It was one of those compliments you don't know how to take.
The City of Oxnard was calling to ask me to be a "celebrity judge" at Saturday's Miss Oxnard Pageant. Not a contestant, mind you. A judge.
You know beauty pageant judges. They're the unattractive people who squirm when television cameras flash on them before commercial breaks.
The prospect raised snickers from friends. My mother reminded me how I walk like a duck. One of my colleagues who specializes in Sweet Young Things insisted that he was better suited for the job.
I accepted, however, because, secretly, I considered myself to be the most qualified person for the task, which, as I understood it, would involve judging how well the contestants build costumes around the pageant's theme, "Island Paradise."
I was the star of my ninth-grade sewing class. I've been to Catalina. One Halloween, I was a cranberry--all 5 feet, 11 inches of me.
But, by midweek, insecurity had set in. Think about it. You're judging how people dress. They're likely to repay you in kind.
I bought a new dress and then decided it had to be altered. I altered it and then decided it wasn't right. I considered wearing The Dress of Dresses, a velvet gown so perfect my mother, sister and I rotate ownership of it. No, I later thought, maybe a simple black shift would be better.
By Friday, the paranoia had spread to my escort. "I could dash out at lunch and rent a tux," he nervously offered. I turned for guidance to Oxnard's special events coordinator, Michelle Alicki, but she confused matters. "Only the mayor wears a tuxedo," she pronounced.
By late Saturday afternoon, I was still in a quandary. "Just wear something funky," a friend coached. I took a deep breath and threw on a 50-year-old vampish black frock that had been my great-grandmother's.
It looked fine at first, but I thought I detected a few odd glances as I strode into the Oxnard Civic Auditorium moments before the event. I sheepishly wedged myself between other Celebrity Judges within rows of a runway rimmed in lights.
I seemed to be in pretty qualified company. Nancy Cloutier, owner and publisher of the Ventura County & Coast Reporter, seemed to be an old pro at costumes; she said she was Minnie Mouse on roller-skates last Halloween. Ross Olney, a KVEN radio talk-show host, turned out to be a knitter. "I'm very secure in my masculinity," he explained.
Alicki explained that, besides judging costumes for originality and creativity, we were supposed to consider the contestants' descriptions of the islands that their homemade outfits represented.
A panel of "experienced judges selected from out of the immediate area to ensure expert, impartial judging" would choose Miss Oxnard, we were told. "We're just peons," Olney whispered.
And the celebrity judges learned that we were also expected to decide the "fitness" segment of the competition. Boy, was I glad no one had told me that earlier. Fretting over what to wear as a costume judge was bad enough. Had I known that I was supposed to claim authority in fitness, I'd have felt obligated to spend the whole week in aerobics classes.
The show opened with a performance by Buster Walea and the Aloha Islanders, which featured hip-wobbling by six hula dancers in grass skirts, Elvis Presley belts and tear-shaped hats that appeared to have been inspired by the Pontiff.
Then, one by one, 25 contestants filed on stage--a parade of puka shells, chamois, leis and luau prints. "I'll never be able to decide," Olney lamented.
But me, I picked out my favorite costumes the second I laid eyes on them--a fuchsia hula skirt and a Carmen Miranda get-up. They'd get 10s, I decided right away. But, as the contest progressed, I feared things weren't going to be that simple.
Sometimes contestants in absolutely wonderful costumes muffed their recitations, or didn't give clever ones. I docked them mercilessly. Conversely, I gave high scores to the humblest of sarongs when a contestant's ditty struck me as witty. And, if it was delivered in a foreign language--contestants spoke in everything from Tagalog to Italian (Sicily, remember?)--forget it. They got at least a 7. No matter what.
I began to dread judging my favorite costumes. What if their bearers turned out to be bimbos? Imagine my relief, therefore, when they were described in lilting Hawaiian and Spanish, respectively.
Afterward, my interest began to stray. Contestants zipped by. Costumes blurred together. I started scrambling scores. Then I caught myself being petty. I gave a low score to a contestant with a perfectly decent costume because her voice grated on me.
Despite a wealth of experience, suddenly I was having trouble making snap judgments. I looked to my colleagues for guidance. But they appeared to have no problems being decisive.
"If she takes off her veil," Olney said about a contestant in filmy genie jammies that were supposed to represent Sri Lanka, "I'll give her an extra point." She did.