Pretty in Camo (and Pink)

The drill instructors wear high heels and tiaras at the Tennessee Valley Fairest of the Fair pageant Boot Camp

The girls perched on folding chairs in the cavernous gym at the National Guard Armory have spent the morning on drills—hair, makeup, nutrition, picking the right dress, all part of the Tennessee Valley Fairest of the Fair Pageant Boot Camp, the first such offering in half a century of pageant history.

Right now, though, they don't seem concerned about the pretty results. They're too busy focusing their thick-lash gazes on the pageant judge and three past winners who are here to tell them how it is, what to do, what to never, ever attempt at the contest on Sept. 6. Tips like these:

Do your own application. "Always, always fill out your own form," says Melinda Waddell, a veteran pageant judge in a knit, knee-length pink-and-green camo skirt, with brown hair flipped up at the ends, and pink open-toe slide sandals showcasing toenails each painted a different color. She's referring to the tri-fold paper that lists such conditions of entry as, "NOT plan to have a child before February 1, 2009" and "Currently be and always have been of the female gender."

Not a peep from the young women in the audience. "One time we asked contestants to tell who one of their heroes were, and a girl had written Dr. Martin Luther King. So I asked her, ‘Where was he shot?' and, well, she'd never heard anything about that," says Waddell, letting a shake of her head finish her thought for her. "I always ask, ‘Where was he shot?'"

Sit right. Knees together, tilted to one side, as demonstrated by 2006 senior pageant winner Ashton Doane, tanned and blonde in a Chanel-style suit of lavender with neon green lapels and cuffs. "I judged one time, for 10 minutes I had to look at a girl's panties," says Waddell, grimacing. The audience draws in a little air, laughs politely. "For goodness' sake, if you're going to sit down in your outfit, sit down in front of the mirror in it first and see what happens."

Walk the walk. Doane, in tan pumps with four-inch heels, calmly talks about how to walk on stage, getting her point across over loud fans that revved up in the gym mid-speech. "Plant your heel in the middle of your other shoe whenever you stop," she says, demonstrating. The girls in their low shoes do it, too. "Hold your shoulders back like this," says Doane, squaring her body like she's ready to tell off opposing counsel, then dropping the tension so her back is straight, but graceful.

"Put one foot directly in front of the other," she says, this time swiveling like a catwalk model, but without sensuality.

Across the way, reigning senior queen Amy Floyd is showing older girls the drill in shortish shorts and brown leather espadrille wedge heels, also about four inches tall. Her hair is long and free, her legs are freckled, not tanned, and she's cooing comfort. "If you do fall—and it does happen, although it's never happened at Fairest of the Fair—don't run off the stage crying. Get up, laugh, and keep going. We're not dolls, we're not perfect. The judges know that."

If you don't win, win something. Reigning Junior Fairest of the Fair Savannah Ivey has earnest brown eyes, but still her girl-child enthusiasm bubbles over. "There's so much more to pageants than winning," she assures her audience, all still quiet, not even nodding. "I used to suffer anxiety attacks—and that's not just freaking out, it's a medical condition!... But at the fair, I helped introduce Rodney Atkins in front of hundreds of people. Even if it's not this one, I'd encourage you to do the pageant."

Write down these numbers. Floyd, sitting so you can see the tiny tattoo on her ankle, wraps up the day with a series of her own "personal tips for pageants." Among them: "Whether you're an A-cup or a DD, go with what you have—you don't need plastic surgery!" and "If you just want to talk about life in general, call me. Or if your heel breaks, call me, call Savannah, we've probably got some shoes you can use. Even if you just don't have the money for a dress right now, I've probably got one you can borrow. We're all in this together."

On the way out, one of the youngest young ladies stops by the table where Doane's mother is helping pack up the leftover cotton candy and brochures, right in front of a military recruiting display, a giant military tank visible through the exit window. "Oh, I'm sure you are nervous," the seasoned pageant mom tells the newbie. "But you don't have to be—Savannah will be there for you the whole time!"