Pamela Cannon-Cook said she had to sit down when she was first asked to represent South Carolina in the Ms. Senior America pageant being held next week in Atlantic City, N.J. A talented vocalist, life coach and casting agent, presenting herself in front of people is commonplace. However, entering in a pageant at her age? That was hard to fathom.
Not so, said Ms. Senior South Carolina Pageant’s state coordinator Connie Ross-Karl who said seniors like Cannon-Cook are “the backbone of our country.”
After serving as Ms. Senior South Carolina in 2007, Ross-Karl was named first runner-up in the national pageant that features women 60 and up who have entered what pageant coordinators call “the age of elegance.”
“Each woman brings her own set of background and circumstances, talent and philanthropy,” Ross-Karl said. “Senior America becomes the platform for them to assist other senior women and the senior population in general.”
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Cannon-Cook, who has coached singers to audition for shows like “The Voice,” said she never thought she would be the one on stage at this point in her life.
Crowned in April, she has prepared physically and mentally for the competition being held Oct. 18-20 at the Resorts Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. Cannon-Cook’s platform — or philosophy of life as the pageant terms it — focuses on life mentoring, talent development and healthy living “bringing healing, wisdom and inspiration to all ages whose lives she touches.”
A singer and musician, she frequently entertains at Brightwater, a senior living facility in Myrtle Beach. Also certified in nutrition and natural medicine she shares nutrition tips and inspiration to the aged population there.
“I truly love helping other people,” she said. When it comes to the pageant, she said she is excited and hopes her attitude of thinking young, like her 94-year-old mother, shows through to the judges.
Both Ross-Karl and Cannon-Cook represent the Grand Strand in what Ross-Karl calls a “sisterhood of like-minded senior women.” That group also includes numerous other area women who have participated in pageants later in life including the 2012 first runner up to the Ms. Senior America pageant Laura McFayden.
McFayden, along with Ross-Karl and Cindra Marshall, a Mrs. South Carolina International pageant winner in 1996 at age 42, have helped to mentor Cannon-Cook as she prepared for the pageant. Also, by her side during months of preparation is choreographer Rainee Kite and her pageant coach, Joe Flowers, a producer, director and judge with the Miss America pageant for more than 37 years who serves on the Ms. Senior America Committee with Ross-Karl. Also, one of Cannon-Cook’s voice students, Austin Williams, will be helping her with hair, makeup and photographing during the pageant.
McFayden, a professional vocalist for the last 40 years and currently a Wilmington, N.C., resident, said she feels it is very important to honor the accomplishments of senior women and the pageant provides an avenue to do that.
“In this society, we tend to be a youth oriented society and unfortunately senior women tend to not be as important as someone younger,” McFayden said. “What’s bad is these women have lived extraordinarily important lives and learned life lessons that younger people have yet to learn. They have overcome obstacles, endured hardships, recovered, conquered and overcome a lot of what life has thrown at them and they need to be celebrated. That is what this pageant and other senior pageants have done.”
The pageants allow women to share those valuable life’s lessons through their philosophy of life. Marshall, who had suffered through six miscarriages prior to adopting a child then giving birth to two, used the pain of her loss to help other women.
“Some said my platform was a little heavy but at my age, I felt the medical system didn’t know how to talk to women about it and the general public did not know how to address the loss of a child,” Marshall said.
Marshall said her pageant celebrated the fact that women are beautiful at any age.
“I don’t think women reach the peak of beauty until they have lived. Some of the most beautiful women in the world today are not spring chickens,” Marshall said. “If you have lived life, suffered losses, had ups and downs and gone through all that and still can celebrate your beauty, I think it is a lovely statement.”
Marshall also noted that beauty can be very subjective and is more in the “eye of the beholder.”
“I don’t really refer to it as a beauty pageant,” Ross-Karl said. “It is a way to be the best you can be. When you put a crown and a sash on someone 60 years old or older, it literally changes their life and makes them be the best they can be.”
Cannon-Cook, like Ross-Karl, was nominated and reviewed to represent South Carolina in the “prestigious” national pageant that has contestants from all 50 states. Currently, there is no local pageant.
“We would love to have a South Carolina pageant,” Ross-Karl said, adding that there have not been enough women willing to enter a state pageant although many states hold them.
For now, South Carolina pageant contestants are selected by a committee whose responsibility it is to find and crown a state queen who can represent the state at the national level where they are judged in four areas: interview, inner beauty, evening gown and talent.
Interviews are conducted in advance with each contestant scored on how well she presents herself as the ideal Ms. Senior America.
Inner beauty is based on “eyesight and insight,” recognizing the contestant’s physical fitness but with a personal insight gained from a 30-second personal philosophy of life statement she shares.
Each contestant shares her taste, style and knowledge of what is appropriate for her through choice of an evening gown. This allows the contestants to demonstrate their poise and grace. To help keep costs down for the pageant many women choose to borrow a gown for the event.
Contestants share their talents through varying forms, whether it is through music and song, dance, drama, comedy, art or other forms of creativity.
Following preliminary and final rounds, judges select the top 10 contestants prior to crowning the new Ms. Senior America.
Flowers, who will be handling the Miss Myrtle Beach and Miss North Myrtle Beach pageants locally, said it amazes him to see what the Ms. Senior America contestants gain from competing at the national level with women from all walks of life.
“I see in many cases women tend to think they are over the hill at 60-plus. Then they see these women and the work they put into it. It is highly competitive. Women have to get their bodies ready and their minds ready,” Flowers said. “It is not only about physical beauty but intelligence and articulation. That is quite a combination within itself.”
Cannon-Cook, he said, has spent the last eight months preparing and is passionate about her platform. “Contestants don’t just pull a platform out of the air. They must invest their time and effort into it to prove to the judges it is valid and real,” he said.
For Cannon-Cook, who was diagnosed at one time with an illness that placed her in a wheelchair but is now completely healthy, being invested in her cause is easy.