One night before the big show, the Miss La Verne candidates try to keep their cool and laugh off their nerves, knowing only one of them will be going home with a crown. From left: Kim Grissom, Sylvia Castellanos, Glennda Bivens and Sandy Fernandez listen to etiquette instructions. / photo by Jenna Campbell

One night before the big show, the Miss La Verne candidates try to keep their cool and laugh off their nerves, knowing only one of them will be going home with a crown. From left: Kim Grissom, Sylvia Castellanos, Glennda Bivens and Sandy Fernandez listen to etiquette instructions. / photo by Jenna Campbell

by Janah Valenzuela
photography by Jenna Campbell

“Why do you build me up (‘build me up!’), butter cup baby just to let me down (‘let me down!’)…”
—”Build Me Up Buttercup,” The Foundations

The voices of nine anxious women sit together backstage, holding hands and trying to sing off any more nervousness before their performance. They finish their song and gather closer to say a prayer before show time…

Meet the contestants:

• Glennda Bivens, 20, a communications major and speech communications minor at ULV.
• Christina Boland, 21, a liberal studies major at Citrus College and Fullerton Junior College.
• Sylvia Castellanos, 20, a communications major at ULV.
• Sarah Davis, 20, an anthropology and religion major at ULV.
• Erin Extrada, 18, a senior at Bonita High School.
• Sandy Fernandez, 19, a business major at ULV.
• Kim Grissom, 20, a nursing student at Citrus College.
• Natalie Wilson, 18, a senior at Bonita High School.
• Erin Zabarnick, 20, a communications major at ULV.

Countdown: Two Weeks before the Miss La Verne Pageant

These nine women brave the rainstorm on a Tuesday evening with dresses, heels and costumes in hand as they run into a small dance studio on Foothill Boulevard. “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago’s soundtrack, starts to play as the women begin their dance routine, top hats and all.

It is the final dance rehearsal for the Miss La Verne pageant. With only a couple weeks left before the main event, the women seem pretty calm as they rehearse their routines. The atmosphere is surprisingly friendly and fun, rather than the cut throat attitude most would expect.

Suzanne St. Pierre, executive director for the Miss La Verne pageant, sits patiently, watching the girls rehearse as they work with choreographers.

“It’s fun to see how talented and poised these girls are and see how this pageant has helped raise their confidence,” St. Pierre says.

In terms of any “beauty queen rivalry,” St. Pierre comments, “The way these girls have been bonding is impressive to me.”

As the girls prepare for their formal wear rehearsal, they exclaim how good the other looks in her dress. “Fly me to the moon” starts to play, and each girl takes her turn walking and posing on the mock stage.

Countdown: One Week Before the Miss La Verne Pageant

The following weekend, the girls meet again, this time for their mock interview. This rehearsal is the most grueling and of high pressure; the interview counts for 40 percent of their score. They are given one question, and their answers are judged based on their knowledge of current events, their emotional control when responding to the question, and their speech and vocabulary.

“I was a big fat smile of ‘Let me think’!” says Zabarnick in an exasperated tone. Zabarnick says she practiced hard on the sample questions. “There were questions about government, my interests, and why I think I should be Miss La Verne,” Zabarnick explains, “I think I did pretty well considering I really wasn’t sure what to expect and that the questions they asked us were re-worded in a way that didn’t even feel like they came from the sample questions.”

After her interview, Zabarnick debriefs with one of the pageant directors, Dana Joines, who was Miss La Verne in 1999. As they recount Zabarnick’s “um’s” (eight by the way) and “likes” (four, plus accidentally addressing the judges as “You guys”), Kim Grissom sits nervously at the edge of the couch outside of the interviewing room. Grissom reviews the sample questions for the last time as she awaits her mock interview. Dressed in a sleek and classy business suit, she admits to her growing nervousness. “I wish I had more time to practice,” Grissom says. “My least favorite part of this pageant has just been having to cram everything in. There are certain things I wish we could have spent more time on.” However, Grissom says she feels the most prepared for her talent part—a jazz dance to a song from the Chicago soundtrack.

With the “scholarship program” only a week away, Grissom says she wishes it were not ending so soon. She says she had fun rehearsing with the other women, and that the program has been a boost for her self-esteem. “It’s really good for your confidence,” Grissom says. “I’ve noticed so much of a change in myself and the way I present myself to people now. I’m just having a lot of fun, and if I win, I win. And if I don’t, it’s OK too.”

Countdown: One Day

Upon entering the University of La Verne’s Dailey Theater, the night before the pageant, anticipation and stress fill the air. It is the final dress rehearsal. The judges, among them Mayor Jon Blickenstaff, serving as the master of ceremonies, are in their seats, conversing with one another as the technical crew runs back and forth from the sound room to the stage.

As the girls start to arrive, hauling full costumes and props, they vent with one another about their stressful week. Zabarnick walks in a few minutes late, having rushed over to the theater after covering a story for her news writing class. Sylvia Castellanos arrives in sweats and a bandanna after track practice.

Each girl had a busy week, but tonight is their final chance to focus and prepare for the pageant. As if the mounting pressure wasn’t enough, the television crew from E! Entertainment Channel is also present at the rehearsal, following them around and getting acquainted with the theater. They are on location to film the pageant for part of a documentary, filming alongside ULV’s television production team, LVTV-3. St. Pierre sits calmly in the second row, speaking with some of the judges, as Joines and co-director Mindy Dahl run frantically about the theater. “Why don’t you have your music?” Dahl asks Zabarnick. “I’m doing a monologue!” Zabarnick responds. The madness continues as the rehearsal lingers into the late evening.

Countdown: Zero Days, Pageant Night

The girls are found in the dressing room, doing final touches on their hair and makeup, and dressed in leotards and penguin suits for the opening number. When there is finally nothing left to do but wait, someone gets the idea to break into “Buttercup.” All the girls join in.

After a prayer led by last year’s Miss La Verne, La Kia Simms, a few words of thanks and good luck go around the table. “I honestly had fun with all of you. Don’t break a leg—just have fun and walk slowly,” Zabarnick says. “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about girls cutting my bathing suit or stealing my gown,” says Extrada. “I can’t talk, or I’ll cry!” Fernandez, the spunky favorite of the group, says as her eyes start to water. All around the table, tears start to well up as the girls realize that their time together and all the work will end this evening. Tissues and lip-gloss are passed around as they pull themselves together. “Razzle Dazzle” begins to play once again as they put on their top hats and start the opening number. The pageant then begins with the “physical fitness” portion. This counts for 10 percent of the total score. The women confidently breeze through this category, each exuding her own sense of style and personality.

The talent portion, worth 30 percent, comes next. This portion is judged by personality, stage presence and technical ability. Zabarnick humors the audience with a monologue about making tortillas (underlined with sexual innuendos), complete with a well-rehearsed Spanish accent. Both Grissom and Boland do a song and dance from the Chicago soundtrack. Wilson hits a few keys on the clarinet, and Fernandez does a mariachi number on the violin. Extrada gives a chilling opera performance to “Con te partiró” by Andrea Bocelli. Bivens also recites a monologue that she wrote and appropriately titled, “More to Me.” She explained that beauty is not the only thing a woman should be judged by. An exotic and talented interpretation of a gypsy dance was performed by Castellanos, and Davis combined dance with gymnastics.

Then, Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” begins to play and each girl enters the stage in her formal wear, truly shining in glamour and elegance. Soon after, a sample of the interview portion is given to the audience. Since the women were interviewed earlier that day, each girl seemed much more relaxed answering the mock questions. Questions about subjects such as illegal immigration, Martha Stewart’s case, teenage pregnancy and Proposition 55 were asked.

Finally, each portion of the program is complete. As the judges tally the scores, Simms has her final moment as Miss La Verne. After a moving and tearful farewell, a standing ovation is given.

The nine women join hands as Mayor Blickenstaff returns with the winner’s envelopes. Wilson is awarded Miss Photogenic, and Davis is voted Miss Congeniality by her peers.

Unfortunately, last year’s pageant announcement blooper, when the first runner up was accidentally told she was Miss La Verne, seems to have jinxed this year as well. “The winner of this year’s Miss La Verne Scholarship Pageant is Sarah Davis,” announces Mayor Blickenstaff. Murmurs follow asking, what happened to the first runner up? Because of another envelope mix up, Miss La Verne was announced before the first runner up. Even after all the “ums” and “likes,” first runner up was Erin Zabarnick. But audience members may not have even been able to notice since her spotlight wasn’t given at the right time. The evening ended somewhat abruptly, with slight complaints about the program and a little whining from the contestants’ families. “I guess living in La Verne for 20 years doesn’t matter,” grumbled a relative of one of the contestants who went home without a title. For Davis, however, the night seems so young as a whole new year of experience awaits her. Davis enters the Queen’s reception still shocked and overwhelmed. She spots a guy with shaggy blond hair in a sea of cameras and guests and gasps, “Oh, there’s my boyfriend!” There is simple pleasure for her that her high school sweetheart is waiting to congratulate her.

Cameras flash all around Davis and the other contestants. Attempts to hide tears and disappointment, along with “Congratulations, good job” and tight-lipped “Thanks” are heard throughout the room. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the end of the Miss La Verne Beauty Pageant, excuse me, Scholarship Program. See you next year.

 Summing up a year in a song, La Kia Simms, 21, is bittersweet about the end of her reign as Miss La Verne 2003. / photo by Jenna Campbell

Summing up a year in a song, La Kia Simms, 21, is bittersweet about the end of her reign as Miss La Verne 2003. / photo by Jenna Campbell

LaKia Simms:
Meeting the Miss La Verne 2003 Challenge

She did it for the money. For more than $2,000 in scholarship money to be exact. Just a year ago, La Kia Simms was attending similar rehearsals for the same pageant, and then went on to be crowned Miss La Verne 2003.

A junior psychology major at the University of La Verne, La Kia, 21, known as Kia by friends and family, has had an eventful year. In order to receive the $1,200 pageant scholarship money, Simms had to meet many social obligations during her reign. Her first event was visiting the University of La Verne’s radio station KULV as a guest speaker on “The Blonde Bombshell’s” morning show. Since then, she has attended La Verne’s Fourth of July parade, the Los Angeles County Fair, the city’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony and Rotary lunches where she had the chance to get to know the people of La Verne better. Simms also attended other pageants in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles County as visiting queen. Apart from the city functions she participated in, Simms was also required to compete in the Miss California pageant in Sacramento June 2003.

Competing at Miss California, which is the next step to the Miss America scholarship program, changed Simms’s preconceptions about the pageant itself. “I really didn’t like the idea of competition, but the girls changed my view of the pageant because they were all so friendly and helpful and fun.” She says this was “the toughest year of my life.” Simms, 20 at the time, was relieved to find so much support from the citizens of La Verne. “The city of La Verne and the mayor have been really good to me. They welcomed me with open arms.”

Sarah Davis:
Chili’s and Periwinkle Made the Difference

After months of hard work and preparation, Sarah Davis, 20, Miss La Verne, beams as she takes a step closer to Miss America. / photo by Jenna Campbell

After months of hard work and preparation, Sarah Davis, 20, Miss La Verne, beams as she takes a step closer to Miss America. / photo by Jenna Campbell

Asked how she felt about being crowned Miss La Verne, Sarah Davis was quite humble. “I didn’t even expect to win. I was satisfied when I heard that I received Miss Congeniality, because that is a special award voted on by the other contestants. To find out that I won was a blessing!”

A transfer student from Kansas State University and a native from Arizona, Davis arrived at the University of La Verne 2003. Since then, she has been an involved student at ULV through the cheer squad, dive team, the Landis Leadership program, the Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society as well as being on the academic Dean’s list. She has also reached out to the La Verne community by volunteering at the Leroy Hanes Boys home as a tutor and as a bingo caller at Seasons Apartments, a senior complex. “I really wanted to become more involved with La Verne because I have traveled widely and have found this town to be a special place, somewhere I can call home. La Verne has given me so many great opportunities; that’s why I decided to participate in this pageant,” says Davis.

Davis is known as a down-to-earth girl with a sense of humor. Did she feel nervous about the interview portion of the pageant? She tried not to worry too much. “Dana and Mindy told us that we were going to Chili’s when the interview was done, so I knew that no matter how it went, I was going to be able to have a strawberry lemonade, queso dip, broccoli and cheese soup, and a salad!”

Her final comments at the end of her interview? Davis simply replied, “My favorite color is periwinkle, and I’m going to Chili’s!”