Photo by Elizabeth Grey
Elizabeth Grey at Miss America

Winners wear white. I don’t know if there is any scientific proof of this, but it’s an old pageant adage with which I’m sure many Southern girls are familiar, right on up there with “bless her heart” and the Julia Sugarbaker monologue from “Designing Women” about the night the lights went out in Georgia.

Every summer during my childhood, I would pile up on the couch with my granny in our nightgowns when the Miss Mississippi or Miss America pageant was on television and watch with adoration as these beautiful young women owned the stage. It was mesmerizing. I loved the glitz and glamour of it. Don’t get me wrong.

I never wanted to actually compete in these pageants, but I loved watching it — every detail from the hair and makeup to the gorgeous gowns and show-stopping talent (with, of course, those rogue few performances that were show-stopping for the wrong reasons.)

And let me tell you, my granny could always pick the winner. Not only would she pick the winner, but she’d name the whole Top Five without much doubt. You could have bet money on her picks. I, sadly, did not seem to inherit this gift, but it hasn’t slowed down my love of pageant commentary just yet.

During my newspaper days, I was fortunate enough to reach the feature writing goldmine for a few years when I was asked to cover all things Miss Mississippi — this was a big deal in the pageant-hosting town of Vicksburg, trust me. I was in my element.

A few months ago, the opportunity arose for me to actually go to Atlantic City to cover the Miss America Pageant for this very magazine. Hello! Did I pack my white? You bet I did because this, friends, is known in my world as winning.

It was a quick trip, flying out of Jackson early on Saturday morning, connecting in Charlotte, then arriving in Philadelphia by early afternoon. I should say that this was in the midst of Hurricane Maria battering Florida, so air travel was a bit touch and go. Once in Philly, I hopped on a train that took me into Atlantic City. Or at least that was the plan.

Once in Centre City, N.J., where I was to change trains for the final leg of the trip, the Amtrak ticket agent informed me that bridge construction had canceled the train route, so I would have to board the city bus for the last 45 minutes. This was not a huge problem until I walked outside to the bus stop just as the bus was pulling away.

I wasn’t the only one now in a quandary for an hour until the next bus arrived. Standing next to me was a fashionably dressed woman and her teenage daughter, looking concerned and talking to one another in undoubtedly Southern accents. My people.

We made small talk and I learned they were from Mississippi and we were all headed for the same place. So what do good Southern women do when stranded at a bus stop? They call Uber, of course. We decided we would share a ride to Atlantic City.

We made fast friends during the ride, and I learned that the mother actually went to the same high school I attended, and the daughter was one of the Miss Mississippi Outstanding Teen local titleholders. It was a lovely 45 minutes, and then we caught the shuttle to the casino area, where we said goodbye and went our separate ways. We all had a parade to catch!

After a long day of traveling by plane, train, and automobile, I was finally in Atlantic City. I checked in quickly to my hotel and went to grab a spot on the Boardwalk to watch the Miss America Show Us Your Shoes Parade.

I settled in on a bar stool at the outside Bally’s Hotel bar in a prime location for the parade festivities. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect with blue skies and a nice, fall breeze. While waiting for the parade, wouldn’t you know I made friends again — this time with a couple from New Jersey whose daughter’s dance troupe was performing in the parade.

This couple had been coming to the parade for years (when it hadn’t been rained out, which is apparently the norm), and the husband picked his favorite based on her parade shoe of choice. This year’s picks based on shoes alone were Miss Texas, Miss Louisiana and our girl, Miss Mississippi. This man may just have a thing for the Southern ladies. Or shoes. Or both, who knows? Regardless, it was a fun way to spend a few hours in the New Jersey sunshine.

On Sunday, Atlantic City was abuzz with the excitement of the live telecast that evening. I spent the day exploring the shops along the Boardwalk and getting settled in the pressroom inside Boardwalk Hall. I received all my credentials and tried to play it cool and professional while totally nerding out on the inside at the idea that I WAS AT THE MISS AMERICA PAGEANT.

The afternoon passed quickly, and before I knew it, it was almost showtime. All gussied up in my fancy yet functional pageant wear, I took a pedicab from my hotel to Boardwalk Hall. It was an easy walk, but I decided to rest my feet while I could, which was a good thing because I arrived just in time for the red carpet event.

This was, by far, one of the coolest experiences I have had in the journalism world. We all had our reserved spots on the red carpet and waited patiently for former Miss Americas, notable pageant officials and celebrity judges to walk through and talk with us.

I was soon face to face with Chris Harrison, Maria Menounos, Molly Sims, Jordin Sparks, not to mention beautiful previous reigning titleholders, including the reigning Miss America Savvy Shields, who was absolutely as sweet and charming in person as you would think. I also was standing next to reporters and photographers from People Magazine, Entertainment Tonight and Best video production Toronto. It was surreal. Little old me from Mississippi was one of them.

After an hour on the red carpet, we were escorted back to the pressroom to take a break and prepare for the show. We were given our cheat sheets with pageant facts and specifics along with contestant bios to study while we waited. The pressroom walls were covered with flat screen televisions for us to watch the live coverage with about a 10-second delay from the cheers and commotion you could hear right outside in the auditorium.

When the show started, after contestant and judge introductions, the first thing they do is announce the Top 10. This is crucial. It was silent in the pressroom as everyone was poised on their laptops and phones ready to get to work.

I held my breath, and when the last finalist was not Miss Mississippi, my heart sank. I knew everyone back home thought the world of Anne Elizabeth Buys, and I had just talked with her days before she left for Atlantic City. I knew how much this meant to her, and I was sad for a moment at the idea that the Miss America dream had not become a reality for her.

That sadness, however, did not linger. I then thought about what a once-in-a-lifetime moment she was having up on that stage, proudly representing the state she loves so much. Even though the results were not ideal for her, she is one of the very few to join the Miss Mississippi sisterhood with her name and picture etched in history to be admired by future generations of young women dreaming the same.

And, selfishly, I then thought about the once-in-a-lifetime moment I was having there in that pressroom, proudly trying to capture all the details in my memory so that I could remember them and share them with you.

I stayed for a while, taking in the ambience and bustle of the Getty photographers and network reporters, all rushing to make deadline. I decided I would make my way back to the hotel to watch the crowning from the comfort of my hotel bed, but not before stopping for a chili cheeseburger and greasy fries from Johnny Rocket’s on the way.

It seemed like the perfect way to end my night in my fancy but functional pageant wear and heels that were by that point killing me. Surprisingly, I wasn’t alone. Quite a few others had stopped at Johnny Rocket’s in formal wear. I can only guess they were doing the same when the judges’ scores didn’t go their way, now drowning their sorrows in milkshakes.

Monday morning’s trip home came early, and after an Uber ride to the train station, a train to Philadelphia, a flight to Charlotte, then to Dallas, then back to Jackson — the flight out West thanks to Hurricane Maria — I made it home around 7 that night.

So maybe winners wear white, or maybe they wear black or red or gold or green. All I know is that I admired all the courage and dedication of every one of those young ladies on that stage, and they all looked poised and perfect. Any one of them would have made a great Miss America.

And I know it had to make my granny proud to know that I was able to finally experience the pageant hullabaloo up close and personal. She passed away almost two years ago, but don’t think I didn’t feel her presence right beside me in Atlantic City.

I probably would have had to tell her to hush a few times because her comments and critiques likely would not have been appreciated outside the comfort of her living room. Just thinking of that makes me smile.

Elizabeth Grey

Elizabeth Grey is a native of Hattiesburg. She grew up writing short stories for fun and turned that passion into a degree in journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi. After college, Elizabeth took a features writing position with The Vicksburg Post, and, eventually, her role shifted to education and news writer, as well as copy editor. Her work has been recognized by The Associated Press and the Mississippi Press Association. She's covered everything from pageants and celebrity appearances to school board meetings and elections, but her heart belongs to feature writing and old-fashioned storytelling. Elizabeth has lived in the Capitol City since 2007 and works in media relations and communications for the Mississippi State Department of Health. She contributes regularly to The ’Sip as a writer and associate editor.