I was 18 years old when I was crowned Miss Idaho USA. Sometimes I say this as an excuse: “I was only 18.” My mother, Momma Bean, two minutes after I was crowned hugged me, whispered in my ear, “You’ll always be a former Miss Idaho.”
I decided on a whim. Some rich kid golfer I was dating suggested in an off remark, “You’re hot. You should run for Miss Idaho. You’d win.”
I was tired of fighting with my father, Floyd. The first time I saw “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” I was shocked. Martha and George were married, not father-daughter, but they described my life with Floyd completely; fighting for the sheer joy of it.
Floyd: “You’re a god-damned pain in the ass, Kelli.”
Kelli: “You drink too much, FLOYD.”
Floyd: “I oughta sell you to the gypsies.”
Kelli: “They’ll ask for a refund.”
Floyd: “I sold a car to the gypsy king last week.”
Mom’s voice from the other room: “Floyd. Kelli. Play nice.”
I used being the queen of Idaho like I did getting straight As, becoming a cheerleader, class president and a born again Christian: as a way to get Floyd’s goat.
“You’ll be sorry, Floyd. I’m going to win Miss Idaho and rise above this shithole.”
Long drag on his Marlboro Red: “Oooooh, doggies. You’re going to make some man’s life hell on earth.”
I started drinking a month before the pageant.
The Miss Idaho pageant took place on a stage decorated with a taxidermied moose. This fact should give you a feel for the competitors—Idahoans are not queens in the way that, say, southerners are queens.
I was still backstage, standing along side the other four top contestants, when I felt it as the judges’ final score was tabulated. I just knew. It was a physical sensation, an internal earthquake. I won. I turned to tell the girl behind me that she just lost, or to see if she felt it as well. I stopped myself: that would be so unroyal. I wanted to tell someone and I couldn’t; the only ones around me were the losers, and I felt at once the unbearable solitude of the champion.
We top five tromped to stage. I floated. The emcee tried to drag out the tension when it was down to only two of us, but I was giddy. I motioned him to move along, get on with it, I knew. But when he said my name, that mythic thing happened to me: tears sprang to my eyes, I covered my face. The outgoing queen put the crown on my head. I looked up to God, I mouthed the words ‘Thank you’ to the judges, I waved ‘Hi Mom’. I waggled my legs like a football dude in the end zone. I gave a Nixonian thumbs up. And then I didn’t know what to do and I walked back towards the twelve losers and waved at them.
And then I laughed hysterically as I walked the plank that went out over and into the audience.
I thought being Miss Idaho would class me up, stamp me with greatness. I thought Floyd would finally respect me and see me as his pretty, pretty, pretty sweet daughter. I thought it would fix him, get him to stop drinking, simmer down and be the family man father I always wanted, not the guy sleeping in red silk briefs on the family room couch, sweating out a hangover.
The morning after winning Floyd said, “Didn’t take much to win in that crowd. All you needed was two nipples instead of six, all your teeth and to walk on your hind legs.”
People have a lot of opinions when I describe Floyd to them. Why would I ever think that he would be that kind of dad that I was hoping for? Once when I was ten years old, at riding the monorail from Disneyland Hotel to main gate, Floyd was standing in the aisle. I had a seat and kept trying to get his eye to tell him I’d share. I finally did, and I sat on his lap the whole way to Disneyland. He sang
Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown,
Baddest man in the whole damn town,
Badder than an old king kong
Meaner than a junkyard dog
in my ear. He had a crunchy beard and his breath smelled like the Marlboro Red he tossed away before loading up on the god-damned bus, as he put it, but for a moment I felt so welcomed by him and I knew he had it in him to be a sweetie pie. I know it’s difficult to understand for a family outsider. I loved that Floyd Bean with all my heart.
Being a queen didn’t make me feel prettier. Even though Floyd made six figures a year selling Chevrolets, it occurred to me one day that I was white trash. My mother wore sweatshirts that had a pig face on the front and a pig butt on the back. She’d give me her whole paycheck from her job at Boise Planning Association to buy me prettier dresses than even the one she got married in. The look in her eye, pure love and wanting so much better for me than the life she had for herself, kind of killed me while she sat there in her Keds tennis shoes and her Roseanne Barr football helmet-hair and pear-shaped body.
Instead of getting a nose-job and boob job, as advised by pageant people, I drank till I blacked out and screamed at people in bars, “You mother fuckers are drinking with Miss Idaho!” They flew us to Mobile, Alabama and locked us up for a month of rehearsals for the Miss USA show. We went everywhere with a police escort and changed clothes three times a day. The only way I got through it was by buying up all the Nyquil in the hotel gift shop.
The opening number of the televised show required each contestant to dress up as something representative of her state. Most of them looked like Vegas showgirls. I didn’t know what to be: The Yellowstone National Park or a Baked Idaho Russet Potato.
“Stop bellyaching,” my state director, Barbara said. “I’ll put some strips of glitter on a blue leotard and we’ll get a feather headband. You can be the Idaho State Bluebird. Wear heels.”
I was a very tall bluebird.
I remember standing back stage as the Idaho State Bluebird. I was broken. It was right after Top Ten had been announced. The sounds of quiet sobbing cascaded around me, all us state queens who hadn’t made it to the next level. I was standing at the craft service eating Oreo after Oreo, hoping the camera would get a glance of me with the black gunk in my teeth. I was high on Nyquil and thoroughly disgusted at myself.
“Kelli,” Miss South Dakota said, “stop. You’re going to hate yourself if you get fat.”
“Sweetie,” I said, “don’t you hate yourself yet?”
Ten years after the Miss USA pageant I was waitressing at the Malibu Chart House. I lived in the Pacific Palisades. I covered every mirror in my apartment with black fabric because I couldn’t stand to look at myself. I had the Suicide Hotline on speed dial. I drank till I could leave my body and float around the ether, deciding whether to stay or leave this earth.
I ended up in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I identified externally as an Alcoholic, and internally as a Recovering Beauty Queen.
My first sponsor had been a Beauty Queen’s chaperone down south where Beauty Queens were for real, so I knew she could guide me. She knew Beauty Queen pain. As an amend to myself she made me sit in front of a three way mirror in my closet and look into my own eyes. That was it, just look into my own sweet eyes. I must have sat there for a good hour, and after looking into my own eyes for some time my face started to morph. My own face disappeared. I was an old Indian man. I was an ancient Chinese momma. I was a black cleaner woman. I was a thin Australian rancher. I was a sweaty old priest. I was a thirteen-year-old boy with acne. I was an Iranian princess and a Zimbabwean slave; I was a Scottish garbage man, and a Native American mother. I was a Buddhist monk. I was a French girl. I was Floyd C. Bean.
“Gorgeous, I tell you, gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.”