NEW YORK – She has style. She has grace. She has ... grandkids.
Defying stereotypes of grandmas in cardigan sweaters, senior women across the country are taking center stage at beauty pageants. And despite their golden age, these ladies are showing the world they can shimmy, sashay and shine as well as any 22-year-old Miss America contestant.
“We work just as hard as the younger women learning our dances and we enjoy it just as much,” said Tamara Swihart, who refused to give her age, but was crowned 1995’s Ms. Michigan Senior Citizen -- a pageant where the contestants' average age is 65.
This year, Swihart, who plans to compete in the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant of America for the sixth time in November, has decided to forgo her "Lord of the Dance" clogging routine for a kitschier talent.
“I’m impersonating Betty Boop (search)," she said. "I sing and dance and look like her when I get the costume on.”
Pageants like Ms. Senior Sweetheart and Ms. Senior America have found a huge following of silver-haired beauties who, once bitten by the pageant bug, can’t get enough of strutting their stuff.
"We’re in 31 states. We are very strong on the East Coast and West Coast," said Sharon Emmons, executive director of Ms. Senior America. "California has four preliminary pageants in different parts of the state because the population is so large."
Ms. Senior America has state preliminaries at which contestants compete in the categories of evening gown, talent and philosophy of life. The lucky lady who walks away with her state’s crown then goes to the nationals where she competes in the same categories and performs in a production number with her fellow queens.
What began in 1972 as way to showcase the vibrancy of older women has turned into a phenomenon that requires 27 directors and motivates the elderly to push the envelope on the standards of beauty and talent.
“We’ve had a roller skater in the past. I hear she brought down the house," said Emmons. "Also, we’ve had two queens from the Virgin Islands do stilt dancing like 8-feet off the ground."
But not everyone is convinced that what glitters is gold in the world of senior pageantry.
“It’s sad in a way in terms of the exploitation,” said New York-based sociologist Dr. Sally Ridgeway, who feels that sporting a Dolly Parton-sized wig while twirling a baton in a sequined cat suit leaves a good-intentioned woman open for mockery.
“It’s kind of a ridiculing of women,” said Ridgeway. “These are women who absorb standards of beauty and keep trying to push themselves out there.”
Still, those behind the pageants insist their objective is to celebrate older Americans.
“These are real people doing what’s in their hearts. It's something their children and grandchildren go to,” said Len Kaplan, founder of Ms. Senior Sweetheart, which for the past nine years has afforded women 59 and older the chance to show what they are made of.
And Kaplan said the event is just like a pageant with young women.
“There is going to be a patriotic routine, a 50’s routine with poodle skirts (search), interviews, gown presentations and talents of all types," he said of this year's show. "It’s done exactly like Miss America in the sense it’s not just for beauty."
And like winning the Miss America pageant, being crowned queen in one of these competitions can be a career booster.
“Last year’s winner used her $1,000 prize money to take a cruise (search), and while aboard the ship she sang a song with the band and they wound up asking her to come back and work for them as a singer,” said Kaplan. “You just don’t put anybody on a cruise ship that doesn’t sound good. I mean she is 77, but a young 77.”
But aside from the crowns, flowers and the chance to be written up in the local newspaper, these pageants offer fun and friendship, according to contestants.
“It’s like a bunch of old ladies going to camp, that’s how much fun we have,” said Swihart.
And despite what critics say, most contestants find the experience empowering.
“They are great morale boosters. The women have become like family,” said Pat Kriegel, 75, of Littleton, Colo., a former teen model who was deemed “Most Photogenic” at the Ms. Michigan Senior pageant several years ago.
But just because the women socialize and help one another apply false eyelashes doesn’t mean the competition isn’t fierce.
When asked what keeps her going back every year Swihart kept her answer to the point: “I want that crown.”