From left to right: Third runner-up, Phyllis Chickett from MN. First runner-up, Ruth Gibson from ME. 2009 Queen - Toya Andrew from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Second runner-up, Connie Gabriel from MN. 4th runner-up and winner of the Flaming Glow award, Lynnette Schlager from Pahrump, Nevada.
The winners' court at this year's Senior Sweethearts pageant is shown above. From left to right are first runner-up Frances Christian, second runner-up Lynette Schlager, Marty Tuohy and his wife, Miss Senior Sweetheart winner Carol Tuohy, fourth runner-up Divina Alora-Jacome, and third runner-up Sharon Maloney.
Steve Aguiar, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Ms Senior Sweetheart Pageants of American Inc, with 2005-2006 queen Virginia Freeman and Anita Raposa, 1st Queen of the Ms Senior Sweetheart Pageants in 1978
12.2.2001 00:32 Here she comes, Ms. Senior Sweetheart BY CONNIE GROSCH Journal Staff Writer
"Hi, I'm Virginia from Virginia!" says a bubbly 81-year-old Virginia Freeman of Fredericksburg, as she steps to the microphone to introduce herself to a packed house at Durfee High School in Fall River.
She's contestant number 22 -- one of 22 women vying for the title of Ms. Senior Sweetheart of America. At age 81, she's the second oldest contestant -- topped by Theresa Pereira of Tiverton, who's 84. (The oldest contestant to date has been 92.)
Lenny Kaplan, president and founder of this 23-year-old pageant, describes it as an "event to celebrate the intrinsic beauty of senior citizens, their wisdom, their experience, their contributions to our country and our families."
For what Kaplan describes as "a reasonable fee" (it's on a sliding scale, based on financial need), the contestants receive a 10-day vacation -- meals, lodging and pageant expenses included -- in Southeastern New England, with daily field trips to such "notable sites" as Foxwoods Casino and the Newport mansions, the New Bedford Zoo and the Lizzie Borden Museum, as well as dinners with local dignitaries such as the mayors of Fall River and New Bedford. "And there's always a van available to take them shopping or to the hairdresser," says Kaplan.
The 10 days culminate in a daylong pageant that includes an interview, talent competition, patriotic routines, dance numbers and evening gown presentations. Kaplan himself doesn't get involved in the judging. "I tell the judges: I want a lovely senior who can walk into a room and be noticed and be nice."
Looking over the pageant audience, Kaplan, the master of ceremonies, sheds a few tears as he recognizes previous years' queens.
"The visiting queens -- aren't they great? The smiles on their faces just tell you what being a queen has done for them -- it brings out the best." One, he says, Josephine Anticicco -- she comes every year -- is almost 90, and is Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci's favorite aunt. "She won in the early '80s, I think. She's a great belly dancer -- that was her talent."
And the occasional glitch in the show -- "Well," Lenny quips on stage, "we're just having a senior moment."
IN 1978, THE PAGEANT started as a fundraiser for the Lions Club of Fall River. It became a statewide event, and now is national in scope. Kaplan boasts that his pageant has been promoted on national television -- Phil Donahue, Real People, Sally Jesse Raphael, the Today show, and Joan Rivers have all done segments.
"If God just gives me the energy -- and a break -- then within a year or two, this pageant will be truly national in scope, with every state sending a representative. There are thousands of people out there wanting to get into these pageants."
While many contestants hail from glamorous sunbelt retirement areas -- Las Vegas, Hilton Head Island, St. Thomas, Sarasota, and Sun City -- the rest come from regular places such as Kennesaw, Ga., and Batavia, Ill., New Bedford, Mass. and Tiverton, R.I.
"Praise the Lord," says Tess Smith, the 2001 Ms. Senior Sweetheart (in her third attempt at the crown) when she answers the phone at her Las Vegas home. Asked what she plans to do with her title, she says, "I want to carry the message that when you're a senior, there is still a full life ahead. I have a lot to give."
"These ladies have learned that life doesn't have to end at age 59," says Kaplan. "Each has a story to tell -- most have had to deal with some tragedy -- but here they are, singing and dancing and laughing."