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That time I lost a beauty contest

The first time I lost a competition I was 5. It was 1990 and my school organized a beauty contest. My parents convinced me that it would be a good idea to participate. I didn’t really understand what was going to happen, but during the rehearsal it seemed to me it would be quick and painless.

“Walk along this platform. When you get to the end, put your hands on your waist and smile. Turn around and come back”, said the teacher, Ms Lee.

The fifteen girls in my class, including me, followed her instructions once or twice and then it was time to eat. It was no big deal for me and I stopped thinking about it right away.

On the day of the contest, my mother was working, but left the clothes she selected with care on top of her bed. My father only had to help me tie my hair up. I didn’t even go to the trouble of applying makeup, except for a pink lip balm that smelled and looked like a strawberry. It felt great on my lips and gave me a hint of freshness.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I could lose the contest, until my father warned me on our way to school, trying to sound positively enthused. Of course I am going to win, I thought with unbelievable naiveté. Little did I know that competition among 5-year-old girls could be fierce.

It was hard to say in what tangle of feelings I found myself when I arrived at the school on that Saturday. The sight of one girl had altered my mood, from an unsettled elation to fury.

All the fifty girls looked pretty much the same: light-pink dresses, pink lipgloss, hair tied in a ponytail, white shoes and silk socks. We all looked very girly, except for her - Carla. She was the one and only who stood out in the crowd.

None of my friends wanted to be near her. Gossiping about her made us feel more confident that she didn’t stand a chance.

I was both fascinated and mad. I got near her to take a closer look at her outfit. I said hi with considerable cheer but she didn’t hear it, or completely ignored me. I smelled the scent of her cheap perfume and strawberry bubblegum and walked away.

She was Marlyn Monroe-blond and was wearing a leopard print mini dress that matched her hazel eyes. She was also the only one wearing big gold hoop earrings and not only that: Red lipsticks. Vivien Leigh-red.

I tried to act nonchalant and collected, but I was terrified when my name was called on the microphone. I took a deep breath. Walk. Stop. Smile. Come back. I did what Ms Lee told us to do. I am very good at following instructions. My hips didn’t move much, but my arms and legs were in sync. It was a little bit robotic, I must say, but I walked, stopped, smiled, and came back. I wondered, Am I pretty? Are they enjoying seeing me here? Am as pretty as Carla? Am I worth it? Am I enough?

People clapped and smiled at me, trying to encourage me. Do they like me, or do they pity me?

When my part was over and I was safe on the backstage, I wanted to disappear as magically as cotton candy dissolves on the lips.

With my eyes shut, I started digging a hole that would hopefully take me to Japan in my bubbly imagination - my haven when I was scared and my dearest pleasure when I was free. But then somebody bumped against me unintentionally - the place was packed. All this fantasy disappeared.

“Oh, I’m sorry, darling”, she said apologetically. I smiled with disappointment. It was hard to escape reality even for a few seconds.

“Carlaaaa,” said a girl on the microphone. And the crowd went crazy. People were screaming, clapping and waving at her. She was the only one to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Rumor has it that her mother had invited all her neighbors to support her daughter. She knew how to play.

I could hear the clacking of Carla’s heels from where I was standing. They slowed her down considerably. But she was very comfortable with all that exposition. The walking, the waving, the smiling. She walked gracefully with poise and pride. Her smile gave her the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost. She hypnotized all of us - and that was something Ms Lee did not teach us.

I was quiet and still as I watched her walk and blow kisses to her admirers - manipulative bitch.

Her mother kissed her fondly when she came backstage. Everyone showered her with compliments and continued talking about her victory for days on end. I had never met anyone like her; She was bold and dangerous and daring.

As far as I can recollect, it was the first time I felt and secretly acknowledged being envious. I felt ashamed and ridiculous about this feeling whenever I thought about it.

I didn’t know then that my first time wearing red lipstick would be nine years later. I didn’t know that my grandma would look at me charmed and, with an amused smile, she would tell me that she couldn’t believe how pretty I was. I didn’t know that it would make me feel a little like Carla - wild and daring - and I would be flooded with newfound confidence. I didn’t know that one day the red lipstick would be my secret weapon and I too would learn how to hypnotize people around me. I didn’t know, but I hoped for better days.

I wanted desperately to escape the world where I was a child and live in one where I would be a grown-up: with red lipsticks, high heels and Chanel perfume. A world where I could say no, thank you when asked if I would take part in a beauty contest.

When you are still too young to wear red lipstick, imagination and hope are perfectly legitimate responses to failure.

All in good time, I thought to myself when I was walking back to the car holding my father’s hand. The clacking of her heels and the smooching sound of her kisses to the audience were still echoing in some deep valley of my head.

“No hard feelings, right?”, said my father.

I blinked my eyes savagely hard, driving my tears the way back. I bit my lips and resisted a severe reply. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them. Bloody beauty nuisance.

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