From Beauty Queen to Circus Scenes
“The fitness competition in pageantry is no different than exotic dancing, or stripping. We are taking our clothes off and exposing ourselves for money. I can’t imagine why we treat the disciplines so differently.”
Thumbing through the Fringe Guide, you may have been struck by the striking advertisement on page 98 promoting Almanac Dance Circus Theatre’s Jeanne/Jean/John/Jawn. You’re not wrong in thinking the female performer casually supporting the weight of founding company member Adam Kerbel could be a beauty queen. She is.
Lauren Johns joined Almanac in 2016 and stars in its 2018 Fringe show. Before that, she competed in pageants, winning several regional awards and placing in the top ten of the Miss Pennsylvania competition. She talked to FringeArts about her varied performance history and the feminist critiques of pageantry.
FringeArts: What’s your background in performance art?
Lauren Johns: I’m the middle child. I grew up a dancer at a little gem of a dance studio, Out of His Mind, in Johnstown, PA. I tripped and conveniently fell into a scholarship at The University of the Arts BFA Dance program. As I began creating I found myself trying to convince dancers to let me throw them in the air or climb on their heads or have them try to balance with only their chests on the ground. When I presented my first work Katie Swords told me, “Lauren, this isn’t dance, you’re making physical theater.” This led me to take a job with a physical theater company, Aura CuriAtlas, then Almanac.
FringeArts: When did you join Almanac?
Lauren Johns: I was performing with Aura Curiatlas when I met Ben [Grinberg] at a performance. He invited me to a workshop/audition for Fringe 2016’s Exile 2588. It has been true love ever since. Almanac doesn’t just accept my weird inclinations, but helps me develop the skills I need to create and collaborate.
FringeArts: You also have a background in a different type of performance?
Lauren Johns: There is a program in my hometown, Outstanding Young Women (OYW), that straddles a debutante ball and a pageant. This program strictly dignifies itself in being a scholarship organization. There are a series of application processes and interviews that review your educational merit to be accepted into the program. The areas of competition include presence and presentation, talent, interview, and fitness. The fitness competition in this case was a true test of fitness. We jumped around stage with an aerobic dance and then did a series of pushups and single leg squats in logo T-shirts and smiles plastered on our faces. You better believe I won that fitness competition. I then did a number of programs where I wore a dress and received accolades. I caught the eye of a local dress boutique owner, she encouraged me to compete in the Miss America system.
FringeArts: You were Miss Philadelphia?
Lauren Johns: Nah, I was Second runner up and First runner up.
FringeArts: Well, FringeArts Blog is super impressed. What similarities do you see between your Almanac performances and the pageantry?
Lauren Johns: If I could compare performances to conversations I would say that as a pageant contestant I want the conversation to put everyone at ease. I want you to enjoy talking to me, I want you to feel safe and hear what I have to say. I am going to show you the most intelligent, most beautiful, most endearing version of myself. I want you to fall in love with me and think that I am sooo out of your league.
As a performer with almanac I want to be in undiscovered territory. I hope that it is a new experience for you to see me as my most genuine. The socially awkward, insecure, flirty, mess that makes all the questionable decisions that every other 25-year-old makes. I want you the think and walk away from the conversation wanting to call me back.
FringeArts: How is the creative process different?
Lauren Johns: When creating my talent dances for pageants I learned to stick to one emotion at a time.. Happy or sad. Clear. As an audience member you know exactly what is happening. I am not challenging you, you are completely in control.
When I am jazzed about a creation with Almanac I want you to feel the exact opposite. It has to be an adventure through something you might have experienced before, but it has no name.
FringeArts: There are strong feminist critiques of beauty pageants. What’s your perspective?
Lauren Johns: When I start to speak to the subject I feel like a parent lecturing the deaf ear of a child or saying things a naive father doesn’t want to hear. I think so many things.
Miss America Pageants are amazing because your are constantly being asked who you are and what you stand for, and then asked to prove it through a year of service… while wearing a crown, so there is no room for error. As someone who had been given every opportunity and advantage in the world it was a nurturing and safe place for me to be challenged for the first time. I walked through the door looking for a way to pay for school and found a world of ignorant and good intentioned 18–23 year olds looking for a “how to change the world” guide. I am still looking for that guide.
Also, pageants are everything you think they are.
The fitness competition (swimsuit) has always been a point of contention for the Miss America Organization. When I was asked my opinion about it and given 30 seconds to answer I responded with an always perfectly curated, “It is a manipulation of pop culture that Miss America uses to stay relevant. If anyone is to be questioned it is not the Miss America Organization, but those who create the culture that says wearing a swimsuit is what I need to do to stay out of student debt ”
*hand mc back to MC*
*take two steps forward*
*place hand on right hip*
*smile at each judge from left to right*
*exit stage left stepping with right foot first*
*keep smiling at audience even when your torso is faced away… twist your head completely around if need be*
I thought everyone knew that.. I mean these women were brilliant, of course they know what they are doing. WRONG. When MAO cut the swimwear competition in response to the hellfire that was the sexist asshole men that were running the organization being exposed. I began reading tweets and statuses of these seemingly brilliant girls saying, “if Miss America doesn’t support physical fitness they don’t support mental health”. …Seriously Cassie is that a joke?
FringeArts: What’s your perspective now?
Lauren Johns: I find myself having very different conversations. I had the pleasure of being in my hometown last night. While out for a drink with my high school best friend, cousin, and brother, I heard a male voice say, “Hey are you a Johns kid?” This was inevitably someone who knows my parents.
We got to talking and he being a small-town-proud father tells me all the accomplishments Paige, who graduated a few years behind me, has been making since I had seen her last. Accomplishments including her top ten placement in Miss Pennsylvania. He quickly followed with,”Hey what do you think about all this swimsuit stuff?”
With my answer, this was there first time I have seen a grown man really learn something major in front of my eyes. I watched him change, because my previous stage-prepared answer left a few escape routes for the blame and reality of what he is encouraging of his daughter. Now I tell him that of course the fitness competition isn’t about fitness. I’ve never won, and I could bench-press every girl that ever beat me in that area of competition, at the same time. I am sure Paige didn’t win either despite being a state recognized runner and dancer. He laughed along and made a full body gesture of a skinny feminine body.
I then said exactly what I had always been saying: the fitness competition in pageantry is no different than exotic dancing, or stripping. We are taking our clothes off and exposing ourselves for money. I can’t imagine why we treat the disciplines so differently. This realization that Paige is an ivy league student, incredible athlete, amazing moral person, and also a sex worker was too complex a thought for Mr. Lumley to have at a bar at 1am.
My focus now is just disappointment. All of the women, that I grew into myself around, perpetuate this segregation that I firmly disagree with. I think a little humility and reality is due.
FringeArts: Could you see yourself exploring your pageantry experiences in an Almanac show or other performance work?
Lauren Johns: Of course! I had coerced a boss and friend of mind to be a celebrity judge at the Miss Philadelphia Pageant once I had aged out. His thoughts would be interesting to hear in a theatrical setting.
FringeArts: What else are you looking forward to this Fringe?
Lauren Johns: I am just thrilled to be back in Philadelphia. I left briefly for Boston and it took almost losing everything I had to know what was on the line. Philadelphia loves art. Philadelphia loves its people. This is a healthy place to be who and what you want and change your mind whenever you want. I LOVE YOU PHILADELPHIA.
FringeArts: Philadelphia loves you too Lauren!
When: September 4-16, 2018
Where: The Garden at The Maas Buidling, 1325 N. Randolph Street, Kensington
Created by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre