Over the years, Julie Rems has learned to accept the scrutiny that is so much a part of beauty pageant competition.
On stage, there is no avoiding the daunting gaze of the judges, the audience, even close friends. Yet Rems, who is deaf, has never been able to accept the critics who have challenged her right to compete.
Perhaps that is why her response was so heated when officials at the Miss Culver City Scholarship Pageant, in which she was competing this month for the second time, suggested that she forgo the assistance of the interpreter she had used the previous year during a seven-minute interview with the judges.
"I'm angry," said Rems, 25, a Canoga Park resident and former Miss Deaf California, who is earning a master's degree in social work from Cal State Northridge. "I decided to compete in the pageant in the first place to educate the public about deafness and athe issues of the deaf community. I was not expecting resistance. I don't want to see this happen to other young deaf women in the future."
That there was any question at all was unsettling for Rems, who placed second in last year's competition. At stake this year was a $1,000 scholarship and a trip in June to San Diego for the Miss California Pageant, whose winner competes in September for the Miss America title in Atlantic City, N.J.
This year, although she finally did use an interpreter, she finished out of the money in the Culver City competition, held March 8. Nonetheless, in her dispute with the pageant officials, Rems has drawn widespread support from the deaf community.
"This is a case of denying equal accessibility," said Herbert Larson, director of the National Center on Deafness at Cal State Northridge. "What other reason is there for denying an intelligent, articulate young woman who happens to be deaf an equal opportunity to compete? This shows us that we have yet to go beyond the notion of the ideal contestant as having blond hair and blue eyes."
Precisely what happened is still a matter of dispute between Rems and pageant officials. What is known, however, is that the controversy centers on a rule handed down by the national headquarters more than 40 years ago.
That rule bars any third party from helping a contestant during pageant competitions, a safeguard originally intended to prevent cheating. It applies to national and state pageants, but its interpretation and enforcement at the local level has long been left to the discretion of local directors.
Rems contends that Clark Terrill, a local field director for the state pageant, tried to persuade her to compete on her own, telling her that the rule barred the use of interpreters during private interviews. The pageant initially refused to provide her with an interpreter, she said, agreeing to do so only after she quit a rehearsal in protest.
Rems can read lips and speak, but when she is conversing with a hearing person she much prefers to have an interpreter present to clarify in sign language any questions asked of her.
"They told me that if I used an interpreter, it would hurt my chances of winning," she said. "They said they would give me credit just for trying on equal footing. But I wanted the judges to see the depth and intelligence of my character, that I have excellent communication skills in my own unique way."
Lynn Miller, executive director of the Culver City Pageant, said that Terrill had simply reminded her of the national pageant's rule, which effectively prohibited the use of an interpreter, and urged her to forgo assistance in the local competition. Miller defended the pageant's commitment to Rems over the past two years, noting that about $100 was set aside in December to hire an interpreter for Rems.
Terrill insists that he and the pageant are being cast unfairly. He says he encouraged Rems to participate and welcomed her to the competition, as he did the other contestants.
He maintains that it would be discriminatory toward those other contestants to provide Rems with an advantage because of her disability.
"You have to draw a line somewhere," Terrill said. "Atlantic City has drawn it for us. And that line says that every contestant must compete on equal footing. If a contestant can't compete on her own, maybe this isn't the program for her. It is very similar to the analogy that, if I had one leg, I would never be competitive running the hurdles."
Terrill and Bob Arnhym, president of the Miss California Pageant, insist that, had Rems won at the Culver City pageant with the aid of an interpreter, she would still have to compete unaided at the state level, jeopardizing her chances there.
Arnhym also questioned whether Rems would be able to fulfill her role as a future Miss America had she gone on to the national competition.
"Miss America's primary function is to serve as a communicator," Arnhym said. "She adopts a platform on a social issue and then communicates that on television, on radio and in person.
"There are plenty of people who would not be competitive for that type of job," he said. "It would be like asking someone who is deaf or blind to work as an anchor on a newscast. There are limitations. To suggest to me that there aren't is to deny reality."
That reasoning has done little to placate angry leaders in the deaf community who would like to see the Miss America pageant officials rethink the rules.
"It takes a great deal of courage to compete with hearing people," said Sherri Farinha Mutti, president of the California Assn. of the Deaf. "Now that people are stepping up and taking chances, we're seeing that these pageants are quite honestly out of context with the times."