The Miss Hazardous Waste Beauty Pageant

by Gregory Burnham

She was immediately considered a very candid contestant.

"Out of N-Nicaragua -- no c-c-chemical warfare."

"Thank you, Miss A."

"Equal work -- equal p-p-p-p-pay."

In the talent competition, she played classical music on four electronic keyboards simultaneously, synchronized to a color movie filmed by her as she parachuted 10,000 feet into a semi-active volcano somewhere in the South Pacific. Her voice boomed through the sound system, "No more p-p-polychlorinated b-b-biphenols in school lights!" Miss A. lifted off the stage and swung out over the audience, playing Beethoven's ninth on a portable keyboard. "P-Pornography causes rape!"

The judges looked at one another. Had the pageant become a forum for feminist ideas?

As for valuable poise points, Miss A. set an all-time record--an all-time low. Her stuttering was simply unacceptable, even if the standards were stretched. All the contestants were embarrassed for her, but also intimidated. Miss A. spoke loudly and with authority and didn't seem to worry about her stuttering. She didn't care about her broken fingernails. She didn't care about her hair. There was that sway back and those bowed legs, those hands always gesturing, threatening. What about those words she used? 'Imperialistic,' 'gentrification,' 'autocracy.' You'd think someone would have told her about chewing gum. She looked like she belonged in a laundromat somewhere, watching the pageant on television. If the pageant were done over the radio, surely Miss A. would do much better.

Miss A. was accused of inciting some discomfort and confusion among the other contestants by releasing what was first reported to be a nanogram of radioactive plutonium in a cigarette case, though later it was said to be a number of menacing rodents--but that report was also proven incorrect; it was just one, half-tame gerbil nosing around beneath and between their long formal gowns. There was the usual hysterical screaming and jumping up and down. Miss A. denied complicity--pointing the finger at Miss Y., who pointed her finger at the sound technician, who pointed his finger at the coffee and donut boy, who was out doing his job.

None of the other girls could tolerate Miss A. and her left-wing, feminist ways: her burgundy beret, her political harangues, arm pit hair, her lack of facial make-up, the way she walked so effortlessly--not worrying about who was watching her buns shift back and forth. Throughout the pageant she mocked their preparations and rehearsals: imitating their movements, plucking at her eyebrows with needle-nosed pliers, padding her chest with balloons -- anything to get a rise. Who was she to point out flaws? She was an alternate herself -- lucky to be there. The other girls thought she probably bribed or killed the first place finisher from her state.

The television host said, "There's a real sense of camaraderie between you girls that has developed over the past few months. Will you keep in touch when it's over, Miss A.?"

"Don't b-b-be-believe that p-p-propaganda about chain letters and pyramids l-l-linking th-three generations of p-p-p-pa-pageant p-par-particip-p-pants. There are o-o-o-only a few of the other f-for-forty-nine I would e-even remotely c-c-con-consider calling up--in a-an emergency maybe--and th-then I wouldn't anyway b-b-because I c-c-can't stand them."

"Surely you jest, Miss A.. You've got quite a career in stand-up comedy ahead of you, I'm sure. On to the next question--what do you dream about, Miss A.?"

"Well...I-I-I'm in a dark alley b-b-being chased by a g-g-guy with a --"

"No, no--your hopes, Miss A. -- your aspirations."

"Ever since I was a l-l-little g-girl, I always wanted to be the ugliest p-p-p-p-pretty girl in America -- number fifty! That way I wouldn't have to walk d-d-down the runway with all the l-l-lights bl-bl-blazing on me and have to sit in a c-c-convertible and have to ride half n-naked through small t-t-towns, but I could s-still say I infiltrated the ranks of this p-p-p-p-p-petty, bourgeois c-c-contest --"

"My, Miss A. -- we've never heard anything like --"

"I'm not Miss T-t-tits and Ass."

"And now ladies and gentlemen, it's time for a commercial message from our sponsor."

"Why don't you ask me about p-plutonium s-s-seepage into ground water?"

We've all heard of Three Mile Island and what happened there--and what could have happened if not for the extensive safety measures. What we don't hear about are the dozens of nuclear power plants operating smoothly and efficiently, day and night, making it possible--for many of you--to watch this year's pageant in the comfort of your home. Nuclear power has its drawbacks--we're the first to admit that--but what energy source doesn't? It's all a matter of degree....

During the commercial break Miss A. and Miss K. were talking.

"There's more to life than protesting, Miss A. I used to be into that, too."

Miss A. slapped her across the face. "Put some color into your cheeks, b-b-b-babe!"

Miss A. was thereafter given the unofficial Pageant Silent Treatment (PST or, as it was popularly referred to--'pssst!'), last invoked in 1974. By then everybody knew that Miss A. planned on writing a pageant exposé for a national publication--probably a sleazy tabloid.

"That's why she's here!" yelled Miss F. one day during rehearsals.

"To spoil it for the rest of us!"

"Spying on us!"


In her exposé, Miss A. wanted to tell about how the other girls secretly envied one another's anatomy and sabotaged each other's efforts. There were hidden shoes, empty hair spray cans and torn clothing; shredded bra straps, broken twirling batons, and stuffed bedtime animals with their heads ripped off. She wanted to tell how they fretted over blemishes and flossed far into the night; how they liberated their arms from hair and understood the contours of their armpits; how they starved themselves and exercised their breasts; their diaries and dialogue lessons, their diet plans and dates. Miss A. wanted to reveal the sugar 'n spice story for what it really was: bile and back-stabbing. She wanted to find out what happened to the forty-nine losers before they got shuffled back in with the rest of the population.

During the swimsuit competition, Miss A. tripped and shuffled across the stage, allowing the suit to ride up the crack of her butt, which was considered taboo. At the far end of the runway--right to the judges' faces--she said, "You're all a-a-afraid to p-pick me the winner." She was proud of that fact that her elbows and knees were dry and scaly. Her high heels were too big and clumsy. Her breasts weren't big enough for prime time television. And the smile--where was it?--she looked so bored most of the time, angry and pent-up. How did she ever make it this far, anyway?

In district competition her Aunt was a judge. In regional competition she got lucky because the top five girls were charged with accepting endorsement money before the competition was over. In state competition she was not only more accommodating, but the first place finisher became ill, the second place finisher posed for some nudie photographs, finishers two, three, and four were in an automobile accident, finisher number five dropped out because her mother died, finisher six was pregnant. That's how she made it this far.

As it turned out, Miss A. came in forty-eighth. She was mildly disappointed, but happy for the nationwide exposure. She beat out Miss O., who stepped on the fringe of her gown coming down the stairs during the first segment of the program, and tripped headlong, chipping her front tooth and biting her tongue rather severely. And there was Miss T., who totally froze during the interview question, "What is it you like to do most of all, Miss T.?" and didn't say a word, though her lips were moving. She fainted into the arms of the T.V. host (who snuck a peck on her forehead as they dragged her offstage).

During the closing ceremony, all fifty contestants paraded across the stage in their formal gowns, to the rhythm of a popular show tune, with a stage background of large, life-size atomic models of hazardous wastes. The various electrons and protons and neutrons were bright reds and oranges and yellows; the connecting rods were silver and glittery. Miss A. started pushing and shoving the girls around her. There was a chain reaction. Entire rows of girls were bumping back and forth, knocking into each other.

At first, the audience confused the movements with some type of new showbiz production number--some kind of break-dancing, but then they realized the music was too slow. A number of the girls--mainly Miss L., Miss B., Miss R., and Miss Z. turned on Miss A. and started to push back and shove her around, finally getting a chance to release their frustrations. It wasn't long before a dozen more girls were pounding on Miss A. in a not so playful way.

The camera zoomed in for a final shot of the winner of the pageant, Miss W. -- Miss Hazardous Waste 1986 -- who flashed her teeth for the folks back home and threw red roses into the wild crowd.

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