When the actress, musician, and all-around entertainer person suddenly found her teenage self in a pageant—not a talent show—she put on an evening gown and took it in stride.
When I was 14, my choir teacher suggested I enter a “very exclusive talent show,” which was a chance for the teens from my neighborhood to “shine.” Although I didn’t entirely trust my choir teacher, her choice of words played right into my weakness: Shining was my aspiration, and my young mind was programmed to flick that switch whenever possible. I would go to this talent show and I would shine like a penny on pavement.
When I walked into the library auditorium, a woman (60ish, blonde) sat perfectly straight in an undignified brown padded folding chair. No real human being with an actual spine has the ability to sit up straight in those chairs; clearly this woman was superhuman. She was dressed head to toe in lemon yellow: A lemon-yellow blouse was tucked into a lemon-yellow skirt with 2-inch lemon-yellow pumps, and a lemon-yellow bag sat by her side. If I wanted to make up stuff I would say that she had a lemon-yellow helium balloon and a lemon-yellow poodle that barked show tunes, because that just seems like a logical progression.
“Hello, I’m Bunny,” she said in a sweet Southern drawl. “Please take a seat. You must be Zooey.” She flicked a delicate hand through her silvery cotton candy hair. Her personality evoked Blanche DuBois and a marionette wrapped into one perfect little package. I joined some other kids, who all seemed totally cool with the situation. “I’m the pageant coordinator,” Bunny said casually. So there it was: I had accidentally entered a “youth pageant.”
As an adolescent I was a fragile wisp of self-awareness, and if you know me at all, you know that me + pageant = a jaunty little carnival of wrong. Where are the doors? I thought. I had finally recovered from the 7th-grade science fair debacle (don’t ask), and now this. I was already skating on very thin social ice.
But I am not a quitter, nor am I someone who wanted to throw away the $50 entrance fee, so I stayed. We proceeded to have a dance rehearsal for the grand opening number, “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, but with jazzy new lyrics about how great our town was. Each girl had eight counts to step forward and do a dance move when they were introduced by name, grade, and high school and then get back in with the group. The choreographer had deemed dance moves too feminine for the male contestants, so they had to mime playing a sport. I am fairly certain that the act of pantomiming a sport while singing “Be Our Guest” undermined her notion of masculinity so thoroughly it was a wash anyway, but hey, that’s just my opinion.
By the end of this marathon jam sesh of choreography, my mother came to pick me up. She asked me how my rehearsal for the talent show had gone, and I informed her that I had been the victim of a grave misunderstanding and that I had accidentally entered a pageant.
“A pageant?” my mother asked. “I thought they would’ve outlawed those by now.”
“No. I guess not,” I said, and we sat in solemn silence for the whole five-second drive home.
After that first meeting, I thought a lot about quitting, but I just couldn’t do it. By the time the pageant rolled around, I had almost convinced myself that I wanted to win. Mostly because of the cash prize, but a little bit because of the possibility of a tiara.
Like in all good pageants, there was a talent section. For me this justified all the other stuff, because talent was all about SHINING. I chose to sing a song that Charlie Chaplin wrote called “Smile.” I didn’t have much rehearsal with the accompanist, so when the time came to perform, I sang the first line three times.
Among the other talents were a viola player, a harpist, the obligatory guy tap-dancing to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” an actress, and of course a live demonstration of the sequencing powers of a synthesizer. This was the first dude I ever saw passionately mansplain the features of a keyboard, so it was really special.
At the dress rehearsal, I had been surprised (NOT AT ALL SURPRISED) to learn that the youth pageant was really a thinly veiled ruse, and it was all just a venue for Bunny to show off soprano vocal stylings. She had slapped together a medley of songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog with a monologue about her duties as pageant coordinator. So in the break between the talent portion and the evening-wear promenade, Bunny took the stage. With all the poise and conviction of a Disney princess, she performed her medley. She had a very high voice with a quick vibrato.
Where are the doors? I thought. I had finally recovered from the 7th-grade science fair debacle (don’t ask), and now this. I was already skating on very thin social ice.
“You know, the kids always ask me, ‘Bunny, what do you do when you get nervous?’ And I say… Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I’m afraid!” She tackled her medley nimbly, like Ginger Rogers on 1.5x speed.
In the evening-wear portion of the night I wore a floor-length gray chiffon gown, which hung off my scrawny shoulders and needed constant adjustment. We were required to answer a question posed by one of the judges. My older sister, Emily, predicted accurately that my question would be “What charity would you support and why?” Under the hot spotlight I couldn’t form a single complete sentence, and so I babbled a little bit, framing each sentence with a very long pause and a few ummms for maximum impact. After my underwhelming answer I turned my attention to the other contestants, who seemed to have a higher tolerance for being asked direct questions with superbright lights in their faces. I could feel the $1,000 slipping away, and it was here that I developed a distinct fear of crossing the viola player, since she had the next 20 years of her life planned.
The viola player and the soft-shoe dancer took the top prizes, and the keyboard guy got runner-up. At the after-party Bunny handed me a bouquet of carnations. “I’m sorry you didn’t win, honey,” she said with a tremble of pity in her voice. “Here are two tickets to see me star in The Band Wagon.” I shrugged and said, “Thanks. It’s OK.” At least I didn’t have to ride in the Fourth of July parade.
I learned a lot from this experience. I learned that if you stick with something, sometimes you learn lessons, sometimes you get a hilarious story, and sometimes you get to watch a woman named Bunny sing a musical medley in St. John knits. All are worth the $50 entrance fee.
By Zooey Deschanel | Illustrations by Bijou Karman
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Reveal, Drew & Jonathan’s lifestyle magazine.