The year: 1996. I was 23, just on the upper cusp of that critical year that determined whether you could be Miss Pittsburgh or Ms. Pittsburgh.
I was writing for a local newsweekly, and, as a very non-beauty-pageanty type, thought it would be good fun to take part in and document the festivities. So I circled Ms. on the application, paid my $50, and began preparations.
You may wonder, why would a large-ish girl with a lumpy belly and crooked teeth sign up for a goddamn beauty pageant? I guess I was just curious. I mean, I'm not perfect by any means, but I'm still pretty darn cute. How would that play in Normal City? Would I get any love?
My goal was to stand up there proudly — tall, lumpy, weird as I am — and put my vision of beauty up against theirs. WHAT IS UP.
Also, I wanted a tiara. A real one, with some heft to it. Since I'm a pretty good singer, I figured the talent competition was my best chance. So my filmmaker friend and I put together the best damn video of someone in a nightgown rolling around a garbage dump and singing "Angel of the Morning" you ever saw. (More on this later.)
The following weeks were a whirlwind of vintage shopping and the methodical undoing of old, misguided hair color decisions. Finally, the big day.
Our posse arrived at the appointed time and place, a suburban Holiday Inn. When I got inside, I saw that the dressing room was almost entirely full of young women in intense undergarments, each undergoing her own epic struggle with hot curlers, mascara wands, and the like. I found a spot, embiggened my hair and eyeliner, and checked out the agenda. Bathing suit first.
I had a super sweet vintage one, white and green floral textured cotton with a metal zipper down the back and pockets. Which was maybe the most awesome garment I have ever owned. But still, my belly and I were about to get on stage in this thing. Panic. I turned to the professional’s cure — three G&Ts, quick as can be — and got in line. Number 11F, the very last one.
Insipid soft rock music on the sound system and introductory comments made, we each took a turn walking and showing our butts all the way across the stage. Even in my panicked state, I noticed that my fellow competitors seemed sweet and everyone did a good job.
And then it was my turn. I breathed deeply, the way you do going up the first hill of a very tall roller coaster, when you think "Well fuck it, I can't get out now." Click click click click... whoosh.
As I stepped onstage, "Buffalo Soldier" started playing on the stereo. Seriously! I'm not sure what it meant — was the DJ was a fellow chubstress giving me a shout out? Or maybe they just could tell I was a rebel from my sparkly jellies?
Either way I did my little walk, turn, look at my lovely/broad arse thing, smiling vacantly and not quite sure what was going on. It was weird being on stage with nothing to particularly do. At least it was over quick.
Next was the interview competition, in which I blew it up in a bright yellow maxi dress with peacocks and roses all over it and red suede Reeboks. When asked who my hero was, I promptly answered "Eddie Vedder." (1996, remember? Huevos of steel.)
Then came the last show your butt strut of the night — evening gowns! Mine was a long sparkly polyester affair with green and pink flowers and sheer puffy nylon sleeves. Rad.
By this time I'd had a few more dranks, so I hammed it up a bit. Giggles erupted in the crowd, I think (mostly?) approvingly. I bounced my curls just a little and got the hell off stage.
At that point, the final three were chosen. You are not shocked and neither was I to learn that sheer cuteness and sass had not landed me a spot in that rarified circle. Oh well, I laughed. I had a trophy for participating and a nice buzz going. Love of life!
The overall pageant winner would be announced at the end of the night. Before that, though, the talent competition. Time to recognize.
The lights went down, someone pulled out a big square TV on an old-school AV cart, and we all sat down to watch the performance videos. There weren't many — maybe eight? Or fewer? I can't remember. What I do remember, and what I will remember until that fateful day when my consciousness is absorbed into the Big Internet In The Sky, is what happened when my video came on.
The first notes of “Angel of the Morning" began as we opened on a crazy post-apocalyptic-looking dump. I'm wearing a long peach hippie nightgown dress, earnestly singing with a pot of mums in my arms. Then, for the chorus, a shot of me in a dark basement under a single bare bulb, earnestly singing in my camo jacket. Yep, the Eddie Vedder shot!
As the video unfolded, I sensed a bit of unrest in the room. She can sing, I could feel them thinking. But is she for real, or is she fucking with us? What the crap is happening?
At the crescendo of the crowd's discomfort and the end of the second verse came the money shot. I'm on the ground, lying upside down on an abandoned car seat, my long black hair splayed across a patch of broken glass, giant old sunglasses on my face. "And if we're victims of the night," I crooned. "I won't be bli-hinded by the LIGHT!"
And then ... the room busted a collective gut. Oh! I heard their brains again. She's for real AND she's fucking with us! Jolly good! We all laughed and delight overflowed in the room as video-me brought the song home. And all over Pittsburgh, broad-arsed girls felt unspeakably happy for a minute, though they didn't know why.
You won't be shocked and neither was I that the evening ended with a heavy-ass tiara on my head, bitches, and a sash that announced my triumph in curvy embroidery: Ms. Pittsburgh Talent Queen 1996!
I also got a massive trophy and a stopped-drinking-too-early headache as they announced the overall Ms. Pittsburgh, a super pretty and sweet lady named Angelique who had kind of taken me under her wing during my bathing suit wig-out. Happy endings all round!
Later, I wrote a fun article in the paper, got a bunch of hate mail from pageant people, and took part in a documentary my friend made about the whole thing.
The night it premiered, we rolled up to the theater in a limo with neon lights inside, drunk as hell. A massive cloud of smoke erupted from the car as we opened the door. I wore a long dress of pale green velvet, opera length gloves of gold, and my very own glittery sash and tiara. Both of which still adorn my home and elicit grins on the regular, 15 years later.
No one has ever felt more like a baller. And that was the best time I was a 200 pound beauty* queen.
Now far beyond even Ms. Pittsburgh age, Megan Dietz uses equal parts geekiness and craftiness to complete her mission of bringing more cuteness into the world through Wear the Shift, a company that creates tech-enabled bespoke clothing.