Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Journey to the Crown...

Jene Nelson
The recent headlines about the homeless Miss Colorado USA 2011 pulled me back in time to March 1979.  Nearly thirty two years later, the memories are clear and not blurred by time or my advancing age...

Jene getting a hug after being crowned
I was crowned Miss Colorado USA on March 25, 1979 at the Regency Hotel in Denver.   I was eighteen years old.  The road to the pageant was not at all typical and frankly, not one I ever thought I'd travel.  I have always been a do-your-hair-and-makeup-once-and-forget-about-it kind of gal and continue to be more comfortable as a background player rather than one to step into the spotlight.  I have never considered myself to be the most beautiful woman in the room, much less in the state.  I was studying Mass Communications and Speech at the University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University - Pueblo) and was approached by two classmates who nominated me to be a contestant.  I was flattered and grateful, but thought, "No way!"  My sisters ended up seeing the invitation and insisted that I compete.  I was mortified at the thought of prancing around in a swimsuit and being judged on my scrawny figure that was lacking in curves. I was persuaded (forced?) to do it so I made my mind up to make a decent showing, then come home, concentrate on school and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

I focused on finding a swimsuit that would minimize that fact that I had no bust to speak of, and highlight my twenty two inch waist.  I found one for seventeen dollars.  My aunt went to work sewing my pageant dress.  She didn't buy a pattern - she made her own out of grocery store paper bags.  The cost of the material was under seven dollars.  The dress was off-white with a slit up the side and a dramatic drape in the back.  We were both frustrated over that drape.  It just wouldn't hang properly until my aunt got the brilliant idea of sewing a penny into the seam and it was perfect after that.

The family home
Grandma, Aunt Annie, Mom & Jene
There was plenty of female influence as I prepared for the pageant.   We lived in a house filled with women.

My Grandma, truly a no-nonsense woman who never voiced any opposition to this project, my Aunt Mitzi, who was a master seamstress and spent sixty years working at St. Mary Corwin Hospital, my Aunt Annie, who was a tough cookie despite her diminutive size, and my Mother, who raised four daughters by herself and lived with the stigma of being "that divorced woman" for much of her adult life.  My Mom was disabled in a terrible car accident in 1955.  She broke her back and was told she would never walk again.  She not only walked, she danced her way through the next few decades.  Mom was very lucky to be alive, but lost the use of her left hand.  I still marvel at much she is able to do with just one working hand...  We all lived together in a very modest two bedroom, one bath home with a surly little poodle.  It was the same place that my Mother and her siblings were born, it’s where my three sisters were also raised, and it is the same home where my Grandma and my Aunt Annie took their final breath.  It was the home where I shared a bedroom with my Grandma and where the clacking sound of Aunt Mitzi's ancient sewing machine was putting the finishing touches on my pageant dress...

Finally, the big day was here.  I made the hundred mile journey to Denver armed with my homemade dress, my swimsuit, an interview outfit that I borrowed from my sister, two pairs of L'eggs pantyhose (the kind in the silver egg), and the desire to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Total cost for competing in the pageant:  less than thirty dollars.  My brother-in-law's corporation, Mauro Brothers Farms, put up the steep five hundred dollar entry fee.

Newspaper clipping
Jene in 1979
The pageant was held at the Regency Hotel in Denver.  We were housed four girls to a room, which meant we had to share a bed with a complete stranger.  That was rather awkward and I remember not sleeping very much that night out of fear that I would inadvertently kick my bed mate.  The dreaded swimsuit competition wasn't so bad.  We did not have to appear in our swimsuits publicly.  Instead, we were taken in groups to a private room and judged individually.  Whew!  The interview portion was a breeze. I always spoke my mind, more so back then than even now, and never thought about the consequences of opinion.   I gleefully sashayed down the runway in my seven dollar dress during the evening gown competition.  I remember seeing my Mother in the audience.  She was glowing with pride, or the effects of menopause.  I am still not sure which one it was, but she looked more beautiful than any of the contestants.  Then, when I was named as a semi-finalist, I breathed a sigh of relief.  I had done what I had come there to do.  I had a respectable showing.  Next, I was named a finalist.  I remember what I said for my personal statement.  "We are but a moment's sunlight fading on the grass.  Thank you for letting me share some of my sunlight with you."   I had no idea where that came from, but of course later realized it was from the song "Get Together" by the Youngbloods.  I don't know why I remembered it at that particular time or why I chose to use it.  Regardless, then there were two.  It was just another candidate and me.  I was certain she was going to win and was desperately trying to remember which way to exit off the stage when they called her number.  Instead, it was MY number, delegate 28, that was called as Miss Colorado USA 1979.  Again, I looked at my Mom and mouthed, "I love you" as she appeared to be hyperventilating...

What followed was and is still a blur.  I remember one of my friends, who was a fellow contestant, hugging me and knocking off my crown.  It still has the dent.  I never had it repaired because it gave it character.   Then came hugs from my family and tears from my Mom.  My niece, who was three at the time, announced that she was going to put that crown on her head and she did.  The realization didn't hit until I was presented release forms and contracts to sign.   I had precisely twenty two days to get ready to compete in the Miss USA Pageant.  I was given a five hundred dollar check and the instructions to buy a pageant gown, have three other "formals" to wear in addition to my seven dollar dress, and to come up with a state costume and state gift.  I would receive a round trip ticket to Biloxi, Mississippi where the pageant was being held.  Wow!  There was a lot to accomplish in short time frame.

My beloved Aunt Mitzi
That lovely dress!
My fondest memory is when we got home.  My Aunt Mitzi was unable to attend the pageant because she and Aunt Annie were caring for my Grandma.  She had made a banner that said, "Welcome Home, Miss Colorado!" and hung it over the door.  I still have it.  Time has faded her penmanship, but the memory is vivid.  The state costume was easy. The United States Air Force Academy cadets were the official escorts for the pageant, so I would be a "cadetette" in sequined hot pants and a borrowed hat. The state gift was easy too. It was a beautiful statue of the bighorn sheep, which is Colorado's state animal. Aunt Mitzi went to work on the three required "formals" and they were stunning. How she was able to pull it off in such a short time is still baffling all these years later. Clack clack... Her sewing machine driven by her amazing skills turned out a beautiful sea foam green Grecian style dress, a steel blue two piece gown with a daring open back, and my favorite of all -- a black and white pantsuit with stove pipe legs and a swinging jacket. She was truly something else.  The competition gown was another matter.  The first one I tried on was very expensive but incredibly beautiful.  It was a gold beaded Lily Rubin that cost seven hundred dollars.  I only had five hundred dollars, and the state costume was going to cost two hundred.  The state gift was fifty bucks, so that left me with two hundred fifty dollars.  No other dress compared to that first one.  My family all kicked in what they could and I was able to get that gorgeous dress. I remember writing the check and my nephew, who was ten at the time, shouted, "You don't have that much money!"  Despite the odd looks from other patrons at this very elegant store, I smiled sweetly and left as quickly as possible with my gold beaded treasure fluttering behind me.
The journey to Biloxi was very interesting. I had been on an airplane precisely one time prior to that trip. My carry on items would have never been accepted under today's standards. I had my crown and banner in one box, the state gift in another, my prized Lily Rubin dress, my state costume, a borrowed trench coat and a dozen roses. A toddler kicked the back of my seat all the way to New Orleans where I was picked up and transported in a "limousine" which was actually a big white bus that was picking up several pageant contestants.  We had a flat tire along the way... 
The preparation for the pageant was unlike anything I had ever expected.  First of all, April in Mississippi means humidity.  I had never experienced that before, and my naturally wavy hair was out of control.  People were asking me for my autograph!  Most of the other contestants were models or actresses and I was nothing but a student who had no clue about what the future would hold.  I had never given it a moment's thought.  We had grueling rehearsals where we learned three dance numbers.  I ended up weighing 105 pounds on my 5'7" frame after those two weeks.  I remember the day the swimsuit segment was shot. I was suffering from cramps, my hair was a disaster, and the weather was worse.  We were taken out to the docks and the Gulf of Mexico was very rough that day.  I thought for sure I was going to lose my breakfast as the dock swayed with the tide.   There was a photo shoot later that day at the hotel pool and I remember the picture that was in the local newspaper.  I was the only one looking the other way as that picture was snapped and as a result, stuck out like a sore thumb.
The dreaded swimsuit competition

One wardrobe fitting in particular still makes me blush.  In one number, we all wore Vicki Vaughn dresses.  The outfitters could not figure out why mine looked odd until, to my horror, I realized I had put it on sideways!  The bow that was supposed to be in front was under my armpit.  Oops.  Problem solved.  Then there was the competition swimsuit category.  We all wore the same style, but in different colors.  Mine was electric blue.  I have already alluded to the fact that I was not well endowed, but this swimsuit highlighted my deficits.   It had a plunging neckline and I lived in mortal fear that what little I had would pop out at the most inopportune moment. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.  I developed the skill of teetering on five inch heels while making my way down the steps of the riverboat set without looking down.  I still remember that trick, though I have never had the occasion to use it again.
The opening number

After all of the preparation came the big night.  On April 30, 1979, I was the 28th woman to represent Colorado in the Miss USA Pageant.  I belted out my name and my hometown as I stepped into the spotlight.  Actually, I was more fascinated by the production itself than by actually being part of it.  It was sort of an out of body experience.  I met Bob Barker when he still had brown hair and marveled at the sensation that was Leif Garrett.  I was more into Neil Diamond at the time and thought Leif was rather dorky.  Most of my spare time was spent behind the scenes, watching the director and curiously skulking around observing the technical crew.  I found what they did much more fascinating than what I was supposed to be doing.  And so a producer was born...

I was little more than a prop during the Miss USA Pageant, but that was okay.  It was much more than I ever aspired to be.  My natural clumsiness reared its ugly head a couple of times.  I spilled a glass of champagne all over the tuxedo-ed Mr. Harold Glasser, who was the president of Miss USA/Universe.  When Eileen Ford of the Ford Modeling Agency (and a pageant judge) complimented my treasured Lily Rubin dress, I mumbled a response that wasn't quite English or any other language.  Perhaps I was speaking in tongues...

After all of the fanfare, we packed up my suitcases and headed back home to Colorado.  I had a nice year of appearances at ribbon cuttings and riding in convertibles in parades. During my stint on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, I was replaced on the phone banks by none other than Ronald McDonald!  One of my appearances during that year is still very clear.  I was invited to tour Children's Hospital in Denver with Lyle Alzado, the Broncos defensive end.  This was prior to his trade to the Cleveland Browns.  I'm still not sure if I made those poor little children feel any better, but one teenage girl made a lasting impression.  The representative from Children's Hospital gave us a briefing on the condition of each patient before we went into their room.  This particular girl was seventeen - one year younger than I was at the time - and she had just had her leg amputated below the hip due to bone cancer.  I thank God to this day that I had the presence of mind to remove my crown and banner, take the camera from the hospital representative, and act as the photographer for her session with Lyle Alzado.  She was beaming as he held her hand and kissed her on the forehead.

Jene in the control room
A few years later, I was hired by a local television station and that began a very long career in broadcasting.   I'm frankly surprised that my former employer did the story about the current Miss Colorado's situation that attracted so much attention without answering some of the basic questions that are being asked by critics now.  My raised eyebrows are among the reasons my lengthy career there has ended.  Clearly, things have changed over the years.  Thirty two years ago, I would have never wanted publicity for having a homemade wardrobe or living in a humble house or even for having a disabled mother and a wayward father.  It wasn't shame that kept me from talking about those things -- it was dignity.  I never felt like I didn't have enough because I had plenty.  I am proud of where I came from and honored to call the place that gave shelter to generations of our family - all 826 square feet of it -  my home.  It remains the one place I can go and still feel safe, despite the fact that the neighborhood is steadily going downhill.  It isn't an elegant house, but it has kept me warm and shielded me from some very harsh realities.  I visit frequently and as I enter the doorway where that banner welcoming me home once hung, I can’t help but smile.  I sleep in the bedroom where the sewing machine still stands and though it has been silent for many years, the memories and the lessons I learned continue to ground me.  The cherished Lily Rubin dress hangs in the closet, too tiny for me to ever squeeze into again.
Mom & Jene in 2009
In conclusion, here are a few thoughts from a former Miss Colorado USA to the current one.  It is a privilege to represent our state and to be part of Colorado history.  However, today's media darling can quickly become tomorrow's villain.  There are always consequences to choices and they are the responsibility of the person making the decisions.  I urge you to do some volunteer work at a shelter and meet people who truly have nowhere to call home.  The title you now hold is an honorable one, but it will not define who you are or who you will become.  Walk like a winner and never wear the shroud of a victim. Enjoy the journey, and may your memories be as joyful and colorful as mine when you look back on this very special time.

Jene Nelson is a multiple Emmy award winning journalist and recently released a documentary titled  I Breathe, which is an in depth look at the multi billion dollar commercial dog breeding industry.  She is passionate about fair and humane treatment of all living things.


  1. I love it!! Such an honest and appealing description of a young woman's journey on the way to the Miss Colorado Crown! What a wonderful time that was! Beautiful young woman, seemingly never realizing how beautiful she was!
    Congratulations to you, bet you still walk like a winner, because you always will be!!

  2. Wow, thank you so very much for the kind words! I was extremely fortunate to have four extraordinary women as role models. Each one deserved a crown of their own for the lives they lead and the examples they set. Thanks again for your comment!

  3. Bravo!! What a well told story that should offer inspiration to young girls about achieving a goal. If you don't mind me asking, how old are you now? My math figures you are close to 50 and look terrific!!!!!!

  4. Your math skills are accurate. I turned 50 a few months ago. Thank you for the nice words. There are many stories more inspirational than mine that have yet to be told. Being Miss Colorado was never a goal of mine, but I am grateful for the experience and was honored to represent our beautiful state.