MISSION HILLS — For four weeks Monica Vega and 15 other young women had worked and waited for this moment. Now the moment had finally arrived and it was hers alone.
The man with the microphone called her name--sang it really--and suddenly arms were everywhere. Between the congratulatory hugs and pats on the back a red cape was draped over her shoulders. Someone placed a tiara on her head and a bouquet of cream-colored roses in her arms and Vega was nudged toward the runway where, amid the cheering and flashing cameras, she took the first steps of her yearlong reign as the 64th Miss San Fernando.
Moments later, flanked by family, friends and a crowd of well-wishers, Vega's triumph was just beginning to sink in.
"I can't believe it. It's great, it's great. I was just hoping the whole time," she said. "When I was walking down the runway I couldn't feel my hands. I'm numb."
Outwardly, Vega's coronation in April in the ballroom of Mission Hills' Odyssey restaurant was much like the crowning of thousands of other young women and girls in pageants every year across the United States.
And, while the evening gowns, heavy makeup, corporate sponsors and nervous energy evident at the Odyssey on pageant night were reminiscent of beauty pageants everywhere, organizers of the Miss San Fernando competition say this event was something quite different.
By emphasizing education and community service rather than physical beauty and talent, they said, the Miss San Fernando pageant strives to position young women for success. In its attempt to do so, the competition excludes elements that could be viewed as demeaning to the young women who participate, they said.
"We are even thinking of dropping the word 'pageant' because it doesn't express what this is all about," said Joe Sandoval, program coordinator for the San Fernando Chamber of Commerce. The San Fernando Civic Assn., an arm of the chamber, organizes the annual event.
"If you want to call it a beauty pageant, call it an inner-beauty pageant," Sandoval said, echoing a theme repeated by organizers and contestants alike throughout the competition.
Sandoval said the goal of the Miss San Fernando pageant is to help young women from the northeast Valley develop the skills, confidence and connections to succeed in college and beyond.
"We are not affiliated with any other pageants because we are not really in line with what they stand for," said chamber president Bruce Cohen. "Our pageant is about education and getting involved in the community. It's not about bathing suits and beauty contests."
Janice Rocco, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, said Miss San Fernando officials deserve credit for exposing participants to business and volunteer opportunities. Still, she said, the Miss San Fernando competition, like other pageants, continues to include elements that result in the women being judged subjectively.
"They have taken a step in the right direction by removing the word 'beauty,' and many of the things they promote are laudable. But having young women dress up in evening gowns to be judged is not something we should be leaning them toward," Rocco said. "If they could remove that one element they will have come even further."
San Fernando Mayor Raul Godinez II, one of five judges at this year's pageant, said everyone involved in the competition--winners, losers and even the judges--leaves the Odyssey ballroom with his or her sense of community enriched and dignity intact.
"The objectification of women happens only when you wear bikinis or some type of revealing outfits," Godinez said.
"I see the focus here being on camaraderie and developing self-esteem. Personally, I wouldn't be involved if there were [aspects of the competition] that resulted in the women being treated as second-class citizens," Godinez said.
While a few of this year's contestants expressed mild reservations about certain aspects of the pageant--particularly about walking the runway in front of the judges--it was clear that most embraced the idea of an inner-beauty pageant.
Jessica Martinez, one of five contestants named to Vega's "court," said that for her the benefits of participating by far outweighed the drawbacks.
"I'm really thankful I participated but tonight was difficult for the reason that that's really not me," she said, referring to her slow stroll on the runway. "I like the public speaking part and getting involved in the community, but the model thing is not me."
Maira Torres, 17, a senior at San Fernando High School, was not entirely convinced by the "inner beauty" label, but decided to enter the competition anyway.
"Even though they don't call it a beauty pageant I still think it kind of is," said Torres. "I've never done a pageant before, I'm kind of shy. I signed up because I thought this would be a good challenge and a good way for me to get over my shyness."