No More Miss Congeniality

It was funny enough that Tashia was even here, a big, unrestrained, laughing woman like herself. As her boyfriend saw it, she was "real," and pageant people were "fake." And what was she doing in a beauty pageant?

But Tashia, who is something of a thrill-seeker, says she just wanted to see what they were all about. Standing onstage in her evening gown, she was nearly convinced the experience was among the worst of her life, when the announcer changed her mind.

"And now, the winner of the 1998-1999 Ms. Black Texas Metroplex pageant isŠ Ms. Contestant Number One, Tashia Beatty!"

There was a shriek just like on television, and that would have been Tashia, quite startled. When the reigning queen placed the crown on Tashia's head, tears were rolling down Tashia's cheeks. The crown fell off. Tashia laughed and put it back on. Again it fell off, and again she laughed and put it back on. "You go, girl!" a friend yelled from the audience. Someone placed a bundle of roses in Tashia's arms. She couldn't help but notice they were wilting, but she didn't mind. The best was yet to come.

"All of the cash awards and magnificent prizes are yours!" said the announcer.

Tashia was eager to see them. She assumed someone would be taking her backstage to show her the money, but instead, everyone went home. Tashia went home, too, and began calling everyone she knew. She kept waiting for someone from the pageant to call her, but about six weeks passed before anyone did. Metroplex director Carolyn Mason requested an audience with the queen. Oh, goody, Tashia thought, "This is when I get my schedule of appearances and a laid-out format for when my color TV arrives."

Instead, Tashia was presented with a contract informing her she hadn't actually won any prizes, but only the opportunity to earn them as a pageant ambassador. There was nothing Tashia could say. Rule 20 forbade "any type of attitude, talking back, snapping or any tone other than a courteous one." Tashia was led to believe she would be deposed if she did not sign. In a daze, she scrawled her name.

About eight months later Tashia finally violated Rule 20 and lost her temper. She wrote pageant director Carolyn Mason a public letter concerning matters "I find fraudulent, misleading and not [consistent with] a well-run organization."

Mason claimed to be "not just overwhelmed but quite devastated" by this. In one of those office buildings on the South Loop that seem always to have space for lease, Mason's office was the one with pink walls. She sat behind a desk there, perfectly prim, a length of black hair displayed against her shoulder. "Do you mind if I record this?" she asked.

Mrs. Mason said she got the idea for her pageant about 15 years ago, while running a dress store on Westheimer. Pretty pageant girls would come into her shop with nothing in their heads, and Mrs. Mason thought this was a shame. She knew the Miss America pageant showcased the talents of a woman, and the Miss Universe, the swimsuit. But where onstage could women go who were smart and African-American?

Mason eventually closed her dress shop and founded a public charity to meet the need. The pageant with the industrial name USA Metroplex Pageant Systems, Inc. became the one that focused on "the beauty within." Mason took as a slogan "No talent or beauty, just pure intellect." Mrs. Mason claimed that her pageants would teach poise, enhance self-esteem and educate African-American women. "When we educate our women, we strengthen our men and thus, unify our households," she wrote.

She set off to invigorate the black community, one pageant queen at a time. Many people bought into the idea. Mrs. Mason has received civic awards for her pageant work. The Houston Chronicle has referred to Metroplex as "this prestigious pageant." Governor Ann Richards, former mayor Bob Lanier and former City Councilmember Sheila Jackson Lee have all written endorsement letters. Mayor Lee Brown recently praised the Metroplex mission as "admirable" and asked it "to keep up the good work."

Mason sought these letters and printed them in the pageant's souvenir booklets. The Metroplex office became a photo gallery of famous people -- Mrs. Mason with athletes, musicians, soap opera stars. She and a queen even smiled with President Clinton. Tashia, on seeing the photos, believed Mrs. Mason was a woman who could make things happen for a girl, if she wanted to. A representative from Dark & Lovely saw the Clinton picture and was convinced Metroplex had national reach and was worth sponsoring. "It's a great marriage," said Rodney Hill, a senior vice president with Dark & Lovely. "We go together like beans and rice."  

All of this goes to show that Metroplex has become a prominent member of the black community. Mrs. Mason said that only three of her queens failed to receive their prizes, and it was because they failed to abide by regulations. To confirm what she said, Mrs. Mason promised to provide phone numbers for her queens and an accounting of how her charity has spent its money.

"I could say I'll give it to you and then not give it to you," she said, "but that's not the way I am. I'm up front and honest, and I'll give you what I have."

She became difficult to reach after that. She would pick up the phone and say she was eating lunch, or someone was in her office, or she really had to get this paperwork done -- and could she call you back? She never called back.

There was nothing to do but listen to what the people said about her.

David Pollard, a hairdresser, said there are a lot of fraudulent pageants out there. After a promoter absconded with the prize money, the old Miss Black Houston Pageant was dead until 1984, when Pollard revived it. As he tells it, Mrs. Mason followed the girls in her dress shop to his pageant, and the two of them soon became partners. When Pollard broke away, he formed the Official Miss Black Houston Pageant, and Mrs. Mason, in turn, renamed her event Miss Black Houston Metroplex. Pollard is grateful for the distinction "because they are not in good standing," he said. He considered it unprofessional to say more.

Over time, Mrs. Mason appended "USA" to the Metroplex title and then finally dispensed with "Houston" altogether. To demonstrate her larger vision, she began the crowning of Miss Black Texas Metroplex, and even Miss Black USA Metroplex. Mrs. Mason was nationwide. She once claimed to have pageants in 14 states but says now that she has them in six. A database search outside of Houston found newspaper stories about Metroplex in only Denver and Oklahoma City. Those cities no longer have Metroplex listings in their phone directories, and locally, the Metroplex pageant has dwindled to what is now much smaller than Pollard's.

The problem, according to a creditor, is that Mrs. Mason has "used people up."

The first Metroplex pageant was held in something called the Century Club. Mrs. Mason walked away with a debt of $4,800, which wasn't settled for six years. Ed McGuire of Met Printing is still waiting to be compensated for producing the pageant program of 1993. Mrs. Mason has lately held her pageant at the Scottish Rite Temple on Braeswood. "Oh, yeah," said Bobby Wilson there. It has been difficult getting paid.

The trail of debt led to Garry Johnson at Video Expressions, who used to photograph and shoot video of the pageant. The queens would pay Mrs. Mason for their pictures and video, but he said Mrs. Mason wouldn't pay him. She insisted on previewing the master copy of the video, but after giving it to her, he would see neither the video nor her for a long time. When he called, the receptionist said Mrs. Mason wasn't there -- she was in Vegas. It took five pageants for Johnson to learn, but finally he said to his partner, "Melvin, it's a damn shame. Every time that pageant is over, Carolyn Mason goes to Las Vegas. I can't even go to San Antonio. Melvin, I'm through with that motherfucking pageant!"

He went on to say that the whole situation is bad. "Almost every queen she got lost her crown before the reign was over. You call around. If they knew you were trying to get in touch with them, they would tell you everything."

This turned out to be not entirely true. One of the pageant's purposes is to promote a sense of unity, and while the queens have found this in grumbling about the pageant, not all of them were willing to speak publicly. They seemed still to be hoping for some benefit from the pageant and reluctant to devalue what they had won.

"You kind of hate to say anything, because it's embarrassing," said Tonia Sharp, a Dallas claims adjuster. "You've gone through all of this, and your friends know, and then you have to turn around and tell them, 'Well, you know that pageantŠ' You really try not to talk about it as much as possible."

She agreed to speak because Tashia had. Tonia was the 1997-98 Ms. Black Texas Metroplex and the first runner-up to Ms. Black USA Metroplex. She finished her reign without being disciplined or suspended and indeed even showed up to put the crown on Tashia's head. But for neither of her titles did Tonia receive any prizes. In the souvenir program after her reign, Mrs. Mason praised Tonia for her "big, beautiful smile and positive attitude" and for being Metroplex's "best-kept secret."  

Two angry queens also came forth out of Oklahoma: Erica Grant, who was the 1997 Miss Black Oklahoma Teen Metroplex queen, and Wanda Paige. Paige was a student looking for scholarship money when she paid her Metroplex entry fee. There weren't enough contestants to hold the pageant, but instead of returning Wanda's money, the Oklahoma Metroplex director, Lorraine Franklin, crowned her the 1998 Ms. Black Oklahoma.

Wanda borrowed a crown and was still waiting for her prizes as she gathered the $1,200 entry fee for Miss Black USA Metroplex. After she gave the money to Franklin, she went by the office and found that it had been cleaned out. She went by Franklin's house, and the house was empty, too. Wanda asked Mrs. Mason for her money back, but Mrs. Mason told Wanda the same thing she told Erica Grant: Lorraine Franklin had the money and the prizes, and no, Mason didn't know where Franklin was. Sorry. Mrs. Mason tried to convince them to enter another Metroplex pageant, but both of them declined. Neither woman ever went to the police. Wanda had signed a contract, after all, vowing not to discuss Metroplex business with outsiders. She was persuaded to give her name here, but she worried she could be sued.

The silence has only rarely been broken. The one critical newspaper account of Metroplex pageants appeared in 1994, in Denver's Westword. The story focused on the director there, one Teresa Hailey, who had been through nine queens in the previous four years. In one case, the queen was a convicted felon. Other queens dressed inappropriately or were unable to make their appearances, or more often than not, were irate over the failure of their prizes to appear. Hailey was sued. She had a flowerpot tossed through her car window. At last, she was confronted by a DJ telling her of one more angry queen. As the story goes, Hailey said she was tired of trying to help these "ungrateful bitches" make something of themselves. They don't realize how much time she spends trying to make them look good. And what does she get out of it? "Nothing but grief." She was through. Hailey left the Colorado pageant and in fact left the state altogether.

A clerk with Continental, she lives in Houston now but is no longer connected with Mrs. Mason. The Westword story presented Mason as a calming force on the Denver strife, but Hailey says now that Mason was much of the problem.

"I do think Mrs. Mason needs to be stopped," said Hailey, and she recalled that many times, when she had access to Metroplex records, she considered calling up the media and doing just that. "But I didn't want black pageants to get a bad rap," she said, and the whole Metroplex experience was "like a bad thing, and it's over, and you just move on and be positive."

Would she sit down now for a longer interview? She said she would pray over the matter and call back with her decision. Hailey never called back.

The 1998 Ms. Black Texas Metroplex pageant was advertised on KMJQ-FM, "a very proud sponsor." Marilyn Davis, who used to be a model, thought this would be "one for the road." The ad made Kawana Chambers want to "be a part of the community." And Tashia, who was driving home from church, thought it just sounded fun.

Tashia has never had any doubts about her beauty and certainly no problems with self-esteem. Her skin she describes as "golden-brown," her body as voluptuous. On her application, she confessed that her favorite magazine is Self, that her most prized possession is a picture of herself and that she admires no one more than herself. She also wrote that life is full of "great, real moments; great, real moments only happen when you dare to explore." On the eve of her 25th birthday, she signed up for the Metroplex pageant as a kind of undercover adventure.

She was told this was not a beauty pageant, though a photo was required with the application. Tashia had never heard of an intellectual pageant, but she was writing a novel and fancied that if she won the pageant, she could promote it as an intellectual queen. She mailed the application off with the $25 fee, and shortly afterward received a letter of congratulations for having been chosen a Metroplex contestant.

The letter went on to say there would be an entry fee of $375, plus $100 more to print her photo in the souvenir program. When Tashia paid that, she was told she also needed to sell three pages of ads in the souvenir program, at $300 a page. "This is when my headache really started to roll in," she said. Tashia went to see Mrs. Mason. She was sure that little pink office was only the pageant's regional branch, but she was impressed by all the photos of celebrities. When she told Mrs. Mason she might withdraw, Mrs. Mason said she would miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "How many platforms are there like this in our community?" Mrs. Mason asked.  

Anyway, Mrs. Mason already had 500 of Tashia's dollars, and Tashia agreed to sell ads. It was easy to do, said Mrs. Mason. You just call everyone you know and make it seem as though you're doing them a favor. She gave Tashia a price list, which pointed out the ad charges would be tax-deductible.

Tashia managed to sell to her family, to the basketball coach at Waltrip Senior High where she taught, to the LA Big Band for which she played piano. "Congratulations, Tashia," wrote her friend Art Allen. "You're doing itŠ Conquering the World!"

Tashia bought dresses and shoes and all of the many accessories that go into assembling a pageant contestant. Whatever they raised for Mrs. Mason, Tashia, Marilyn and Kawana had each spent about $1,000 on the pageant by the time they showed up for orientation weekend.

It was true, as the souvenir program said, that all contestants received a stay "at the beautiful Sheraton Brookhollow." It was also true that everyone paid for it. Only Mrs. Mason received a complimentary suite, for bringing the crowd in.

One of the contestants' most vivid memories from that weekend is Tonia Sharp lurking about with her crown, saying mysteriously, "You don't want to do this. You do not want to do this." Another is the voice of Mrs. Mason saying, "This is my pageant. If you don't like it, you can walk out the door!"

But everyone had paid by then, and as Tashia said, "we were in like the Mafia." Mrs. Mason treated them like children. She began running something of a charm school, without her previous charm. On patrol, she charged $5 to anyone caught crossing her legs. ("Queens do not cross their legs.") Tashia must have paid her $15. Inspecting Kawana's wardrobe, she found fault with Kawana's earrings and snapped at her for not following the clothing list: "Can't you read?" Marilyn's banner had someone else's name on it, but when she complained, Mrs. Mason only said, "I don't have time for this!" and scurried away.

When Mrs. Mason wasn't scolding them, Dr. Mason (as she calls her husband, the dentist) was holding forth on current events. Dr. Mason's professional motto was "Turning Frowns into Smiles," but Kawana could only frown. They talked late into the night, missing several meals. In a desperate moment, Kawana had her mother smuggle in a two-piece chicken dinner from Church's. She sneaked away and ate it, worried that Mrs. Mason would find the bones.

It was long after midnight on Saturday when Mrs. Mason finally granted them a rest period from learning a dance routine. Tashia laid her head on her knees. Mrs. Mason continued speaking. She said not everyone could look like her: "Not everyone is going to be light-skinned." She directed their attention to her long hair and said that as a child her sister had always had "bear hair." But Mrs. Mason's hair was different, and as a result, she said, she had never had to sit at the back of the bus.

Hearing this, Kawana began dreaming of plucking out Mrs. Mason's eyeballs. "Tashia was like, 'Kay, don't worry about it,' but I was so sick of this heifer, I didn't know what to do."

They were told the pageant would be held at the Wortham, but it was at the Scottish Rite Temple again. When they got there and saw the souvenir program, they realized they had already won. They had been assigned titles according to where they lived. Marilyn became Ms. Black Spring Branch, Kawana became the queen of Northeast Houston and Tashia, the queen of Southwest. They had been told to expect an audience of 1,000 people, but their friends and family came to only about 200. Among them was Garry Johnson, shooting the video.

There they are, said the announcer, a casual fellow named Casual Cal, "16 lovely ladies from across the Lone Star State here to compete for $20,000 in cash and prizes."

Let the tournament begin. In the Miss category, for women 17 to 24, the contestants pranced about in swimsuits, demonstrating their various aspects. The Ms. contestants kept their clothes on. Tashia looked very nice in casual wear and splendid in an evening gown. The pageant's intellectual competition consisted of a single question. Tashia was asked, How might teenagers be encouraged not to commit crime after school? Perhaps they could travel, she suggested, which may not have been the best answer, but was not the worst, either.  

The ladies appeared one by one and smiled and faded away. The Metroplex pageant was actually a pretty good show, as pageants go. The script was just right, and several queens had returned to read it with the same hollow inflections that you get at real pageants. In the end, everyone was thanking everyone for just about everything. Mrs. Mason thanked all those who had helped put on this show, including the good people at Video Expressions. Tonia Sharp stood up to say the year of her reign had certainly been exceptional. Smiling that pageant smile, Tonia said, "To Mrs. Mason, what can I say except, 'What is really going on?' I must say, it's you and this pageant."

Tonia gave Mrs. Mason that sincere pageant hug and stood by to place the crown on Tashia's head. Everyone clapped just like they do at the real pageants, but Marilyn was thanking the Lord it was over, and Kawana was looking at Tashia and thinking, "Bless your heart. Poor you, poor you."

The Internal Revenue Service is perhaps one of the few institutions with less soul than a beauty pageant. It does deserve some credit, however, for its interest in reality.

The cold eyes of government glanced at the ugly name of the beauty pageant and said, How odd. Like Mrs. Mason, the IRS considers pageant scholarships to be pay, which prevents most pageants from receiving tax-deductible contributions. A pageant could qualify as an educational charity only if it were "educational" in some other way. Metroplex's focus on "pure intellect" might do the trick, said Lucille Dunn, the IRS spokeswoman. "But it's a stretch."

By claiming to be a charity with annual income of less than $25,000, Metroplex also places itself in a category of charity for which no filings are required and no oversight is done. This presents a puzzle: In 1998 Metroplex offered $50,000 prize packages to both of its national queens.

There seem to be three possible explanations: Gift contributors are either giving directly to the winners (which seems unlikely, as the donor would forfeit his tax deduction and Mrs. Mason, her control); or Mrs. Mason is lying to the IRS about the size of Metroplex's income; or Mrs. Mason is lying to everyone about the size of her prize packages.

Lists of these prizes have grown sketchier in recent years, with Mrs. Mason rarely disclosing brand names or the size and source of the "cash award." In her office, she said definitively that all prizes have been secured by the date of each pageant. Yet nine months after Tashia was crowned, several of the contributors specified on her prize list said they did not in fact contribute.

Savvy Boutique gave no gift certificate. Leather Plus promised no leather coat. There is no "Holiday-In Select" in New Orleans, but the people at Holiday Inn-Select say no one from Metroplex ever called to arrange a "two night stay."

None of this becomes an issue, of course, until a queen lives up to her contract. The last rule of the contract forbids queens from contacting gift sponsors without Mrs. Mason's permission.

Tashia convinced herself the contract was just a formality. Probably the pageant had encountered a difficult queen, and the contract wouldn't affect her, since she wasn't a difficult person.

She had been told as a contestant to "imagine" her picture in the Houston Chronicle. Now, Tashia began looking for it. She told her family in East St. Louis she would send photos for the hometown paper as soon as she got them.

Mrs. Mason was away for a time. When she returned, she explained she had gone to Las Vegas and then on a lovely cruise. Tashia wrote her a check for $240 to cover the official pictures and video. When she inquired about her prizes, she was told they would be awarded throughout her reign. Tashia settled in for the wait.

"Oh, Tashia, you just don't know how tired I am," said Mrs. Mason, when Tashia inquired about the plans for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The day came and went without a Metroplex float in the parade. Tashia went on with other royal appearances. She served as a model for a hair show; she worked as a hostess for a YWCA event. She had looked forward to mentoring young women, but she noticed that, to Mrs. Mason, mentoring seemed to mean recruiting women into the pageants. Tashia was not yet convinced that was the responsible thing to do.  

She declined when Mrs. Mason invited her to go gambling in Louisiana. She kept it polite. Mrs. Mason began complaining about Tashia's hair and appearance. Rather than building her self-esteem, Mrs. Mason seemed to be trying to break her down. Tashia considered Rule 20 and tried not to react.

The national pageant was supposed to take place in Atlanta, but the date kept shifting, and Tashia was finally told that at some point the pageant would again be held in Houston. Mrs. Mason explained this was as the mayor wished. Tashia was actually looking forward to the pageant, until she ran into Miss Black New Mexico Metroplex, who was from Texas. Miss District of Columbia was from Texas, too, and Miss Virginia was from Oklahoma. And Tashia realized that anyone with cash could enter the Ms. Black USA Metroplex contest, and she felt like "Michael Jordan playing high school basketball."

Her interest was limited after that, and then she learned that she was expected to sell ten pages of advertising for the booklet or recruit 25 contestants. At about eight months into her reign, she had not yet received her pictures or much more than her crown and banner, and Tashia was seriously chafing against Rule 20. Without her prizes, she declined to sell any more ads or to recruit any more innocent women into this scam masquerading as a community service.

Tashia asked her predecessor why she had allowed this to happen. Tonia Sharp explained she had crowned Tashia because she "didn't want to rain on anyone's parade." She never complained publicly because she was afraid Mrs. Mason would attack her, and also because this was a black problem, and the world already knew of too many black problems.

Tashia had no patience with this. Mrs. Mason was nothing more than "a pimp in sequins."

"This was supposed to highlight African-American women, and it's turned into exploitation," said Tashia. "You're led along and misled, but you keep smiling, because everyone says, 'Oh, how wonderful! It's about time we had this for our community.' But what price do we have to pay to look good before our own community?"

Tashia wrote her letter. When she was informed that she had been removed as queen, Tashia shrugged and said she had never really felt like one. Mrs. Mason's reply to her letter accused Tashia of everything from failing to write thank-you notes to appearing with panty lines to damaging the pageant's reputation to lying. The pageant that purported to teach poise would in the end offer only a lesson in how to fight like a dog. Tashia had learned what pageants are all about.

E-mail Randall Patterson right here.

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