By Crystal Wicker/Fashion & Beauty Editor
Yesterday may have been cold and rainy, but that didn’t stop 400 people from donning their fanciest duds for the first annual “Ms. Veteran America: The Woman Beyond the Uniform” pageant. Held just outside our nation’s capital at the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Virginia, the pageant was created to increase awareness of homeless female veterans and to raise funds to provide them, as well as their children, with safe homes.
The lively Donnell Rawlings, a U.S. Air Force veteran also known for his acting work on Chappelle’s Show and The Wire, and former U.S. Army specialist Sue Downes-the first female double amputee from Afghanistan-hosted the event. “Ms. Veteran America” was open to honorably discharged female veterans and active duty U.S. military (four regional competitions were held across the country earlier this year).
Commencing with a flag procession and a poignant rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner by singer/songwriter/guitarist Willem Dicke, the pageant quickly segued into a breathtaking parade of evening gowns. Here, all 37 contestants were introduced and, quite refreshingly, there were no age, height, or weight requirements. While gowns varied from form-fitting mermaid and trumpet styles to more conservative ruched and cap sleeve options, there was also no shortage of sequins. Those glitzy little adornments went for maximum impact as the dimly lit room sparkled like a firecracker with an endless array of them affixed to almost every dress; certainly, this was a well-deserved treat for the ladies who otherwise wear monotonous uniforms.
The 20-person judging panel included veterans, active duty military personnel, local government officials, radio personalities, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists like USAF Special Agent and INK Cosmetics Owner Anna Castillo, Miss United States 2012 Nikki Poteet, Phil Dyer of Dyer Financial Advisory, Mix 107.3 FM’s Chilli Amar, and Helen Patton-founder of Patton Stiftung Trust and granddaughter of General George S. Patton, Jr. Judges whittled it down to 10 finalists, who were evaluated on grace, poise, confidence, and personality in four areas: Interview, Talent, Military History, and Evening Gown.
Kimberly Miller, Ann Curtis, Denyse Gordon, and Mary Ann Hotaling made the cut, along with retired U.S. Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman Heidi Amato. The San Diego, California native kicked off the talent portion with an American Sign Language performance of “Some Mother’s Son”. The ballad was originally recorded by Juno Award winner Carolyn Dawn Johnson for the 2002 war flick We Were Soldiers; however, Amato signed to a remake by the Blank Check Project. (Spearheaded by professional musician Doug Schuler, the Blank Check Project is a nonprofit effort aiding wounded service members at the Walter Reed National Medical Military Center. The organization’s self-titled album contains 10 songs that emphasize the sacrifices of our armed forces; over 25 Chicago musicians volunteered their time and talents to this collection.)
USAF Staff Sergeant Keia Mays delivered a riveting monologue from Steel Magnolias and SPARS veteran Gladys Hughes demonstrated her own theatrical abilities-garnering her a standing ovation. Hughes’ comedic timing was in fact so impeccable, some would say it rivals that of Cloris Leachman and even Betty White. Stephanie Way-a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom-channeled her inner Taylor Swift and strummed her guitar in a very mellow rendition of Swift’s track “Safe & Sound.” Additional highlights included a hula routine by the competition”s only Reserve Airman, Tyra Everett, and the enviable vocals of USAF Technical Sergeant Alyse Partridge. Singing “I’m Not That Girl” from the Broadway smash, Wicked, Partridge was poised and polished.
Special Awards. Before the Top 3 finalists were announced, special awards were presented by a notable lineup of distinguished guests: Angela Madsen, a Marine Corp veteran and 2012 Paralympian medalist; Carlton Kent, 16th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps; Rebecca King Crews, actor, musician, author, and wife of actor Terry Crews; Dabney Porte, a life coach and radio show host; and Guy Lambert, news director of CBS Radio’s “Pablo & Free Morning Show.”
Resilience (overcame a significant personal challenge): Mary Joan Dickson, USAF
Social Butterfly (launched media campaign for the pageant, and acquired the most Facebook and Twitter attention): Leala McCollum, Army National Guard
Selfless Service (volunteerism): Michelle Buchanan, USAF
Mother of the Year: Ann Curtis, USAF
She Means Business (entrepreneurial): Amanda Thompson, USAF
Above and Beyond (substantial military achievement): Kimberly Miller, USAF
You Wear It Well (best gown): Denyse Gordon, USAF
Show Stopper (best talent): Gladys Hughes, US Coast Guard SPARS
Donation Whisperer (raised the most money for homeless female veterans): Heidi Amato, U.S. Navy
The Top 3. Gladys Hughes, who began her pageant campaign by writing personal friends, snagged the second runner-up slot. When answering her final question, the 89-year-old explained that her friends were appalled to discover that there were so many homeless vets. “If we can continue to put out information about what is happening to our veterans today and what they need, then we would do a good job,” she stated. In closing, Hughes urged Americans to be more proactive in assisting veterans.
The first runner-up was Stephanie Way, who articulated a similar message as she emphasized how America’s “ever-changing landscape” impacts veterans returning from war.
And this year’s title of Miss Veteran America went to USAF Staff Sergeant Denyse Gordon. With tears in her eyes, she thanked her family, friends, and comrades. “These are great ladies, and I can say that with sincerity,” Gordon exclaimed. She was noticeably overwhelmed: “We all serve with pride. I’m so appreciative of this honor.”
Numerous perks and responsibilities come with being Miss Veteran America. Along with her official crown and sash, Gordon can choose to receive either $15,000 toward a vehicle purchase or an educational scholarship, or a full scholarship to Paul Mitchell the School (complimentary hair styling was provided to all contestants by Paul Mitchell professionals in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia). She’ll be featured in the Ms. Veteran America national advertising campaign, and will score a pageant gown worth $500 plus round trip airfare and accommodations for two to next year’s competition. Furthermore, Gordon will attend various speaking engagements as the pageant’s official spokeswoman, and will work as an activist for Final Salute, Inc. during her year-long reign. A minimum of 100 community service hours must also be served.
Ms. Veteran America is the brainchild of the nonprofit organization Final Salute, Inc., which was founded in 2010 by Jaspen “Jas” Boothe. As a mother, formerly homeless veteran, and cancer survivor, Boothe understood the dire need for an organization that would cater to the issues that expressly surround female veterans. And once again, her perseverance steered her on the path of service for the common good. Final Salute is one of a mere handful of groups nationwide-the only one in the Washington, DC metropolitan area-that directly addresses the housing needs of female vets and their children.
According to Final Salute’s website, over two million women have served our country since the Revolutionary War. Yet more than 13,000 of these women are currently homeless in the same nation they served; more than half of them are single mothers.
Please visit www.finalsaluteinc.org for more information and to find out how you can help.