When I moved to Los Angeles, I knew one person - my roommate, Peggy. As she spent most of her time with her boyfriend, I was left to acclimate alone. One night, during a tearful phone conversation with a friend from home, I learned about the California Tip Toppers Club, the tall club of Los Angeles. Laugh, snicker and mock - go ahead. This group gave me life.
When I joined in 1995, I was shy, unsure and introverted. As I became more socially involved in the club, met people and made friends, the true me began to emerge. I felt comfortable and secure and confident which, up until I'd moved and joined the club, were foreign to me.
In the winter of 1996, I was approached by Debbie, the club's reigning Miss Tall Los Angeles. She was recruiting women to participate in the pageant. I didn't even bother to suppress my laugh. Seriously. I'd never seen a girl who looks like ME in ANY pageant. Ever! I relayed the story to Marie. As I laughed, she remained silent.
"What are you afraid of, Ris?"
"People. Humiliation. Swimsuits. Humiliation. And, embarrassment!"
"Think about it." Her parting words.
I did. I thought long and hard. I called Debbie every few days, peppering her with questions, demanding details, every single detail this pageant involved. When I was guaranteed there was no swimsuit involvement, I seriously considered. I had moved to LA with every intention of trying new things. I had allowed myself to be stiffled by Sean, allowed him to dictate my day, my feelings, everything. Time to think and do and feel for myself, damn it!
"OK, Debbie, I'll do it." Ai yi yi! WHAT am I doing?!
A woman was brought in to 'coach' us - Brandy. She helped us (there were to be only 3 contestants) with all the pageant stuff as she was a former judge and coach to the Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen franchises. I guess she knew WTH she was talking about. So, I practiced walking, practiced sitting, practiced my appropriate pageant answers, even practiced smiling! I thought of it like my debut - the new me.
The day of the pageant arrived ~ April 20, 1997. We had individual interviews with the judges. I'm much better at conversation, casual chats. These pre-set questions the judges were asking were truly absurd. But, I put on my pageant smile, recited the pageant answers and played along.
I wasn't really afraid of the interview part. It was the TALENT portion of the program that had me shaking. I had rehearsed only a handful of times with Peggy and twice with Brandy & the other two contestants. I didn't show Debbie or her pageant helpers my 'skit' but all were well aware of what I would be doing - a song in sign language. Debbie chastised me "How can we help you if we don't see what you're doing?" "It's sign language. Do you know sign language? Would you know if what I did was right or wrong?" That silenced her (though she would critique and chastise me regarding everything else I did). The song was 'Finally' by CeCe Peniston, an up-tempo, fun song. I had the crowd clapping along, my family was going crazy and the judges had huge smiles on their faces. It was a total rush!
When all was said and done, I had won. Shut up, I know! (to brazenly quote Micah) I was Miss Tall Los Angeles 1997.
It was the beginning of a year that would lift me up, crush me, show me who my true friends really were and lead me to discover a wonderful new person.