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Standing Tall : People Naturally Look Up to Members of This Club, and They've Learned to Use Height as an Asset

October 26, 1989|COLETTE O'CONNOR | Colette O'Connor is a free-lance writer.

Growing up, Tessa van der Loo, 28, was called practically everything: "stretch," "stork," "legs."

"Oh, if only I knew then what I know now," said van der Loo, who on Saturday was crowned 1990's "Miss Tall Orange County" in a pageant held in Costa Mesa by the 300-member Orange County Tall Club. "I'd have worn high, high heels in high school. If anyone was intimidated, well, that would have been their shortcoming."

At 5-foot-11, van der Loo has a thing or two to tell the world of women, who average 5 feet, 4 inches tall, and men, most of whom would look up to her boyfriend, Guy Earl, 33, of Costa Mesa, who stands 6 feet, 5 inches.

"No, we're not born good at basketball," she said. And, yes, the weather is just the same "up here."

"Looking back, it seems impossible to be proud of being tall," van der Loo said. "But if you are, you should be. It's wonderful. Stand up straight and show it! Be proud you're always the first one noticed and never easy to forget."

Van der Loo, who received a $595 scholarship for modeling school as pageant winner, has, indeed, been noticed. The Irvine resident wants women 5-foot-10 and above and men 6-foot-2 and up (the Tall Club's minimum height requirements) to take advantage of the presence they possess.

"People naturally look up to you," she said. "You can use that attention to your benefit."

For the six contestants in the Miss Tall Orange County pageant, which included a show of skits, impromptu questions and an evening gown competition, height has been an issue since childhood.

"As a child, in my Girl Scout uniform, I'd be called the Jolly Jeanne Giant," recalled Jeanne Miller, 32, a vivacious 5-foot, 10-inch contestant and Costa Mesa accountant. "And the first day of school in eighth grade, my classmates at first thought I was the teacher."

Kim Effinger, 25, of Corona del Mar, who is 5-foot-11, recalled: "I'd forever date shorter men and feel totally intimidating. I'd tell myself it didn't matter." But, she added, her stature was a problem in relationships until she decided to be proud of her height and refuse to settle for less than she desired. Still, she said, "I don't want to be the one to carry my husband over the threshold when I marry. It can feel lonely (being tall)."

"A lot of us had extremely painful adolescent years, times of feeling different, unattractive," said 1988's Miss Tall Orange County and this year's pageant director, Vicki Kondzela, who in the seventh grade was 5-foot-10 and thought none of her classmates would ever grow. "But look at us now," the 6-foot, 2-inch Corona del Mar special education teacher added, referring to the Costa Mesa Community Center crammed with elegant women and men dressed stylishly to the nines.

"We want tall people everywhere, and especially young people, to realize that even if you feel awkward, maybe withdrawn and self-conscious, you're not alone. There's a whole group of us out there," Kondzela added.

High expectations can be a problem when you're tall, according to Nan McDuffee, 41, of Huntington Beach. At 5-foot-11 3/4 ("When you love being tall, you hang onto those quarter inches," she joked), the president of the Tall Club of Orange County knows very well how young people who stand heads above their peers somehow are expected to be more adult than they may feel.

"A lot of us at 14 years old and 6 feet tall were given a lot of responsibility before we may have been ready," she suggested.

And such undue attention can seem overwhelming. "You walk in a room and all heads turn," said 6-foot-1 1/2 Tall Club member Lesa Gerhard, 24, of South El Monte. "Everyone just waits for you to say something brilliant. There's a lot of pressure sometimes, which can make you feel very self-conscious."

Kondzela, 42, notes that there is a "double-edge sword of credibility" accorded height in our culture.

"You tend to reflect authority just by being tall," she said. "When someone 6 feet tall says, 'I don't think you should do that!' People will think, 'Whoa, don't get Vicki mad!' But inside, I'm basically a cotton puff. You can come off as intimidating even when you don't feel the least bit so."

The tall can be inconvenienced by zillions of life's little irritants, as well, Kondzela added. "I swear I live in a house built for dwarfs!" she laughed. "Sinks are low, counters are way down there, and I end up putting things away on top of the refrigerator, the only place comfortable to reach.

"And," she added, "ever try to find a cute, size-13 shoe?"

Nevertheless, such petty-to-profound experiences become nothing but good joke material to the many Tall Club of Orange County members who--in the company of one another--learn to appreciate their height.

"It's so wonderful to see a newcomer to our club, a woman who might arrive shy, slouched and wearing flats, slowly blossom as she gets involved with others who stand up beautiful and pleased of their uniqueness," McDuffee said.

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