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."

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Randall Patterson