By Fred W. Wright Jr.
Note to American women: If you ever yearned to be in a beauty pageant, it's never too late.
In fact, in order to be eligible for the annual Ms. Senior America pageant — this year's to be held Oct. 20-25 in the mecca of beauty pageants, Atlantic City — you need to be at least 60 years old.
There, winners of state Ms. Senior America competitions, including Florida's Betsy Ross of Vero Beach, will compete in four categories that are designed to display the contestant's inner beauty as well as outer poise. That's the philosophy of Senior America, a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey, which has been sponsoring these pageants since 1972.
"We're not a traditional beauty pageant," explained Louise Ferla, 80. She's vice president for Ms. Senior America and was Ms. New Jersey Senior America 1993. "We look for the inner beauty," she explained. "What's inside of us. What we do and what we continue to do. If a contestant has a pretty face, so be it. You're not judged on your face."
A panel of judges looks at the contestant's community activities as much as at other assets, Ferla explained.
A resident of Valencia Lakes, a retirement community in Wimauma, Ferla said she has been a volunteer for more than 40 years, with her community efforts both in New Jersey and Florida ranging from singing Christmas carols with veterans to sharing ice cream and cake with nursing home residents.
Contestants are judged in four categories — an interview, inner beauty, evening gown and talent. While the pageant judges recognize physical fitness, the organization's philosophy is that "true beauty is a matter of insight as well as eyesight."
Since some contestants may be in their 80s or even 90s, Ferla stressed that "we take women from the rocking chair to the runway." Noting the return of the Miss America Pageant to Atlantic City, Ferla added, "They are the young; we're the young at heart."
The winner receives modest prizes: a crown, a banner and a bouquet of flowers. There are no cash prizes.
"None of these prizes are serious dollars," explained Betsy Appello, organization president. "(Contestants) aren't expecting lots of money.
"Most of our contestants are community gals," she added. "They're not necessarily looking for scholarships or modeling contracts."
Each Ms. Senior America reigns for a year and travels to state pageants when possible.
Not every state will be represented in this year's pageant, according to Appello. "It's too soon to tell."
The number of contestants in October? "Usually, it's in the 30s," she said.
Fred. W. Wright Jr. Is a resident of Seminole. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org