"
Sarah's main competition, Emily Garvin, is the sophisticate. She spent her sophomore year abroad in Croatia, and she has a different type of award on display in her bedroom — ribbons from a French competition.
"I competed in a French play and I got an excellente," she says. "And a reading test — and I got a bon."
The pageant falls just weeks before the girls are set to graduate from high school, and it sort of feels like the ultimate showdown between Miss Popularity Sarah and Mademoiselle Excellente Emily.
Answering To The Judges
The first event is a one-on-one interview with the judges. Sarah, the homecoming queen, admits she's freaking out. Emily did the pageant last year, and says she's not nervous at all. Maybe she should be.
"Do you think Miley Cyrus is a good or bad influence on young girls, and why?" one judge asks Emily. She pauses as she answers.
"I... do not watch television, and the only magazine I read is Forbes Magazine, so I'm not as familiar with Miley Cyrus as I should be, apparently. Sorry," she laughs.
Her answers fail to impress Judge Jeff Bohn. "Emily was probably the biggest disappointment, once you started asking her questions and she started answering them," he says.
Sarah, on the other hand, does impress. One of her questions is, "If you could change anything that's going on in the country right now, what would you change?"
"Definitely energy crisis," Sarah answers. "I feel like everyone needs really to put their heads together, find some new ways to save the environment, you know, use less oil, like, less electricity, because I feel like a lot of the issues — not just nationally but in the world — are centered around energy."
Good enough for Bohn. "She, to me, is head and shoulders above most of 'em," he says.
Back on stage, the girls chat nervously as the judges tally up the scores. Finally, it's time for the winner to be announced.
"Our new Miss Shrimp Festival 2011 is..."
The girls whisper to themselves the names they expect to hear. Sarah, Emily. Emily, Sarah.
And a whole row of girls in brightly colored dresses turn to look at the skinny one dressed in black.
Impressing Someone You've Never Met
"I actually didn't know that they said my name, because I was calling out somebody else's that I thought was going to win," Kalynn says later. "They're like, 'You won!' And I'm, like, 'Oh my gosh!'"
Almost everyone was surprised that the crown didn't go to Emily or Sarah. Neither of them took first runner-up — or even second runner-up.
You could tell they were disappointed. Sarah left immediately after the pageant. She had to go to her job at the ice cream shop down the street.
Emily won Miss Congeniality, but she doesn't sound so congenial talking about Kalynn.
"She does not come off as a person who's got everything together, their life planned out — which is not the best thing when you are 17 and 18 years old," Emily says. "She's got a little quirkiness and a little bit of a juvenile side, and I think that she's got a lot of learning to do."
It's an odd thing to say, because there is not much that screams juvenile about Kalynn. She's taking college classes while in high school and seems really dedicated.
"I plan to triple up on sciences, double up on math and pursue a career in pharmaceuticals," she says.
And this is what makes a small-town beauty pageant so different than any other type of prize in high school. Unlike being named cheerleading captain or homecoming queen, the crown doesn't always go to the most popular. Up on stage, in front of the judges, Kalynn can be whoever she wants.
"It's easier to impress strangers, because they don't know anything about you beforehand," she says. "At high school, things are petty and you know, people say stuff about other people that aren't true, so it's easier to talk to somebody who's never met you before than it is to talk to somebody who may not have met you, but has, you know, heard of you."
Whatever people in Fernandina Beach, Fla., thought of Kalynn before, it doesn't matter now. She's Miss Shrimp Festival 2011.
Caitlin Kenney is a producer for Planet Money and was first runner-up in the 2001 Miss Killingly Brooklyn Springtime Festival pageant. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.