I could feel my face burning.
It was one of the most self-conscious moments I’ve ever had.
And I was embarrassed in a crowd of hundreds of onlookers.
They weren’t looking at me, however.
Their eyes were on contestants for Miss Placer County.
I was at the judge’s table.
On my left was Dr. Paul Dugan who had launched Roseville’s Start-a-Heart effort that helped thousands get CPR certified over the course of a weekend each year.
To my right was a former pageant winner who was definitely older than my then 31 years.
And in front of me was my source of my embarrassment.
There were nine young ladies donning Catalina swimsuits wearing high heels. One by one, and then as a group, they were being instructed to make quarter turns. More often than not it was within five feet of the judges’ table at the edge off the stage.
Each turn seemed to trigger catcalls from young males gathered around the peripheral of the seating behind me.
Given the pageant was a drop-in affair for the audience as part of the opening night of the fair, the testosterone charged chorus should have been expected.
It helped to make me more uncomfortable than I already was.
My discomfort had started just minutes before the competition.
The previous weekend there had been a first phase of judging. The contestants — dressed in presentable casual clothes — appeared before judges one by one. They took a seat and proceeded to tell a bit about their selves and to answer judges’ questions. The question that triggers the “how I’m going to save the world response” was reserved for the public judging phase.
I was there because a former Miss Placer County who worked at The Roseville Press-Tribune in composing was the contracted pageant director. She asked me to be a judge. Actually, she had to ask me three times.
I couldn’t quite get why I was being asked or what expertise I could lend to the process.
She assured me that there would be “three professional judges” and “three amateur judges.”
The professional judges were either former pageant winners, were overseeing other contests, or were employed by the fashion or cosmetic industries.
The third amateur judge was a former prize fighter from the Sacramento area.
Before I go on, I need to be clear on one point. I was ambivalent about beauty pageants. By that point in my life, I had covered perhaps 20 such contests as a reporter and/or photographer. I don’t know if my “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude was because I didn’t see the point or thought they were tedious after having to spend a couple hours each time covering various pageants over the years.
The possibility in the back of my mind I might have thought they were a bit inappropriate never surfaced.
During the Saturday questioning, two of the contestants stood out in my mind for all the wrong reasons.
The first was a response one 18-year-old gave to my first question: “Since you are going to be representing Placer County if you win, can you describe the county’s geographic boundaries and its attributes?”
In retrospect, I should have gone with just asking about the county’s attributes.
The contestant described Placer County as reaching the Oregon border and going as far east as Reno which is as close to being accurate as saying the Sacramento Kings this year — and every year for that matter — almost won the NBA championship.
The second question, but with a different, contestant, got me in trouble with her mother who accosted me while I was shopping months later in the Mervyn’s store in Roseville.
I was easy to spot, I guess, given at the time I had a six day a week column in The Press-Tribune.
Without even asking me if I was Dennis Wyatt, she stepped in front of me and demanded to know who I thought I was asking pageant contestants — especially her daughter — such a tough question.
While I did not recall her daughter’s answer, but I do remember it ended up getting fairly weak responses from several contestants who looked as if they were bewildered by what was asked.
Her mom — who was not in attendance at the first phase of judging — was convinced her daughter’s chances at being Miss Placer County was ruined by the response she gave the judges.
The question? “If you had to give up one of your five senses, which one would of them would it be and why?”
Mom thought the question was highly inappropriate. I thought it would provide insight into how each contestant valued the basic ways we have interacting with the world and others to provide a glimpse at her outlook. I didn’t view it as a stumper question for a final in Astrophysics 101. Silly me.
So, there I was on a Thursday night in mid-July minutes before the final phase of the pageant was to start in a very public venue.
Diane — the pageant coordinator — handed us our judging sheets for the evening wear and swimsuit competition. How we scored them — plus our scores from the interview portion five days earlier — would determine the winner.
I looked at the sheets. The one that stopped me in my tracks was the swimsuit judging.
There were no less than a dozen questions that pertained to legs. The rest were how they carried and presented themselves.
I am not going to lie. When it comes to physical attributes after a woman’s eyes and face, legs are what capture my attention.
For just typing that I’m sure some woke warrior is going to damn me to eternal Internet hell for being a sexist.
But liking legs in general is much different than judging them as if you were judging a heifer in the showmanship competition that serves as the precursor to the livestock auction that would take place four days later on the other side of the fairgrounds.
There were specific rating boxes for cellulite, whether curves were in perfect symmetry, the condition of thighs, and other nuances.
I was mortified by some of the “flaws” we were instructed to look for and mentioned so out loud. The former pageant director to my right — and on cue —proceeded to tell me that the exacting standards were necessary in order for the Miss Placer County winner to have a chance in Los Angeles at the Miss California pageant.
It was clear at that point that physical beauty — read that perfection — was clearly more important than brains with personality taking a backseat as well.
I was obviously the wrong person to be judging the pageant.
That became apparent later that evening as I tried, but not successfully, to unmercifully judge the legs of nine almost complete strangers doing quarter turns less than five feet in front of me with their knees at my eye level.
I’m not exactly a prude but I think I blushed the entire way through the leg judging segment that to me had the feeling of a cattle call as opposed to how the contestants carried their selves.
It might not come as a surprise, but my pick wasn’t the winner.
I ended up doing my final scoring based entirely on the answers to questions, personality and the evening dress.
As for the winner, she was the one who apparently thought Redding was the county seat of Placer County and that California had annexed Reno.
But apparently, she had perfect legs.