What You Can Learn From a Senior Beauty Pageant

03/04/2015 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

What You Can Learn from a Senior Beauty Pageant

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, behold this: A senior beauty pageant. Wrinkles are celebrated. Gray hairs flaunted. Skip the bathing suit competition. Loose the measuring tape -- there's no height requirement. There's only one requirement: Be 58 or older.

The Miss Senior Sweetheart Pageant isn't like the young pageants, says former queen and self-professed 'pageant junkie,' Carol Tuohy, 74. "The younger pageants are cut-throat. In the older pageants, we're friends. If someone needs mascara, here you go honey. Need some red lipstick? Here's mine."

Carol Tuohy has been competing in pageants for over half a century. Beauty pageants helped her pay the first down-payment on her home. Carol is a two-time breast cancer survivor, but her struggles have only emboldened her: "Survivor is a good word, you know?" When asked what she sees when she looks in the mirror she jokingly replies, "Who is that old lady staring back at me? It can't possibly be me."

For Ida White, 79, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands, the pageants were a way to connect with new friends and discover hidden talents. "I have no declared talent. I can't sing. I am not a particularly good dancer... but I realized I could make people laugh." It's where she found her laughter that's most impressive--her partner of 49 years passed away months ago. She wasn't going to return to the pageant this year after years of participation, but the organizer, Len Kaplan, insisted that it would be good for her. When asked about what she thought of beauty ideals in society, Ida says, "beauty lasts the snap of your fingers, and then you have the rest of your life to hold yourself together."

The organizer, Len "Low Price" Kaplan, started the pageant 36 years ago as part of a local rotary club in Fall River, Massachusetts. The crowds loved the ladies (and Len's one-liners) and kept asking for more, year after year. Word spread and contestants began flying in from all over the country and some overseas.

Reflecting back on his life, Len says he could have been a rich businessman, but his life wouldn't have been filled with as much joy if it weren't for his "little old ladies" as he lovingly calls them. And not all are little--Ida White towers over Len at 5 feet 11 inches which didn't stop Len from dancing with her on stage when Ida was crowned Miss Senior Sweetheart for the final year of the pageant.

Len recognizes that youth is beautiful: "Young people have great figures, clothes, and are beautiful to look at, but the seniors have heart and soul. They have the story of life built up." Stories that deserve, at the very least, a shining crown.