When hairstylist, Keune educator and salon owner Letitia Carpenter called the state director for the Mrs. Tennessee pageant last year, she had one thing in mind: arranging to do hair backstage for the contestants. The director, from Carpenter's hometown of Collierville, Tennessee, had another idea entirely.
Despite having never done pageants, she suggested that Carpenter enter the contest, telling her they were looking for women who weren't necessarily pageant savvy or the typical entrant. The director promised Carpenter if she entered and didn't win, she could do hair backstage the following year.
So Carpenter decided to enter, filling out the form to represent her town and compete as Mrs. Collierville. "I didn't expect anything," says Carpenter. The pageant was held over two days in May, beginning with interviews where contestants were judged on facial features, poise and communication skills.
For this portion, Carpenter breezed right through, crediting her work as an educator with Keune. "I told myself that I was just there to make another friend, and after standing up and teaching among hairstylists who have been in the industry longer than I have, I figured I could do this."
The second day was the day of the program, and rehearsals started at eight in the morning. Carpenter spent her day wearing four and a half inch heels, practicing her walk with the other contestants, and never once got nervous.
"I'm more of a laidback, into horses, country girl-type," says Carpenter. "I went to the rehearsal in a ponytail and gym clothes, while other girls were in cute sundresses." Once the program started, Carpenter flew through the party dress, swimsuit, and evening gown portions of the competition.
Then the judges cut the contestants from 17 down to seven. Carpenter was the fifth to be called. "After that, everything went by so quickly," she said. After returning to swimsuits, evening gowns and an on-stage question, they announced the four alternates, and then finally the winner. "As they were calling the alternates out, they got to the first alternate, and I thought, 'Either I'm about to win this or I’m not going to place.'" They called her name. "Then it was, 'Holy crap, I cannot believe this just happened!' My whole family couldn’t believe it!"
As a hairstylist in the industry for nine years, the owner of Classic Image for the last four and a half years, and a young mom, Carpenter quickly realized that the hardest part of winning would be leaving her life and her family for two weeks to go to Tucson, Arizona to compete in the national pageant. "My clients were very sweet and understanding. I had to take off eight days from the salon and they were great, just told me to 'go knock 'em dead.'"
The national competition was a step up in intensity, and Carpenter said the time flew by. From morning to night contestants spent their time learning dance routines and practicing where they went at different parts of the program. Before she knew it, she was on stage watching hosts Alan Thicke and Florence Henderson start the show.
"I was kind of amazed. I used to sit as a little girl, watching these pageants, with my grandfather who said, 'that’s going to be you someday.' I felt a tiny little bit famous and remembered being that little girl at home, looking at those women, and here I was getting to feel that. I was just in the moment. I didn’t get nervous again until I made the top ten."
When the contestants were whittled down to six, Carpenter didn't make it, and she admits to feeling relief at that. Her goal going in was to make the top 10, but not further. "I knew that being the owner of a salon, a mother and an educator that I couldn’t do it. I did have a good time, but I was definitely ready to get back to normal paced life." So the newly-crowned Mrs. America (Mrs. Missouri) headed to Vietnam to compete for Mrs. World, while Mrs. Tennessee happily headed back home.
"My husband was relieved that is stopped there. He asked, 'is this something you want to do?' and I said no. It's expensive, and I'd rather spend money on my horses, not worrying about how I look all the time," Carpenter says. The price of dresses for the competition is one big expense, the hairstyling is another—some contestants paid up to $3,000 to have their hair done for the competition. Which almost leads her back to where she originally started: Carpenter would like to get into doing pageant hair. "I have to get my name out there and advertise myself for it, but I'm just going to take my time, get through my reign first."
One thing is for certain, you will see her backstage again. While she's tied up, handing off her crown in May 2010, she'll be doing hair for the Mrs. Tennessee pageant in May 2011, just as promised.