Ethel Bennett got her start in pageantry at a later age than most — 62. And she took home the top honor in her debut.
Bennett was the first woman to win the title of Ms. New York Senior America in 1985, the first year the state had its own contest.
Now 94, Bennett will be seated in the front row of the Maguire Theater in Old Westbury on Sunday, April 2, when she will watch 11 contestants vie for the crown in the 32nd annual competition. Bennett served as a director within the organization for 18 years following her win.
ABOUT THE SHOW
The pageant, which was founded by Al Mott at a New Jersey nursing home in 1972 with just a couple of contestants, celebrates the lives and contributions of women ages 60 and older. Mott strongly believed the pageant could do much to uplift the senior residents.
They’re not typical beauty queens — none of this year’s New York hopefuls got their start as toddlers in tiaras. They have, however, spent decades working in boardrooms, classrooms, dance studios, hospitals and giving back to others.
This, Bennett says, is precisely what the pageant seeks to highlight — that senior women are vibrant, capable and redefining the image of aging.
“These women are still actively engaged in life,” said Bennett, of Huntington Bay. “They’re not ready for rocking chairs.”
MEET THE CONTESTANTS
Jeanne Marino, 62, of Massapequa Park, is a piano and voice teacher who regularly performs a cabaret act on Long Island and in New York City. Marino says she was convinced by pageant official Marleen Schuss to join the competition.
“Some people think as women get older, you disappear into the background, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” Marino says. “It’s not about competing against each other, it’s about empowering each other.”
Jeanie Knigin, 65, of Manhattan, is a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley. Come Sunday, her resumé, which already mentions her M.B.A. from George Washington University, decades of experience on Wall Street and time as a Woodrow Wilson fellow, will have “pageant contestant” added to it.
Knigin and Marino may have come to the competition for the sash, but they stayed for the sisterhood. The same can be said for C.J. Marie. The 2015 titleholder was lured to the organization by its legacy of giving back. Like many of the women who enter the pageant, she became a member of the Cameo Club — a pageant alumni troupe that performs in talent showcases at assisted living facilities, hospitals, senior centers and veteran homes.
“This pageant is redefining inward beauty to awaken skills we didn’t know we had,” says Marie, 65, of North Bellmore. “When you get older, something like this really makes you feel important.”
A NIGHT ON STAGE
Ms. New York Senior America bears no relation to the Miss America beauty pageant. Contestants will not sashay in swimsuits. But they will speak their truths. The women will be judged in four categories: a five-minute pre-pageant interview with the judges, conducted the morning of the event; an evening gown presentation; a 35-second original “philosophy of life” statement, and a two-minute talent performance.
The state winner receives a crown and sash, $1,000 and an all-expenses-paid vacation in Atlantic Cityto compete in the national pageant there in October.
Elaine Whitehouse, 70, a retired United Nations teacher from Sayville, plans to use her philosophy-of-life statement to highlight some life lessons she’s acquired over the years and to shout out fellow seniors.
“Everyone is fighting a battle of some kind, but there are blessings, too,” she said at a recent rehearsal. “And senior women rock.”
Ms. New York Senior America
WHEN | WHERE 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 2, Maguire Theater at State University of New York at Old Westbury
TICKETS $25 via Dolores Meglio (631-249-0258) or Kathi Keating (516-868-5192). Reservations recommended.