THE ROAD TO MISS LONG BEACH PAGEANT HAS BROUGHT THEM A LONG WAYBy Masa Zokaei
[Editor's note: In the 10 weeks since GreaterLongBeach.com broke the news of Jenelle Hutcherson's history-making campaign as the first openly lesbian contestant in the history of the Miss Long Beach Pageant, the story has been told and retold, all across the country and all around the world. But no one has matched this account by Masa Zokaei, who had just begun to fall in love with Jenelle when she learned their relationship would include a beauty pageant. With an honesty that's simultaneously startling, insightful and tender, Masa shares the excitement and fear that accompany all new love and reveals how heavy and unwieldy these emotions can become under the weight of making history. Enjoy, whether for the first time, or again.]
It’s a warm Sunday in Long Beach, a day off for Jenelle and me, and we’re spending this part of the afternoon shopping on Broadway, school-girl-giggling in Con Rev while picking out bosom-shaped lollipops for our friend’s birthday.
I notice the sales guy, probably in his early 30s and clean-cut, making some pretty serious eye contact with Jenelle. It happens quite often. Her look is a cross between Elvis and Adam Lambert, hair up in her usual Mohawk—she’s a hair artist at The Den Salon downtown, so this week the Mohawk is teal—and not quite covering the red-lips tattoo on her neck, a copy of her mother’s. She flashes a smile, and he returns it. I’m nervously playing with my brown “mermaid locks,” as Jenelle likes to call them, and smelling the aphrodisiac candles.
As Jenelle pays for the gift, I begin talking to the sales guy. He asks if we need it wrapped.
“Let’s ask Miss Long Beach,” I say jokingly.
With a confused expression, he asks, “What’s that?”
“Come on,” Jenelle says, the way she almost always does, with her head doing a dip and her hand doing this little signature gesture that translates into something like, You’re cool with me. “You’ve never heard of Miss Long Beach? It’s the local pageant.”
I’m flattered. In my 29 years, I’ve never thought of myself as a beauty-queen type. But between the two of us, and the fact that I’m wearing a summer dress while Jenelle has completed her androgynous look with a pair of camouflage shorts—showing off the slender ankles I always tease her about, but which I find completely irresistible—I guess I can understand his mistake.
“I am,” Jenelle answers, and the sales guy’s attention has snapped back in her direction.
He fumbles over his next question, wondering whether he heard wrong. “Wait, uh, wha? Uh, you’re running?”
Jenelle laughs, clearly enjoying that we have caught this guy off guard.
“Yes, really,” she proudly boasts in return. I am.”
I remember the day Jenelle told me she was entering the Miss Long Beach Pageant. It was about a year ago. We had just started dating. I was living in LA, and it was Jenelle’s turn to come up from Long Beach to visit. She was driving us around in my car as we shopped for Halloween costumes—a gorilla suit for her, a Jane of the Jungle costume for me.
Then Jenelle changed the subject. She started talking about a client named Justin Rudd, who had come into the salon for a haircut. She sounded enthusiastic as she told me he was the director of the Miss Long Beach Pageant. I listened to her talk, and watched her left hand on the steering wheel, showing off the tattoo on her forearm, the one that indicates her deep belief in Karma, the one that reads: What Goes Around Comes Around. Gradually, I gathered:
Justin told Jenelle that the 2010 Miss Long Beach pageant was only two weeks away.
Jenelle told Justin that she’d like to volunteer her help as a hairstylist.
Justin asked Jenelle if she’d rather be a contestant.
“Sure,” Janelle answered Justin, adding with conviction. “But there’s no way I’m putting on a dress and heels.”
I sure hope not, I interjected silently to myself, and as Jenelle reached for the can of Rock Star in the cup holder, my attention became focused on the self-designed “eye for eye” tattoo on her right forearm. She continued story:
“What about a pants suit?” Justin suggested to Jenelle.
“I’d rather wear a dress and sneakers,” Jenelle jokingly responded to Justin, and then added seriously. “No, but really, I’d be comfortable in a tux.”
Just like that, Justin decided that the Evening Gown category would now be Formal Attire.
Just like that, Jenelle proclaimed: “I’m running for Miss Long Beach!”
Just like that, I reflexively responded with a “Yaaay!” But a split-second later, I was thinking, “Wait. What?”
I adore Jenelle, and I believe I am very supportive of her, but as the news really hits me—she’s going to enter the Miss Long Beach Pageant—I don’t really know what to think.
When we met, I would have never imagined Jenelle to have any interest in beauty pageants. When she said she was running for Miss Long Beach, my first thought was she was making a point—maybe about how silly pageants really are.
But then another thought came to me, planted itself like a seed in the pit of my stomach, and over the next couple of months I grew more obsessed about how all this could affect our relationship. I already felt we didn’t have enough time together. If Jenelle became Miss Long Beach, she would become a public figure, whose schedule would be filled with obligatory appearances at all kinds of events. Then I would barely ever see her.
I wondered what others would say. I know Jenelle as the punk-rock, eye-liner-wearing, no-lipstick-having girl, who aside from a nightmare I once had, is never seen in a dress. She’s not exactly the typical pageant competitor.
A scene from Little Miss Sunshine popped into my head: Among the creepy doll-like little girls is the eccentric Olive, dancing to Rick James’ “Superfreak,” while dressed as Axl Rose. With the exception of about six people in the room, the crowd is horrified. In the movie, Olive, the underdog, is played as almost a joke—perhaps something like a contestant wearing a tuxedo in the Miss Long Beach pageant?
But in my mind, Olive is the only contestant I would root for. I hadn’t watched a pageant on TV since I started high school. They just weren’t interesting to me. I was never inspired by anything the contestants had to say during the question-and-answer session. They were just pretty. Maybe that’s why I like Olive’s character. I can relate to someone who doesn’t fit in. And that’s what I think of Jenelle. I think it’s great that she challenges pageant culture. I just wasn’t sure how serious she was.
But those were only my first thoughts, my uncertain initial reactions to the news that I had suddenly become the girlfriend of a beauty pageant contestant. The problem was, I continued to think, and as details and discussion about the Miss Long Beach pageant grew during the next month, so did my anxiety about where all this might lead us.
Big things were happening for both of us. As Jenelle considered the possibilities of the pageant, my belly-dancing career was shifting into a higher gear. I was being hired for more gigs through friends, and receiving more teaching jobs through the Los Angeles Unified School District. Carried by the momentum, Jenelle and I made some fast decisions. The biggest: we moved in together.
It was December when we began to talk about it, and there were many conversations about who would move where. Then in the blink of an eye came February, and I was in Long Beach. The rent was better, and since Jenelle worked more hours than me, I didn’t want to burden her with driving back and forth every day.
Neither of us had ever lived with a significant other, and each of us made adjustments. But one change remained beyond me. I had hoped that living together would somehow make my mixed feelings about Jenelle and the Miss Long Beach pageant go away. Instead, they became more intense—now we were talking about the pageant everywhere we went. Ironically, I was the one bringing it up.
I had fallen in love with Jenelle. I wanted to see her passion for this pageant as a positive thing, to trust it would bring us closer. But somehow I couldn’t escape the feeling I was being pushed into the sidelines.
My girlfriend: The Beauty Queen.
And me: Just the Girlfriend.
There was tension in our home, but I didn’t want to rock the boat. I tried avoiding my concerns with frequent trips to LA to hang out with friends. I wondered whether Jenelle was doing the same thing with her pageant preparations. When we did spend time together, our conversations became more and more about all the great things that surrounded the pageant, and less about her and me.
Then came the night Jenelle dropped a bomb on me. She was changing the plan we made the first day she mentioned the Miss Long Beach pageant: I was no longer going to be her escort at the event. Rather than proudly walking on stage with her, I would be sitting somewhere in the audience. Jenelle was going to ask her mom to escort her.
“My mom walking on stage with me would stand for parents supporting their kids, whether they have crazy hair or tattoos or are openly gay,” Jenelle explained to me. “I know we had said you would be up there with me … but are you OK with that?”
“That’s so awesome babe,” I responded. “I think it’s a great idea.”
I meant it.
Well, I half-meant it.
I very much wanted to be on stage with Jenelle, sharing that moment. But I didn’t want her to think I was being unreasonable, so I didn’t say anything. Instead, I smiled my way through the rest of the conversation, with a big bulge in my throat, feeling guilty for not being fully happy for her.
It went on that way, through weeks of many conversations and some little tiffs, until one night in mid-April, when I finally admitted to Jenelle that I had been feeling neglected. I was surprised when she responded that she had been feeling a little neglected, too, seeing how I was barely home.
But the breakthrough came when Jenelle created the “Love You” journal for both of us. The idea was to write in it all of the thoughts and concerns that were too hard to bring up directly—and to end each entry with something positive. The “Love You” journal became our therapy, a way to open up face-to-face conversations. It helped us realize the only way we were going to get through this: by supporting each other, 100 percent.
Jenelle had begun a grassroots campaign. In May, LGB2 Network co-founder Steve Sheldon invited her to speak at the annual Pink Party, which kicks off the Long Beach Pride Festival. The highlight of the big weekend was Sunday’s parade, where Jenelle’s candidacy for Miss Long Beach was promoted on a truck-mounted float—driven by Andy and Allison Kripp, owners of The Den and sponsors of her campaign—with Vote for Jenelle posters on its sides. Jenelle was on the truck’s big flat bed, dressed as a Pharaoh, wearing a crown cut open at the top to reveal her hair and twirling a gold cane, while I danced with my bellydance troupe around her. It was kind of magical, really.
I was still spending many evenings in LA, but now mostly for dance rehearsals. While I was gone, Jenelle worked on YouTube videos, in which she explained why she was running for Miss Long Beach. They show her in our living room, talking about her supportive mother—so supportive she will be her escort in the pageant—and recalling the death of her beloved Tennessean father, who died of AIDS when she was just 10 years old. They emphasize that she represents the diversity of Long Beach.
When we got back together at the end of each day, Jenelle would tell me of her clients—grandmothers, mothers, policemen, police women, young actresses, and corporate men—and how they had become interested in the Miss Long Beach pageant and wanted to know how they could vote.
Truth is, nobody can vote. Not officially anyway. The pageant is based on scoring from a panel of judges. No one runs for Miss Long Beach. A person is chosen Miss Long Beach.
But Jenelle has a bigger plan with this whole campaign.
It’s June now, and Jenelle is driving us to a board of directors meeting of The Center, also known as the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Center. I’m making jokes, trying to ease her obvious nervousness, but I can’t break her focus. Raul Anorve, another of her clients and also a member of The Center’s board, has invited Jenelle to address this group of the gay community’s representatives—a community she identifies with and represents in this pageant. Their acceptance is important to her. Jenelle is getting mentally prepared.
We’re among the first to arrive. A man reading a newspaper introduces himself as a board member. Others soon enter—a sweet-looking older woman, who takes the seat next to Jenelle; a short-haired woman with her huge dog behind her; a vibrant man with wavy gray hair and a handsome smile; and finally, Raul, which is when Jenelle seems to relax a bit.
Board president Ron Sylvester calls the meeting to order and begins a preview of the agenda. It’s a blur to me as I wait for someone to address the elephant—or the huge Mohawk—in the room.
The eye contact begins. They look serious. They ask questions. They sound serious. The questions get harder. I’m nervous for Jenelle. My hands are sweating. Jenelle seems nervous, too; she’s rubbing her palms against her thighs.
“What made you want to run for this pageant?”
Jenelle tells The Center’s board what she told me a few months before—she never thought she’d enter a pageant, but when she learned she wouldn’t have to wear a dress, she entered … and intends to carry an important message: “Love not hate. Instead, inspire and create.”
Jenelle explains, “With hate crimes going on—recently, even here in Long Beach—and young kids across the nation committing suicide, embracing who you are has never been so important.”
As she speaks, the board members shift in their seats, pulling closer to the table, their attention drawn by the pile of posters and jar of buttons in front of Jenelle on the table. The posters already list The Center as her sponsor—a move I don’t think I’d have made … but that’s Jenelle for you. Someone asks for a look. The poster features a dramatic side profile photo of Jenelle. In the way that little kids discover treasure, the faces of the board members light up.
“That looks great!”
“Look at that hair!”
“What a great photo!”
“What are you looking for from us?” an older woman named Phyllis asks. “Sponsorship? Endorsement?”
“I just need your help in getting this message out there—what I’m doing and how I’m trying to change the community through this pageant,” Jenelle replies without missing a beat. “I’m not looking for sponsorship; I was just looking for you to help me in getting the message out there, whether it’s putting me on the website, or just letting me bring in buttons and put up posters on the doors.”
The wavy-haired gentleman says, “You’re really making a statement here whether you’re trying to or not.” Then he asks, “Have you thought about or prepared for the negative reaction to this?”
I get uncomfortable.
“It’s only a statement to people who don’t understand,” Jenelle asserts. “To you, being gay isn’t shocking, but to someone who might be appalled by the idea, it would be.”
Her voice is echoing in the room. It’s the voice I loved when I first heard it on the phone, the voice that still makes me call in the middle of the day, just to hear it.
“To me, it’s who I am and who I have always been,” Jenelle concludes. “Why can’t I enter this?”
And then, suddenly, time seems to stop. It’s as if I am hearing this—everything I had heard in the last few months—for the first time. I am not seeing Jenelle as my girlfriend; I’m simply seeing her dreams and potential. I am understanding why she has such an effect on me—on everyone she meets.
I notice the board members have begun to pass buttons to each other—and pin them on.
As we leave The Center, Jenelle asks me how she did.
“For the life of me, I can’t remember anything I said,” she laughs nervously. “Did I sound stupid?”
“Babe, I can’t believe how articulate you are,” I respond sincerely. “You had them eating out of your hand.”
Thirty minutes later, a text from Raul Anorve: The Center’s board unanimously has voted to support Jenelle for Miss Long Beach. Even the dog in the room voted for her.
Anorve later explains to me why they did so: “Not only do we support anybody gay, lesbian or ally, but with this effort to enter a pageant that is traditionally not open to openly lesbian females, she breaks down stereotypes. It’s a way to create awareness and that’s why the board supports her in this endeavor.”
It’s August, and I am finally talking to Justin Rudd, only to realize that I have run into him before. He was the guy who was at The Den one day last month when I stopped by to bring Jenelle her favorite ice-blended coffee drink. But I didn’t recognize him from his Facebook photo—he looks much younger and quite attractive in person. I have sought him out to learn more about the Miss Long Beach pageant.
Rudd has only been pageant director since 2009, when he purchased it through his non-profit from the Long Beach Jaycees, who had sponsored the event since its creation in 1950. But Rudd’s involvement in pageants reaches back 21 years—as a coach, judge and coordinator specializing in interviews—and instituted some changes immediately.
When he tells me about the addition of a Mrs. Division, for any woman legally married to a man or a woman, I begin to feel better about this pageant.
Then he tells me about the addition of a Little Miss division for six- to nine-year-old girls, but emphasizes it is a natural pageant. “The young girls are not allowed to wear makeup,” Rudd says. “There are no hair extensions or wigs; it has to be their natural hair and natural teeth.” Now the image of Olive is in my head again.
Rudd tells me the swimwear category of swimwear has changed, too. The rules used to mandate a one-piece swimsuit; now any swimwear is acceptable, including board shorts.
“What inspired the changes?”I ask.
“Just progressing with the times,” he replies.
Rudd says the pageant’s focus is “not what they look like in a swimsuit.” He adds, “I mean that’s part of the score, but they can win it with their interview…with their charisma and their accomplishments.”
At this point, I feel Jenelle could really win this.
It reminds me of when my mom and dad met Jenelle, how they loved her right away. Normally, that’s not surprising, but my parents and I came here from Iran when I was four years old. I grew up hearing my mom say that if I ever told her I was a lesbian, she would have a heart attack. It had taken my parents a long time to accept me as a bellydancer, something very taboo for Middle Eastern girls. But when I finally came out to my mom, she said in her accent, “I ahl-ready knew dat. You haven like deh boyz for a very long time.” My dad was in shock, but even he eventually came around.
“JON-elle ees an ohn-gel,” my mom says, meaning Jenelle is an angel.
Jenelle always finds time to drive with me to the San Fernando Valley to see my parents despite the increasing demands of the pageant—and her growing volunteerism. She had always been somebody who got involved, donated time, and helped out anyone in any way she could. But as she has seen the potential for the Miss Long Beach pageant to raise her profile, to make her an example, she has thrown herself into public service like never before.
In July, she began volunteering her only days off from work to be at The Center’s Mentoring Youth Through Empowerment (MYTE) program. She takes the kids on field trips, does haircut presentations at the salon and helps with job resumes. She even brainstorms how to improve the newly founded program. Then there are the nights she spends offering her services to NOH8, which wants to set up a photo shoot with her. I’ve never seen her so happy.
“She can reeelly vin dis,” my mom says proudly.
I contact Miss USA recruiter, Erik Desando, to test his reaction to Jenelle’s plan to enter that pageant. Miss USA is said to be a very conservative organization, with a large Christian background, and I’m afraid he’s going to be kind of harsh—or worse, that he may even laugh. At this point I’m so invested, it would break my heart.
But Desando tells me that, despite what people may think, the organization accepts all women. “We’ve had contestants in the past that are openly gay, and this year as well,” Desando says. “We really feel strongly that those girls should compete and we’re open to all sorts of people.”
But I think of Miss California Carrie Prejean and the answer she gave when Perez Hilton asked her opinion of gay marriage during the 2009 Miss USA pageant. She said, “…we live in a land that you can choose same sex marriage or opposite marriage and, you know what, in my country and in, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman…”
Desando insists the Miss USA pageant is steering away from that attitude.
But I think I notice another potential issue while scanning the Miss USA website: the contestants look like supermodels, which seems to make it obvious that their bodies are a factor in the competition.
Keith Lewis, co-director of Miss California USA, concedes that’s true, but has an interpretation.
“The woman that represents California needs to have some commitment to having a healthy body,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that she has the thinnest body. We have women who have been a size zero and some that have been a lot larger.”
So, if Jenelle wanted to wear a tux in his pageant, would she still be eligible?
“It’s called the ‘Evening Gown Competition,’ but I could certainly call it formal wear,” Lewis says. “I think we’ve always said the girl should pick out what she’s most comfortable in.”
It sounds as though Jenelle would be able enter Miss California USA as herself.
As I tell Keith Lewis about Jenelle, how she’s reaching out to the community, and all the support she has, I sense I’ve hit a soft spot.
“I’m really proud that we have a woman who is courageous enough to stand up and say, ‘This is who I am, and I still can be beautiful and I still can be respected and I still can be a role model,’” Lewis says. “And damn it, she is.”
Jenelle and I are sitting on the floor of our apartment on an August weeknight, legs crossed Turkish-style, playing with our two new kittens, Mike and Ike. Jenelle has been working out, getting in shape, but she has been kind of irritable and distant, and somehow this seems like a good time to ask why. When I do, she stops what she’s doing— trying to catch Mike under the table—and admits she’s really, really nervous.
“I wanted to be 100 percent confident when I’m on that stage,” Jenelle says. “But I’m not exactly a thin person. I’ve never been super thin. I’ve never been super fit, either. I see this as a challenge, and a challenge does scare you.
Jenelle is looking straight into my eyes, and I can tell she’s feeling vulnerable. I listen intently, letting go of Ike, who I was holding in my lap.
“It’s also that this pageant is a lot of responsibility,” she continues. “I hope it’s something that inspires people, whether it be a weight issue or standing out within your community or following your dreams… believing in yourself.”
Jenelle says the fact that her own perspective on pageants has changed makes things a little easier. She’s gotten to know some of the women who compete in pageants—she met Monique Villa, Miss Long Beach 2011, at Pride and they have become friends on Facebook. Villa even accepted Jenelle invitation to come to the salon.
“The second I met Monique she squashed any assumption I had,” Jenelle tells me. “I thought, ‘A real girl could win this.’”
It’s September, and as Jenelle and I get close to our one-year anniversary, we’ve gotten into the habit of spending late nights on weekends out on our patio and sharing the events of our day.
The Miss Long Beach pageant is in November, and we’re doing everything we can to prepare. The Miss California preliminaries are a week after that, and whether or not she wins Miss Long Beach, Jenelle plans to enter.
Meanwhile, she has helped me produce my third dance production in Venice.
I don’t know what will happen with these pageants, or how they might change both our worlds. I never thought I could be so proud of someone so close to me and still be a part of the process without feeling like I wasn’t the center of attention.
I do know that this process has been a growing one for us, individually, and as a couple. We both learned that you really can’t make anyone happy by anything you do for them. You can just give them the freedom to find the joy in their lives and be there to share it with them. And for that, I am grateful to be a part of this journey with her.
In my heart, Jenelle Hutcherson, you have already won.
The Miss Long Beach pageant takes place Sunday November 13 at The Grand and is open to the public. Tickets will be available through www.misslongbeach.com.