November 12, 2019

Senior Moment: My Journey to the Ms. Senior Universe Pageant

By Marianne Hamilton




For many people—especially those of us of the feminine gender—the word evokes multiple responses. At the more traditional end of the spectrum, images of big-tressed glamazons with spectacular dental hygiene, teetering in swimsuit and heels, often leap to mind. Less savory scenes from Toddlers and Tiaras populate the darker end of the scale.


In my own life, the notion of even attending a pageant (much less participating in one) was completely foreign. Growing up in Sacramento, California, I was vaguely aware that there were annual events from which a slim, well-groomed young woman eventually emerged, tears rolling down perfectly made-up cheeks, sash bisecting chest, and crown firmly affixed to updo.   


It was worlds away. It would never happen to me. 


But, it soon will. 

A bit of background: At the City of St. George’s Fourth of July celebration in Town Square, I spied a woman in a long gown sporting a crown and a sash emblazoned with “Ms. Senior Utah.” Given that the temps were hovering near the century mark and everyone was clad in shorts, her attire and bling were hard to miss. Yet there she was, smiling and posing for selfies. 


Curious, I made my way over and engaged her in conversation. Shelley Gish, as it turns out, is a sixty-year-old local businesswoman who is both the proprietress of Magic Stuff Balms on 100 West and an agent with Prado Real Estate. She’s also a single mother of eight and grandmother of nineteen who has, at various times, fostered fifty-three children. And like me, pageantry was never on her radar-screen.


“I had met someone at the Wounded Warriors Senior Softball-USA Tournament in Florida, and he kept encouraging me afterward to apply for the Ms. Senior USA pageant,” Gish explained. “He also encouraged the pageant organization to have me be the delegate from Utah, since we don’t have a senior pageant here as yet. I’d never done anything remotely like this.


“When I finally looked at the requirements—the talent competition, getting a gown, having a state costume—I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” added Gish, laughing. “But I told my kids that I was considering it, and each one of them worked with me on an aspect of my application. It was really special having my kids help me out.”


With Gish’s encouragement, I hesitantly logged onto the Ms. Senior USA-Universe website. The Ms. Senior Universe pageant, it should be stressed, is not a beauty contest. No swimsuit and heels, thankfully, although there is a “gown walk.” So be it; I was fairly certain I could make it across the stage without doing a face-plant. And what woman doesn’t like to get gussied up occasionally? I was okay with that.


Far more importantly, the organization’s mission had a personal, visceral resonance.

Our organization celebrates the accomplishments of women over sixty,” its site states. “We encourage women as they approach sixty to embrace who they are and to understand that age does not limit who they can become and what they have to offer the world…We seek to empower women of all nations and cultures to…achieve their personal best, to make real and meaningful changes, and to individually redefine what it means to be a Senior Woman and role model to the communities of women who will follow us.”


Here, in a nutshell, is what has become the guiding force of my life, my raison d’etre: promoting the concept that senior women (and yes, men!) have abundant wisdom and gifts to share with the world; we are vital, passionate beings, and the number on our driver’s license should in no way constrain the contributions we can make.


I felt a similar resonance upon discovering the Huntsman World Senior Games nine years ago. Ultimately, both organizations celebrate the AARP set and encourage us to test ourselves in ways we never thought possible. Since participating in the Games, which prompted an eventual move to St. George, I have dramatically changed the way I think of myself: The words “athlete,” “competitor,” and yes…even “winner,” have crept into my lexicon. Where my lifelong impulse was always to fade into the background, it now feels acceptable (nay, mandatory) to join my fellow senior women in shining our brightest.


So, on December 8, I will begin the week-long process of competing for the Ms. Senior Universe title. My journey—which has included a crowning in October as Ms. Senior Italy Universe, in honor of my heritage—will take me to a showroom stage in Las Vegas, where I will do everything possible to avoid that face-plant and attempt some sort of “talent” performance (at press-time, still TBD). Mostly, I am looking forward to meeting and networking with remarkable women from across the globe: doctors, lawyers, business owners, teachers, community volunteers, and others whose contributions to our world are worthy of celebration. 


I acknowledge that there will be the inevitable accusations of sexism, objectivism, and a host of other “isms.” Before such claims are made, I encourage the suspicious to learn more about the Ms. Senior Universe program. I am confident that you will come to appreciate that the women who wear the sashes and crowns are defying what it means to be mature. And we are, in fact, role models for our generation and those who will follow us.

For more information about the Ms. Senior USA-Universe organization and pageant, visit

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