60-plus and beautiful


In a second-floor classroom in an old elementary school, the air hung heavy with the scent of perfume, last-minute nail polish and too much aerosol hairspray.

Racks of gowns and dresses looked as if they had been ransacked, and every tabletop was a jumble of shoes, makeup, pantyhose, mirrors and oodles of pearl and rhinestone jewelry.

"It's show time," pageant director Sonia Mittelstedt announced. "I have to go be with my girls."

Her "girls" - all 60 or older - were contestants in yesterday's Ms. Maryland Senior America Pageant. More than 500 people crammed into the auditorium of the Ateaze Senior Center in Dundalk to watch 18 women compete for the crown in a contest that national organizers say was started 32 years ago to honor women who have reached the "Age of Elegance."

Contestants were judged on poise, talent, an interview and, yes, their appearance in an evening gown. But there was also a category - worth 20 percent of their score - called inner beauty, for which the women had to present their "philosophy of life" in 35 seconds or less.

The competition drew women ages 60 to 82, including an interior designer, a Baltimore Highlands native who calls bingo twice a week, a former beauty queen and several retired school teachers. They came from the Baltimore area, but also from such places as the Washington suburbs, St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore and Garrett County.

This was the second year of Maryland's revived state pageant, which was first held in the early 1980s but took a decade-long hiatus until last year. Titleholders were appointed each year during the break.

"We're trying to eliminate the negative stereotypes of being a senior and show that senior ladies can be role models," said Kathleen Young, pageant coordinator and director of the Essex Senior Center.

Contestant No. 4, Saundra "Sam" Kline of Monkton, was likely just what organizers had in mind when they held the first Ms. Senior state pageant in New Jersey in 1972.

At age 60, the grandmother and registered nurse works full time as a nurse liaison and danced for 12 years with a group of belly dancers called Mirage. Although Kline initially waffled about whether to enter the pageant, she didn't hold back once the decision was made.

For the talent segment, she changed from her floor-length red evening gown into a teeny-tiny fringed bikini top and what had to be yards and yards of swirling, see-through yellow and purple fabric. With miniature cymbals attached to her fingers, she wiggled and shook and gyrated her way around the stage in a Middle Eastern dance routine that had the audience cheering.

"You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves," master of ceremonies Ellis Woodward chided the crowd.

Ernestine Shepherd, 68, of Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood is an avid weight lifter. She brought her free weights and, in high-heeled boots, black shorts and a halter-style bikini top decorated with rhinestones, showed the audience how to train their bodies - and minds.

In a competition in which several women danced or recited monologues, Verna Day-Jones brought down the house by combining the two.

The 80-year-old mother of four, grandmother of two and great-grandmother of six had won over the audience during the evening gown competition. Outfitted in an elegant, floor-length lace dress, she sashayed across the stage, twirling and shaking her hips.

"We all know that you have to take life as it happens. But sometimes, try to make it happen the way you want to take it," Day-Jones told the judges when it came time to share her life philosophy. "And remember, it is not only later than you think, it's sooner than you suspect. So start living."

Her last words were nearly drowned out by the crowd's laughter and applause.

When the Northwest Baltimore resident returned to the stage for the talent segment in black high heels, a skimpy sequined coat and matching hat, Woodward reminded audience members to stay in their seats.

They barely did, hooting and hollering as Day-Jones danced the Electric Slide, pausing to recite verses of Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman."

"Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size," Day-Jones crooned. "But honey, when I start to tell them, they think I'm telling lies. I say it's in the reach of my arms, the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips. I'm a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me."

More than seven hours after the contestants arrived at the senior center to start the competition with private interviews with the judges, the winners received bouquets of flowers from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Goldie Pratt, 72, of McHenry in Garrett County was named fourth runner-up. Ann Haynsworth, 63, of Pikesville took home the third runner-up award. Nancy Mattheu, 61, of Parkton was named the second runner-up. And Kline, the belly dancer, accepted the first runner-up award.

Taking home the Ms. Maryland Senior America crown was Verna Day-Jones.

"Can you believe it?" she cried, tears leaking from her eyes as she accepted congratulations from her friends and fellow competitors. "They wait 'til I'm old as dirt. Lord, now I definitely have to put these legs in ice so they can make it to Las Vegas."

That's where she'll compete with other state winners at the national pageant for the Ms. Senior America crown.

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