The Miss Citrus and Miss Teen Citrus Scholarship pageants were held last Friday and Saturday. But in reality, the pageants began long before then.
The real work starts months before, when the young women participating in these events begin to perfect their stage presence under the tutelage of Nell Mayberry and a committee of fellow helpers: Lou Ellen Davis, Ann Gibbs, Linda Thomas and Betty Turco.
These five women have worked together since 1995 and have fine tuned their skills in dealing with the nervous young women, whom they first meet with in November.
"Many of them haven't even worn heels before," said Mayberry. She has found that "those who listen to what we tell them will do well. Those that don't, or who wait until the last minute to start listening, won't. But that's part of life."
Learning to walk in high heels is just one of the many skills the women must hone or acquire in the weeks leading up to the pageants.
Communication skills, individual talent, posture, walking correctly, poise and self-confidence are among the arts needed to become a winner.
"We work with them and teach them," explained Mayberry. "Over the years we've learned what the judges like."
On a recent Thursday evening, the roaring growl of the cars at the nearby Citrus County Speedway reverberated from the metal walls of the Citrus County Auditorium. Inside the cavernous space 16 young women, five pageant volunteers and a sound man tried to concentrate on perfecting the two programs.
A state of general confusion reigned. The contestants wandered behind and across the stage and throughout the auditorium. Some talked to the sound man in an attempt to get the right mix on their music.
The young women eventually were corralled on stage. To the booming sounds of Girls Just Want to Have Fun, the participants from both pageants danced, jumped and paraded around the stage in the opening number.
Many wore the blue flannel, cloud-decorated pajamas that made this introductory piece a giant slumber party. Several of the women who worked after school and came directly to practice looked as if a nap right about then would be welcome.
On stage, Rosemary Silvestro DeMott, Miss Citrus County 1985, was leading the contestants through their paces, demonstrating dance steps, admonishing stumblers to practice more vigorously and in general trying to make a cohesive unit of 16 very different personalities.
DeMott demonstrated a new step. The young women tried it out, some bumping into one another.
"Oops! That was just a run through _ right?" asked DeMott. Laughter erupted. Then it was back to practice.
Practice dancing, practice singing, practice walking in high heels and evening gowns, practice walking in bathing suits. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Mayberry called out, "Smile!"
That's important, and Mayberry and her committee members repeated that command many times through the night. It's just one of the things the judges like to see.
On pageant night Mayberry will bring Vaseline. "I smear it on their teeth and then they have to smile." Just one more pageant trick.
As the evening neared its end Ellen King sat rubbing her foot, which had been encased in a high heel. She has tendonitis, but still wanted to practice walking in heels.
Nearby, Stephani Woods complained, "I think I've lost all circulation in my feet. When I took my shoes off my toes were bright blue!"
But high heels aren't a bane to everyone. When last call on snacks is given, Ashley Surkhamer dashed for the table at the far end of the auditorium, blissfully unaware of the pain her compatriots suffered. Apparently not having eaten dinner dulled any pain she may have felt.
And while the young women may be the ones who win the scholarship money, Mayberry and her crew have their own rewards.
"It's a lot of work, but it's worth it," said Mayberry, speaking for the group. "After the girls take the money and go away to school, we get notes saying how much we've helped them."