By Joy Bergmann
The story of one weekend, 16 groveling photographers, 17 would-be catwalkers, 25 aspiring singers, and a guy named Rocky.
"It's like cocaine," says Rocky Esposito, explaining the addictive effect his cable-access program, Models on Parade, has on its participants. "Once they get on TV and people recognize them from the show, they want more of it."
Models on Parade, a product of Esposito's Glamore Productions, airs Wednesday nights at ten on Channel 19. The format varies. Sometimes it's a beauty pageant or a cheesecake photo shoot. Other times it's a karaoke talent showcase or a rump-shaking dance party. "The show is really about fun," says Rocky, a 53-year-old continuing-education instructor in real estate and insurance. "We're not trying to prove any points or trying to make other people happy or unhappy. Fun--that's it."
Meredith Wheeler is busy preparing for the June 26 and 27 taping, which will yield up to 15 hour-long episodes. "It's a triple-crown event," she says.
In November, Meredith beat out ten competitors to become Miss Glamore Girl USA 1998. She says her "Statement From the Heart" about domestic violence pushed her over the top. This weekend she'll compete against winners from other Glamore pageants for the title of Glamore Girl International Queen of Queens 1999. Her 16-year-old half sister, Adriana Maria Browder, will be competing for Glamore Girl Queen Midwest, a contest for first-timers. And runners-up from previous Glamore events will vie for Glamore Girl Queen of Finalists.
Meredith is readying nine complete outfits, so she can be sure she won't replicate another contestant's ensemble. She's also hired a private makeup artist for $125. "I spent a lot of money," she admits, explaining that her competition will be formidable. "They're good. They wouldn't be queens if they weren't. I want to be prepared no matter what.
"I really want to win. I mean, I'm looking forward to hanging out with all the girls and everything, but I really want to win."
Nail City occupies a scruffy storefront on 95th Street, sandwiched between a gyros joint and an outpatient clinic. Chemical fumes fill the air. The Vietnamese staff wear white lab coats and surgical masks.
Meredith strides in on Friday night wearing no makeup. A simple tank top reveals the rose tattoo on her right shoulder and a silver belly-button ring. Denim shorts show off her slender legs and secure a purple beeper. She's miffed her cell phone is out of service and no one has paged her this evening. She sits for a full set of acrylic nails with a French manicure. "It won't clash with any of my outfits," she explains.
The manicurist grinds Meredith's stubby nails down with a whirring tool, spewing dust. She consults with Meredith as best her English allows.
"Long, short, or medium?"
"Round or square?"
"Soft or hard?"
Meredith nods and pays in cash. Synthetic nails are swiftly pressed upon her fingers.
A graduate of Northeastern Illinois University, Meredith works at the Museum of Science and Industry, guiding visitors through its captured German submarine, Pioneer Zephyr train, and mock coal mine. She laughs at the job's lack of glamour. "Oh, I look so attractive in my helmet and tool belt. I tell people, don't come see me today. I'm in the coal mine."
At 21, Meredith is a divorcee. She married at 19, but says her husband quickly turned tyrannical. She left him shortly after their first anniversary. He didn't like her modeling. "He wanted me to stop doing it," she says. "He was insecure. He loved it when guys stared at me on the street, 'cause it's all about him too. But when I'm on that stage, it's all about me." In June 1998 Meredith went back to finish college. She says she'll be attending the University of Chicago law school this fall. "It's not that I'm necessarily that smart. I just apply myself."
Meredith holds still as the manicurist grinds. "Sometimes they nick you and you start bleeding." The technician finishes with a coat of adhesive. Meredith has to wash immediately in a nearby sink. "It burns like hell," she says, "but that's the price for vanity."
Meredith climbs into the 1998 Prism she shares with her mother and heads over to Riverside to pick up Adriana for the weekend. The girls have the same African-American father, but Meredith's mother is Puerto Rican, Adriana's is Mexican. While growing up in Beverly, Meredith says, "People were always asking, 'What are you?'" Kids who saw her as black taunted her at her predominantly white elementary school; at diverse Morgan Park High, she wasn't black enough for some. She says she never felt accepted until college.
She doesn't see a contradiction between her modeling ambitions and her plan to become a lawyer. "I always wanted to model professionally," she says. "That's been one of my wants since day one." As a child, she plundered her mother's closets and makeup. When she was 15, she enrolled in the John Robert Powers Modeling School, graduating with the title of Miss Creativity. She was plucked from 500 prospects to participate in a high-profile showcase in New York. "It was huge for me."
She's optimistic about her prospects. "Things are starting to go well--I would love for them to take off." So far she's been in a few magazines and in an Internet swimwear catalog called Body Body. Zipping from expressway to city streets, she smiles. "I love these pageants. I really do. The first time I didn't win, I didn't place. I came back because it was fun."
Adriana peeks from behind the front door of her apartment, excited and nervous about her first pageant. She leads us into the pink bedroom she shares with her younger sister. Showing off a new teddy bear, she squeezes the stuffed animal's paw. "I love you," it squeals. "I love you."
She goes to the closet and collects her outfits. Holding up a furry red tank top, she says, "This fits really tight."
Meredith nods. "Good. That's what they want. It's flirty."
"I have my prom dress for evening wear. It looks like that girl in Titanic, you know? And when I walk in it, it flows out."
Meredith smiles. "You could be a finalist in that."
Adriana shrugs, still uncertain of her choices. "I'm all covered," she sighs, pointing to her tiny T-shirt and capri pants. "I don't have anything hoochified."
A slender girl with thick curly hair and a gold pendant of the Virgin of Guadalupe around her neck, Adriana pulls us into her mother's bedroom to see a giant unframed photograph wrapped in plastic: a portrait from her quincinera cotillion in Mexico. Meredith lifts a smaller framed photograph of Adriana surrounded by a dozen teenage guys from the same event. "Oh, Nana," she says, "you look so beautiful. No other girls but you!" Adriana looks wistful. "I was the center of attention."
Adriana grabs her bags and moans that her fingertips have hurt since she pulled off her acrylic nails after prom night. Meredith tries not to be judgmental, but nudges her sister to get a new set before the pageant. Adriana says she can't. "I got $10 to my name."
As we drive to Meredith's Logan Square apartment, Adriana flips through the test photos Rocky took of her several weeks ago. Meredith compliments her on the positive feedback she's heard from Rocky. "As long as he said I looked good," Adriana says, staring out the window. Adriana's upset that she might not have a cheering section in the audience. "No one is going. No one cares. That's why my self-esteem is so low." Meredith promises that her fans will be cheering loud enough for the both of them.
Adriana's also worried about making her ticket and ad quotas. In addition to paying an entrance fee of $35, Glamore contestants are supposed to sell show tickets for $25 apiece, playbill advertisements at $95 a page, and well-wisher ads. "A well-wisher pays $10 to have their name mentioned on the show," Meredith explains, "like, 'Aunt Sally wishes Meredith well in her modeling career.' A business well-wisher can get mentioned for $35."
Ricky Martin comes on the radio, and the girls gyrate, laughing and singing. Meredith confides she would leave her current boyfriend, Angel, for Ricky. Adriana hints she'd gladly take over, clearly smitten with her sister's beau. They reminisce about last weekend's Puerto Rican Festival, which they spent rollicking in Angel's hydraulically enhanced car.
"That was an awesome day," Meredith exclaims. "We had so much fun! Dancing..."
"Oh, this one woman," Adriana interrupts, "Jesus, she was so used and abused..."
"She was so dirty, this woman."
"She had on floppy shorts and floppy shirt."
"She was overweight--cellulite infested."
"Her hair was nappy, her face was cracked."
"She was dancing in the streets."
"All the guys were cheering at her, beeping the horn. Everybody was laughing."
"She was an old lady," Meredith says. "When I say old, she looked like she might have been..."
"She looked young," Adriana counters.
"Nah. She looked like she might have been 30 or something."
"Oh, yeah," Meredith confirms. "This was an older lady."
"She was so horrible," Adriana says, "something you'd see on COPS."
"Too Hot for TV."
Saturday morning at 7:30 finds Desi's Full Service Salon bustling. Women arrive in shower caps seeking metamorphoses. Meredith and Adriana are a bit droopy, having gone to bed at 1:30 after a pillow fight incited by Angel.
Stylist Tammia, looking smart in a tight cream pantsuit and animal-print mules, washes Meredith's hair. Meredith bemoans having put in a copper tint too far in advance of the pageant. "I got roots. And it's making me shed so much!" She scowls as Tammia works a comb through the tangles. Meredith opens her wallet, counting the cash folded behind a picture of her father. She needs $35 for hair straightening and $5 for eyebrow arching.
Meredith chuckles as she explains how she met Angel seven months ago on a dating chat line. They talked on the phone for a month before meeting. She was apprehensive following her divorce. "But Angel didn't really try to push me."
The courtship hasn't been uneventful. In February, Angel told her he has three children and is currently married to a woman he's been with for ten years. "I don't like to hear about it," says Meredith. Lately he's been making excuses for not divorcing his wife. "I told him as time goes on, you know, I'm not sticking around, 'cause it's not fair to me." But she does love him. The sisters frequently refer to Angel as a "great guy."
Meredith hopes most of her fans will show up for the weekend's festivities. "I know my modeling manager, Mike Hernandez, will be there." She met him at a prior pageant, when he gave her his business card. "He's been working with me on my modeling and my singing," Meredith says, "putting my portfolio out there for people to see me, getting my face out there." She also found a personal photographer at a Glamore event. "This pageant has opened a lot of doors for me," she says. People have recognized her from cable appearances; one couple asked for her autograph in front of Excalibur. "I got all bougie over that," she says, "you know, a little snotty."
Meredith emerges from the dryer at 9:15, ready for smoothing. Tammia works with a blow-dryer and stiff brush, forming a sporty bob with help from Conditioning Oil of Extasi. To set the do, she heats iron combs in an oven and then pulls them through Meredith's hair. Steam rises from her head. She grimaces. "I can't begin to describe how hot it is." The combs are pulled gently along the strands, creating a fine crowning glory. Tammia sings along to the stereo, "Been hurt before...this feeling's guaranteed."
"Oh yeah," Meredith chimes in.
Adriana will wear her hair curly, but she would have preferred to have it straightened. "It takes two people forever to do it," she says. Meredith tells her other girls have an even tougher time. One contestant she knows employs her mother, aunt, and grandmother to the task. "Her hair's worse than yours."
Tammia rubs pomade over Meredith's scalp for a finishing glaze. Meredith grins at the results. Another client concurs. "Ooh, Tammia went to work!"
N'Keisha arrives with a straight razor in hand. Tilting Meredith's head back, she applies cream to the brows and makes quick flicks with her wrist, shaping them into perfect arches. Meredith pays up, hustles next door for a backup pair of $1.95 panty hose, and hits the highway for the Radisson Hotel O'Hare.
In the basement Huron Room, eight girls unpack their tackle boxes, while Meredith and Adriana hurriedly gobble McDonald's lunches.
Evelyn Navarro, a 23-year-old Mariah Carey look-alike, greets her fellow boricua, Meredith. She looks at Adriana. "She's got mom's hair, huh?" Evelyn then turns her attention to 13-year-old Natasha Page, sitting with her mother, Debbie Johnson, who smooths her blond daughter's extravagant topknot. "Is your hair naturally curly?" Evelyn asks Natasha. The group debates bronzers. Evelyn reports, "Clinique worked really good--didn't turn me orange at all."
Adriana slumps in the corner. "I want to go home," she says.
Athena Zone pays her no mind, dancing frenetically to music blaring from a boom box. Athena calls herself "an incredible 29-year-old. But everyone tells me they think I'm 17 or 20." She feels frustrated in her quest for stardom--this is her seventh Glamore contest, after all. "I do want to be a model," she says. "But I'm not quite tall enough and not quite skinny enough. I'm more of a together, today type of girl. I think the industry needs to broaden its horizons." When not modeling, Athena works in "customer relations" at a suburban movie theater. She harbors a secret wish: "Maybe R. Kelly will see the show and say, 'Oooo that girl can sing.' Or an agency might see me and say, 'We can work with her.'"
Across the hall, Rocky's crew prepares the Michigan Room for the first event of the weekend--Photomania. They tack up bedsheets as backdrops on a makeshift foot-high stage. Photomania is not part of the competition, but it's taped for use on the television show.
Photographers pay a $25 fee to get into this "open shoot." The girls strut onstage, three at a time, in "flirt wear," or nightclub attire, and swimwear. Photographers shoot en masse. For an additional $15, they can have a personal session with a particular model. The girls don't receive payment for their group modeling, but they do get a cut from any one-on-one work. The shutterbugs vote on the best swimwear and flirt-wear models, with winners receiving $50 each.
Rocky's own interest in photography spawned the Glamore enterprise. He provided free services at a beauty pageant in 1993. "One of the girls there approached me about doing our own show. I sort of brushed it off. But then she was back a few weeks later with brochures and everything ready to go."
He fondly recalls the early days. "Back in 1993 we did five shows, the smallest of which had 50 contestants. Nowadays you just don't get that kind of response." Rocky believes that's because people are more informal now. "There's not that thirst for perfection in makeup, hair, and clothing anymore," he says. "I think there should be a place for ladies to be sophisticated and for gentlemen to be gentlemen--a place to be a movie star."
As for actual star-making results, Rocky doesn't gloat. "Occasionally people from the field of entertainment call us about a particular girl. Girls do covers for ethnic magazines and whatnot." His most famous success story is Jennifer Salinas, who "came to us in 1994. She worked her way up to Miss Illinois and was in the Miss America Pageant."
More girls arrive, and Adriana's getting nervous. She darts into the bathroom and attempts to tame her hair with a combination of mousse, gel, and hair spray. "If I don't," she says, "I look like Diana Ross. That's not what I want. Maybe after I'm famous it'll be OK. But I'm not famous yet, so I have to do this."
Outside the Michigan Room, the photographers gather. Some, like Roger, a 40-year-old meat packer, stand solemnly alone. "I'm trying to learn to take pictures," Roger mumbles, as he paws through a camera bag. Most greet each other as old friends. Jeff, a 43-year-old computer tape librarian from Valparaiso, explains that many belong to the Glamour Photo Photographers Club. Members meet at various photo studios to take pictures of models provided by the proprietors. Jeff says these sessions are usually more intimate than today's shoot, but Photomania provides more girls for less money. Steve, a heavyset 48-year-old, drove 100 miles from Wisconsin. "It's a bargain compared to having girls pose for you privately. It builds experience."
The men trade technical tips and exchange business cards and Web addresses. Their eyes follow the girls scurrying down the hall. Even 38-year-old Debbie garners glances as she charges out of the elevator with a relief curling iron in hand.
Dan, a chubby 37-year-old computer programmer, gossips about a recent shoot aboard a cruise ship. "It was $900 to get on!"
Returning to Photomania for a fourth time is Johnra, a fit 50-year-old martial arts instructor. His last visit was unsatisfactory, he says; this time he hopes "the girls are exotic enough." He's optimistic, he says, given what he's seen passing by.
At 1:15 Rocky opens the doors. The men pay their fees and pace in front of the stage. They're doubly excited about a promised appearance by "Special Centerfold Attraction: Emerald Devine." But there's a delay. Stuart, the show's videographer, can't get a proper signal from his deck. The basement conference room is hot with lights and bodies. Sweat gathers at the nape of Stuart's neck and gives a gleam to his bald pate. DJ Mac blares "Do You Want to Funk?"
Rocky grabs the microphone, promising "a great afternoon of fun and excitement." He looks over to see Stuart still fiddling with the video receiver. Thirteen girls dressed in flirt wear wait behind a partial partition.
The men try not to leer. Five minutes later Stuart gives Rocky the high sign. DJ Mac cranks "Hot Stuff" and the first three girls walk onstage.
Evelyn relishes the moment. She poses easily, smiling broadly and tossing her hair. Athena takes a more provocative tack, straddling a folding chair and a steamer trunk. Michelle, a 17-year-old of Irish and Puerto Rican heritage, goes with a good-girl shy smile.
The photographers lunge forward, changing positions and models. Flashbulbs pop. After three minutes, a few start to look sated; they lean against the wall. Stuart perches on a chair in the back of the room, mopping his face with a handkerchief.
Rocky prompts the girls to rotate in front of three different backdrops: maroon, white, and silver. Meredith stares at the first group from the sidelines, arms crossed against her chest.
Natasha and Adriana take their turn. Adriana does well--she's an instinctive dancer and moves gracefully to the music. But Natasha has captured the photographers' attention. She makes gangly poses and forces a smile that exposes her braces. Debbie stands behind the photographers, demonstrating seductive stances. Natasha mirrors her mother's movements. Several shooters reload.
Ponytailed Allen, 57, asks if I know how old Natasha is.
"Under 18," I say.
"Way under!" he shouts over the music. "That's her mother over there!" He crouches for a better angle.
Meredith takes the stage with dark-skinned Lakita Sneed and Tatiana Castro, a Salvadoran. Meredith works her go-go boots, while Tatiana shows off her busty frame in a silver lamé halter. No one photographs Lakita in her puce dress. She exchanges biting words with her boyfriend, who lingers in the wings. She then gets down on all fours. Johnra takes the bait.
Rocky presents the final lineup with an added surprise. "Double your pleasure, double your fun." Adriana and Meredith perform the first-ever sister set. They outshine the willowy 19-year-old Monique Wilson and full-figured Latrelia Boyd, a 28-year-old mother of four.
Inspired, Rocky announces a mother-daughter team. Debbie trots onstage, having quick-changed into a white leather miniskirt and matching halter. Natasha joins her. The photographers eat it up as the girls dish it out.
Rocky asks for applause to decide who should win Miss Photomania Flirt Wear. Adriana pulls off an upset--she wins the $50 prize.
As the models leave to change into swimwear, Rocky introduces "the lady you've all been waiting for": Emerald Devine. He cautions, "We're contractually bound not to allow any open photography, but you may purchase photos with Emerald after her performance." The photos cost $10 to $15. DJ Mac cranks Gloria Estefan's "Conga," and Emerald shimmies onstage. Allen whispers that he's seen her before in High Society, Hustler, and Genesis. She's a professional, whipping off her bolero jacket and bending over toward her audience. The men stand with pinched smiles. One wins a free Polaroid. She gets no paying customers.
"It's like drugs with these girls," Allen volunteers while waiting for the swimwear shoot. "They're on the road to ruin." He disparages the current "amateur" aesthetic and its demand for unschooled models. "It's a dumbing down of the art."
"Disco Inferno" blares as the girls return in swimwear. Allen takes Debbie aside to discuss Natasha's future, handing her a flyer advertising his photography business. "She's gonna go somewhere," he assures. Moments later, Natasha's got her leg on a chair posing proudly in her stars-and-stripes bikini to "Centerfold."
Prancing in a fuchsia bikini, Meredith is transformed from dour diva to insouciant muse. Steve stares transfixed. At stage left, Johnra is taken with Bridget Bell, a curvy contestant whose dark skin is highlighted by a yellow two-piece. He grunts appreciatively.
For the finale, all 13 girls gyrate to "Shake Shake Shake" and leave the sweating shooters winded. Rocky brings things to a close with a vote on Miss Photomania Swimwear. Meredith wins.
As the girls depart, Dan hands them his business card. Meredith and Evelyn are chosen for one-on-one photo shoots. Men direct them in front of the pastel backdrops. Dan takes a couple of prospects aside to negotiate future work. "See, the girls get a Web site..."
By 4:15 the girls retire to their dressing room, while the photographers linger in the corridor networking.
Dan excites his colleagues with talk about the upcoming Nudes-a-Poppin' event in Indiana. Allen's eyes go wide, exclaiming, "120 wide-spread women. Unbelievably raunchy... 40,000 screaming perverts, but no police." The photographers relish these opportunities, citing their difficulty in obtaining private models. "Being stood up," Steve says. "That's my biography."
Johnra brags he can recruit models anywhere by observing women's body language and handing his card to suitably sexy prospects. "I like to find the hidden woman inside," he muses. "The camera was invented to photograph a woman. The camera is a phallus." Johnra sets the mood by providing the model's favorite food and drink, playing soft music, and asking about her touch preferences. He purchases his own cache of lingerie costumes and works hard to please the lady. He reveals his opening line: "Show me how much woman you are." He claims to have photographed over 200 women and passes around his portfolio of multihued beauties to prove it. The others whistle in awe.
Upstairs the Radisson is buzzing. Small boys carrying big trophies pad through the hallways, triumphant from an international tae kwon do competition. The boys are stopped by the Venezuelan team for halting congratulations in English.
Hefty women hoisting tote bags chatter about their finds at an international collectors exposition. One enthusiast, Mary Sorrano, invites me to the hospitality suite for her firm, Soriginal Me. She creates custom fashions for Gene, a pre-Barbie movie-star doll of the 1940s. Mary even sells mini ironing boards for pristine costume upkeep. "Some people find God," she says. "I found Gene."
In Maxie's, the hotel bar, veteran Models on Parade judge Tom Price sits sipping a beer. The taciturn 34-year-old is a marketing rep for Century 21. He warms when discussing the six pageants he's judged. "I donate my time," he says. "I don't get a hotel room. I don't get nothing." He chuckles. Unlike other judges, Tom takes Photomania pictures for Rocky to give to the girls as keepsakes. "I like doing it, because I get a sneak preview."
"Rocky's pageant is special," he says. "It's open to everybody, not just Barbie dolls."
Tom talks about the coup of Models on Parade being featured on a recent Jenny Jones Show. He went backstage. "That's major leagues. They've got the best cameras, the best writers." He sees Models on Parade as a suitable successor to shows like Star Search. "The pageant is a good first step," he says. "There's definitely a following for the show." But if the show went national, Tom admits, "We'd have to cut a lot of girls and lose a lot of essence."
He runs through the three categories he'll use to judge the contestants at tomorrow's pageant:
Hair. "It should be appropriate and, you know, nice. This is a special event. If a girl has dyed hair and the roots show, that won't do."
Clothes. "I like something that gets my attention. A little flashy or in a shocking color."
Makeup. "It varies with every lady. It needs to be appropriate for what you're doing. Not overdone."
Tom says confidence is key. "They must look me in the eye. No staring at the runway!"
An elderly couple walks into the basement O'Hare Ballroom. Dressed in their finest attire, they want to get front-row seats to tonight's "Glamore Karaoke Dance Party." Their cousin will be singing on television.
Rocky's daughter, Dawn Esposito-Sanmi, signs up tonight's entertainers. Anyone can participate with only $20 and a song. Family members file in and pay $10 per ticket.
Adriana arrives with Michelle, who has participated in Rocky's shows since she was 15. "I want to be a professional model and get discovered," Michelle says. She plans to attend Columbia College in the fall. "I want to own my own business. It's a backup plan, basically." The girls compare notes on Photomania. Michelle whispers, "I get all hyped up when I see cameras." Her mother arrives, kissing all the gathered contestants and complimenting them. "Tan bonita, hija."
Meredith slumps in her seat and stifles a yawn. She's hiding her anxiety about Angel's whereabouts. "He has until 8:15," she says, "or it will get ugly." It's 7:50.
Rocky busies himself straightening the red curtains onstage. Spotlights beam off his balding head. A row of Lucite prisms lines the ceiling, catching some sparkle from the Models on Parade signature backdrop: red, silver, and gold tinsel. He waves the girls to the front, where they'll perform their duties as dancers.
The show starts at eight with some crowd-warming repartee from Sanchez DeMorelos, billed as an "International Singing Super Star." Sanchez is Mexican. He knows how to croon to the camera. He stalls for time while Stuart positions the lights by interviewing the girls about what they ate yesterday. Meredith keeps her eyes on the door.
Rocky instructs the crowd, "I want everyone to shake your groove thing. If you don't have fun when you leave tonight, it's your fault." DJ Mac cues a disco mix, and the girls dance and smile.
Angel bolts through the door at 8:05. Meredith shoots him a where've-you-been-but-I'm-glad-you're-here grin. He's a nice-looking fellow. He wears four silver rings, including a wedding band. "It's great," Angel says of the scene. "It's wonderful to see a big smile on her face."
Sanchez launches into "La Bamba," motioning for the audience to join the party onstage. A 50ish blond in a black dress with gold epaulets hoofs with a female companion in head-to-toe rip-stop nylon. She's popping and locking like it's 1982. Natasha looks stunned until Sanchez puts a comforting arm around her shoulders. Rocky works a dope groove with Bridget and the room begins to thump.
With a sufficient warm-up, Rocky introduces the first act: "Dangerous!" Two hip-hop male singers whoop up a jam accompanied by five costumed female dancers who move with choreographed precision, shoving the models to the edges. Adriana is miffed. But Dangerous has talent, raising expectations that won't be met by those who follow.
An 11-year-old fights her way through "Hero." She's terribly off-key. The models gamely back her up with a gospel choir sway.
Wearing a cream churchgoing suit, Obree Smith lip-synchs to a tape of herself singing "Unchained Melody." She interprets the tune with gestures, tapping her watch for "time." Her family members nod from the first row.
Sweet-voiced Sandra Teresi hits all the Celine high notes in "My Heart Will Go On." A man in the second row shouts, "Sing it, girl!"
Rocky breaks up the singers with more dance-party action. "Livin' la Vida Loca" gets the same Pavlovian response at 9:30 as it did ten hours earlier in the models' dressing room. Contestant Debra Wright shimmies in a fringed red dress, shaking her rump for Stuart's camera. Stuart raises his eyebrows, smiles, and drinks a Diet Coke.
The woman with the gold epaulets, Barbie Patton, grabs the microphone for a heel-breaking version of Cher's "Believe." Barbie has chutzpah to burn; her giant mane bobs, obscuring Adriana's view. By the end of the song she's spent, her face flushed and glistening.
Between sips of cabernet, Barbie explains her passion for performing. "I grew up in a family of 12. We were so poor we'd entertain ourselves singing and dancing. I must know 1,000 songs." A career girl, Barbie says she's "a computer whiz...Excel, Word, FileMaker Pro." She hires wait staff for catered events.
Barbie wasn't always so outgoing. "I was Martha Stewart in a previous life--I really was. Then my high school sweetheart left me for a younger woman," she explains, bending slightly, her ample bosom heaving. Barbie, who has two college-age children, reacted by dying her hair platinum and singing in Rush Street discotheques as "Barbie Doll the Karaoke Queen." Jerry Springer took notice and included her on his show. "I saw myself on 100 televisions!" Other theatrical quests have led to bit parts in several films, but, she says, "I'm a nobody, nothing."
Barbie sings a few bars of Patti LaBelle, her eyes crinkling, flaking bits of liner onto her rouged cheeks. She sighs. "I'm black on the inside....I love music. It's my soul and the music. We all have the same feelings. I connect with that onstage."
Several models head toward the bar. Rocky sees his troops departing and beckons them. "You girls can keep me warm." They trudge back, their feet quickening at the initial notes of "Wiggle It." The beat gets lusty, and couples create lascivious forms. An old man sitting erect in his best suit grins, slyly watching the youngsters. Natasha dances alone, smiling broadly at her image beaming back from a floor monitor.
A singer named Stevie takes it back to the old school with "Me and Mrs. Jones." Athena volunteers to play a sultry Mrs. Jones, draping her arm around him. Meredith's face stiffens and stares blankly in Angel's direction. The tinsel backdrop starts to fall.
Meredith opens her apartment door at 8:15 Sunday morning with her hair wrapped in a pink scarf, apologetic. "We just woke up." She and Adriana are dragging thanks to a 2:30 bedtime.
The living room has black art-deco lamps decorated with female figures in arched poses. A disco ball hangs from the door jamb in the dining area. A large vase filled with starfish and sea stones sits on a glass coffee table. A large poster of Madonna oversees all.
During the drive out to Rosemont, Meredith analyzes her toughest competition for Queen of Queens: Evelyn Navarro and Tatiana Castro. Their statements from the heart will make or break their chances at the crown. Meredith is confident. "I've heard that Tatiana's been real nonchalant about everything. But with Evelyn, she has a tendency--she stutters and stumbles a lot. That can count against you."
Meredith pegs Natasha as Adriana's main competitor for Glamore Girl Midwest. She says some other girls committed the ultimate faux pas of wearing the same outfit to Photomania and the dance party. As for Queen of Finalists, Meredith is pulling for Michelle. "I saw her when she first came. She wasn't all that good. She had a swimsuit with sleeves, you know? She's come a long way."
Meredith has less hospitable feelings toward Michelle's toughest rival. "That girl Athena, she bugs me. Her boyfriend Tom is one of the judges. I don't know if they're still together, but last I heard..."
The sisters commiserate about their father, who won't be attending today's competitions. He's a CHA police officer and a private security guard. They blame his latest wife for making him work two jobs.
"Daddy, huh," Meredith says. "Daddy has to work, right?"
"Always," replies Adriana.
"Always!" Meredith huffs. "He could come if he really wanted to. Both his daughters--come on now."
Downstairs at the Radisson, the stage is in the same configuration as the previous night. This doesn't bode well for the schedule.
Rocky wanders into the ballroom, sleepyheaded. "We finished with the singers at 1:30 last night," he says. "We were a little overwhelmed." We talk a bit about the performers. I mention Obree Smith, the "Unchained Melody" interpreter. "That lady wrote me innumerable letters in hand-of-a-child scrawl," he says. "Some of these people are in their own world." Rocky says he simply gives them an opportunity to broadcast their messages, at a low price. He is clearly concerned about being portrayed as a pageant profiteer, and is quick to point out that Glamore Productions is a nonprofit organization.
Tanya Crespo, Glamore Girl International Queen of Queens 1998, arrives and moans to Rocky about his failure to provide breakfast or coffee. "You know how much we threw away in the past?" he retorts. "All of it." He then gives in without a fight, ordering a bottled water and croissant for himself and a plate of cookies for the girls. Jostling his gold necklaces, Rocky insists on paying the houseman in advance. "Mucho better if we just take care of it, OK?"
The girls line up to receive their numbered ribbons and to pay Rocky the $25 fee for a buffet lunch and dinner. Adriana receives the number-one red and white ribbon, nervously pinning it to her waistband.
Tanya welcomes each newcomer, explaining that as Queen of Queens her duties include training contestants in the ways of the runway. "Girls, I'm gonna tell you what I don't like about your walks. I'm gonna critique you so you don't look all weird."
As the crew rearranges the stage, Tanya demonstrates the proper walk. Adriana watches intently and giggles while making her first attempt. She stops midway when Tanya barks, "You look like you're dragging your feet." Adriana laughs weakly. "For real?"
Michelle takes Adriana aside, holds her shoulders back, and marches her proudly around the room. Michelle then mounts the runway for her walk. Tanya coos, "Do you see the difference when someone walks out with confidence, backs arched?"
Natasha makes an awkward attempt, alternating looks at her feet and at her mother. Debbie smiles and moves toward the hall for a cigarette break, saying, "Eyes up, Tash."
Debbie offers me one of her Virginia Superslims, dragging and exhaling deeply. "I regret not jumping in myself. It's a blast!" Debbie says her lost dream is now being fulfilled by her daughter. She sees the pageant as a "real morale booster--it builds up that confidence."
She and Natasha came up from Bloomington a day early to make the rounds at a few agencies downtown. "We would like to get into modeling." Their appointments didn't bear fruit. "She was in and out. I heard she was too young, not tall enough, still has braces on her teeth, and so on."
Photomania provided the kind of feedback Debbie was after. "The photographers were saying she had a sophisticated look." She compares Natasha to Brooke Shields, noting that Shields's career took off after her nude scenes in Blue Lagoon. "As long as I'm beside her, it's fine. Exposing the body moves them one step ahead. Not many children get that opportunity."
Debbie owns a custom auto design and trim shop with her husband, calling herself a "woman in a guy's business. Women can do what men can and vice versa." But a man can't fulfill her wildest dream: a Miss America title for Natasha. "Oh, the crown, the sash, the tears in the eyes...I'd be the happiest mama in the world."
At noon the latecomers arrive. Debra's hair is in rollers, but I can see she's put in a marigold tint for the occasion. Rocky's assistant, Dan, gets a call from the guy who will be escorting contestants during the evening-gown presentation. "He's vomiting right now," Dan tells Rocky.
Tanya takes the girls through a complete runway cycle. Adriana seems peeved to be serving as the line leader. Other girls appear cold--tiny Monique wears tube socks over her bare forearms--or crabby. Evelyn whines, "I'm hun-gry!"
Rocky looks adoringly at Tanya as she again demonstrates the proper form. The group makes another attempt at a complicated switch maneuver, in which the girls trade sides of the runway. "If anyone messes up, there are no penalties here," Rocky says good-naturedly. "We'll just shoot you onstage."
After the girls prove their mettle, Rocky directs them to the Sea Shell Room for lunch. The girls aren't shy about loading their plates with fried chicken, dinner rolls, french fries, and sauteed vegetables. Elderly waitresses quickly fill their glasses with iced tea and place ice cream sundaes in front of each guest.
Gil DeLaPaz introduces himself. He's been the master of ceremonies since the first Models on Parade show six years ago. The 44-year-old family man from Wood Dale runs a trucking company. He says "chemical energy" is the reason he participates in the pageant. "I like the people, that's my primary reason. It's a release really." Gil says yesterday someone recognized him in a bathroom at a Korean wedding. He obviously liked the attention.
Rocky eats all his ice cream.
Anxiety is building in the dressing room. Meredith clutches her personal statement, written on the yellow pages of a legal pad. Adriana jots a few thoughts on a wrinkled index card, then scratches them out.
Crowding becomes a problem. Before the "Children's Play Wear Presentation" portion of the show, several young girls get their hair combed in areas previously reserved for the models. One mother pets her towheaded daughter, complaining to Evelyn about pageant judging. "Well, now that she's in the seven-to-ten age group, they tend to choose a nine-year-old. It can get political."
Meredith gets a page and returns from the pay phone minutes later, eyes dulled. "Angel's not coming...whatever." Her nonchalance disguises her obvious hurt. "He says the babies' mother had to work....'I have to watch the kids,' and I'm like, whatever."
Her makeup artist, LaShonda, shows up with an assistant. A take-charge lady, LaShonda demands a table of her own and gets it. Other contestants try not to seem intimidated by Meredith's entourage.
Harriet Youngblood is optimistic about her chances in this, her seventh Glamore event. The 32-year-old mother has a 16-year-old son moping in the hallway. "This is the realization of a childhood dream," she says. "I want that crown and all the glory that comes with it." When she's not working the beauty circuit, Harriet says, she's "an elected public official," serving on her local school council and working the graveyard shift at the post office. "My family thinks I'm a star already. The crown just makes it official." Harriet pulls blue styrofoam forms from between her toes and smiles. "I want to encourage other women to follow their dreams and build self-esteem."
Tatiana has her cousin smear concealer over a shoulder tattoo of a heart and a cross with a banner proclaiming "Bobo." She giggles nervously. "I've had it for four years, but my dad has never seen it."
In the bathroom, Adriana is stressing over her tresses again. "It's too poufy!" she cries. Brenda Cuellar looks at her in the mirror and says, "You're supposed to have poufy!" They gingerly step over a tangle of curling irons and clothes on the floor. It's almost three o'clock--show time.
Friends and family eagerly queue up to pay at the door. Dawn waves them in, selling the pageant programs for $5 each. The stapled pamphlet includes cheesecake shots of sponsored contestants, boasts about the accomplishments of past queens, and claims that Models on Parade reaches a "potential" 847,000 households in the Chicago area.
Gil and Sanchez are dressed in pressed tuxedos. Sanchez gets things under way with a rollicking rendition of "Delilah." Dawn joins the gentlemen onstage to introduce the "Children's Play Wear Presentation." Seven kids walk the runway in active wear accompanied by Dawn's narration regarding each one's hobbies and interests. Lorelei Valkenburg works her outfit, fetchingly glancing over each shoulder. Not to be outdone, tiny Jesus Santiago puts his hands on his hips and sashays in a navy soccer ensemble. The crowd erupts in applause.
Then it's the big girls' turn.
Adriana shyly grins and takes a halting pass at the judges. Dawn continues the narration, reading information from the contestants' profile sheets. As Monique glides by in a purple ensemble Dawn reports, "Monique says she would like to reduce poverty and envy." Harriet struts in a red and gray outfit, a slight sneer on her face. Debra tosses her newly yellow curls; she's wearing a black rubber unitard with peek-a-boo cutouts. Meredith looks regal in a glittery strapless dress. As she descends the stage, her makeup team leaps to provide touch-ups. Judging by applause, however, the round goes to Evelyn.
While the children return for their "Talent Presentation," the models frantically prepare for the swimwear competition. They leave nothing to chance. A tube of cover stick makes the rounds, as contestants cover every scab and shaving bump. Rozanne, the dressing room coordinator, pokes her head in. "Four minutes, girls!"
The kids follow their performances with a swimwear presentation accompanied by the Spice Girls' "If You Wanna Be My Lover."
The models return, and the narration continues. "When asked why she wants to win today, Bridget replied, 'For the glory, fame, and fun of it.'"
The models take seats in the audience while the children are interviewed by Dawn. A squalling infant drowns their comments. The baby's grandmother tries to placate him with a game of patty-cake. His eyes cross, and the crying continues.
Gil improvises. "Joy. Innocence. All that is lost is here on our stage. These are our kids. This is our future, ladies and gentlemen." Dawn presents each child with a small trophy. I can't help thinking: gateway drug.
Adriana leads a final bikini walk. Meredith curls her lip in an unconscious pout. Once she catches sight of Adriana pumping her hands aloft, her snarl melts into a prideful grin.
Meredith's mirth doesn't linger. As soon as she reaches the dressing room, she sounds off to LaShonda. "My makeup looks drastic." After conferring with her team, she relents. "From what they're telling me, onstage it looks different."
Technically, the models are on dinner break. Several spend the hour staring at their index cards and finding inventive ways to supplement cleavage, too busy to eat.
I linger on a couch upstairs near the reception desk. Staring out onto the street, I watch two cars collide. Metal scrapes, glass breaks, air bags deploy. Spectators surround a wounded woman who reflexively dials her cell phone. A Samaritan leads her to a grassy patch to await the police. A car horn is blaring.
More guests gather at six o'clock. Most of last night's singers have returned for an encore performance. Lakita's boyfriend arrives in a red suit; he presents her with an inflated pink heart on a stick emblazoned with the words "I Love You." Down the hall, Meredith coaches Adriana on her walk. "It's your time on the stage; take as much as you want."
Meredith's fan club sits in the fourth row, chatty and excited. As promised, her mother, aunt, and grandmother are here along with her ex-boyfriend Aubrey and his friend Thyrane. "It is our excuse to be loud, legally!" says her mom, Rebecca Dobbs. She isn't worried about Meredith's chances. "She's a winner no matter what. She is wonderful, beautiful, charming, intelligent, and has tenacity." Aubrey adds, "She has a grace like a queen others may not."
Sitting directly in front of them is Adriana's mother, Maria Gonzales, and sister, Gabriela. Both Maria and Rebecca have long curly black hair and wear tropical-print sundresses. Meredith's grandmother introduces herself to Maria. It seems they've never met before.
Rocky warmly greets success story Jennifer Salinas. "Hi, handsome," she says, giving him a peck. Jennifer, 23, told me earlier that the show has changed over the years. She's still Miss Congeniality, but she can't hide her disappointment. "It's definitely gone from an upstanding pageant to more of a dance-party-type television show." She says she understands Rocky's predicament. "I think he had to go that way to stay in business. What's cut for TV seems a little more risque. But when you're here, you see how innocent the whole thing is." She credits the show's longevity to Rocky's devotion. "He's become attached to the girls. I don't think he can stop. It's a very big deal for some of these girls, and he gets a boost from it as well."
Gil begins the proceedings by introducing the judges. Esmeralda Carrion (aka Emerald Devine) joins the panel as the 1997 winner of Glamore Girl International. A tuxedoed Tom Price is touted as a producer of infomercials. Vincent Soto's bio claims he holds a degree in marketing and coordinated promotional activities for Coors Girls Midwest. Marilyn Dey Donovan is a poet and children's book author. And Kevin James of the musical group Dangerous boasts of producing such "R & B hits" as "Fantasy Lady."
"It's gonna be hard to pick just one," Kevin says from the stage. Rebecca murmurs to her chuckling family, "Just pick Meredith!"
The girls file in quietly, taking the VIP seats reserved in the front row. Wearing a lime dress, Athena takes the stage and sings "Do You Know?" Tom yawns.
Lakita shows her poise when the wrong song appears on the monitor. She gamely waits, trying not to show discomfort. After the mix-up is corrected, the models clap as Lakita nails the high notes of "I Will Always Love You."
Ever the dandy, Lakita's boyfriend, Jovan, has changed into a wet-looking silver suit for his own turn at the mike. He grabs his crotch and falls to his knees without missing a beat. The girls titter and stare. Several sneak out to prepare for the spoken-word competition. Meredith runs through her speeches with Latrelia. Debra sits on the carpet, smoking and whispering to herself. She stops when Athena passes. "You tore it up, girl!"
Back in the ballroom, seven-year-old Sara Niemitz explodes "My Heart Will Go On," despite missing several of her front teeth. Jessica Salisbury, a moonfaced teenager in green velvet, gets her turn in the spotlight with a wailing rendition of "Ironic." Still working the ticket table Dan whispers, "For the love of God..."
The evening-wear competition gets under way at 7:45. The girls look picture-perfect. Adriana has conquered her curls with a dramatic upswept hairdo.
As the models parade, Gil reads their personal reflections. "Bridget wants to be rich, famous, and happy....If Brenda could have any wish, it would be to have peace on earth and lots of money to travel....Debra is originally from Mississippi. I'm losing my blues when I look at her." Harriet lingers on the runway to the polite applause of strangers. Evelyn pantomimes for a male friend to take more pictures.
Barbie leads the second round of singers. Her performance of "Believe" is less manic tonight--the absence of other girls onstage leaves her isolated. She tries to pick up the energy with an improvised dance that one could call the Windmill. Meredith's aunt grins and nods, "Uh-huh!" Barbie takes in the applause and moves to the corridor. Harriet's 16-year-old son pays her a compliment. "I coulda bust a potluck on you!" he says. Barbie beams.
The last performer, Cherisa Baity, brings the house down. With Aretha bravado and Joe Cocker gesticulations, she whips the crowd into a gone-to-church frenzy. She belts an anthem for the strong woman. "I'm changing..." The models, their mothers, and their sisters shout in approval.
Gil announces that it's time for the contestants to recite their prepared "Statement From the Heart."
Adriana steps forward, eyes downcast. "My statement is about the love I have for my mother. You know, kids are treating them with disrespect, killing each other and such, and it's not right...."
Bridget softly stammers, "My son is not with me because he has a mental illness...."
Harriet swallows hard. "I want to talk about hope. Without hope, all is lost. With it, you can make it. You can be a star, a judge, a president. A little hope saved me through struggles in 32 years...."
Debra reveals, "Eleven years of my life were spent with a man who abused me physically and emotionally. An abusive relationship is a dead end. Don't travel down that road...."
Brenda closes the segment. "It's important to have Jesus Christ in our hearts, 'cause you never know when you will go...."
The five contestants for Glamore Girl International Queen of Queens each receive a question in a sealed envelope. Meredith responds to a query regarding future goals. "I want to be instrumental in changing human beings, to be a humanitarian....I want us to pay more attention to what's in our hearts and not what's on our backs."
The girls take one final walk around the stage. Adriana looks exhausted. Rocky madly tabulates scores at the DJ table. Rozanne carries in a box filled with bouquets. Sanchez leaps back onstage and sings "Greased Lightnin'." Gil waves up all the karaoke singers. Meredith presses her lips together until Adriana sticks her tongue out at her.
Barbie holds Obree's hand as Gil announces the StarSearch 2000 Finalists. Not surprisingly, Cherisa wins the top prize. But 18 of the participants still receive small trophies. Everyone congratulates everyone else. Then they move aside for Tanya Crespo's farewell walk. As Tanya's taped reflections drone over the speakers, Meredith rocks slightly on her heels.
Without much fanfare, Gil reveals the contest results. Adriana is the third runner-up for Glamore Girl Midwest. And the winner is...Natasha!
Natasha begins to cry as Tanya places the crown on her beehive hairdo and wraps the sash around her waist. Debbie drops her face into her hands, sobbing with joy. She throws kisses at her daughter.
Gil then announces that a surprise category of queen has been created to recognize models who serve as mentors to newer contestants. The title of "Miss Amity" goes to Debra. She accepts her sash while Bridget pumps her fist in admiration.
The Glamore Girl Queen of Finalists first runner-up is Michelle. She takes the loss in stride, unlike third runner-up Harriet, who looks positively crushed. The winner is...Athena!
Athena jumps and falls with emotion, clamping her hand over her mouth, shaking with tears. Tom, still sitting at the judge's table, wells up a little too.
The rivals for Glamore Girl International Queen of Queens 1999 line up holding hands. Gil will announce only one runner-up and the winner. The room hushes.
First runner-up is...Meredith Wheeler!
Meredith's eyes go wet as she smiles weakly, taking in the enthusiastic applause.
And the winner is...Evelyn Navarro!
Evelyn's supporters hoot for their girl, who's wearing a red strapless gown. She tears up but regally accepts her crown and sash from her look-alike, Tanya.
The girls perform a final promenade to the strains of Kenny G.
A few days later, Meredith reflects, "Of course you want to win. But considering it was only a runner-up and a queen and I was one, it was good. I'm glad it was Evelyn because she's a friend of mine." Meredith's not too disappointed, because she won a slot on the Cancun prize trip this fall. And she reports Adriana enjoyed the experience. "She cried, she was so happy."
Meredith vows to return, though first she'll have to concentrate on law school. "I have to come back," she says. "I do want that Queen of Queens title."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.