Wednesday, January 7, 2009

An Interview with Tosca Lee

As promised, an insider's look into the woman who wrote Havah: the Story of Eve, a book I relished (read review), a book Publisher's Weekly starred in their review.

A passionate and riveting story... Lee’s superior storytelling will have readers weeping for all that Havah forfeited by a single damning choice."
- Publishers Weekly

I first met Tosca Lee when we both sat at a poorly attended boo
k signing in Colorado Springs. The authors had more time to mix and mingle among themselves than with any fans. It was an unforeseen perk. I had already seen Tosca's book cover, but when I saw that it was a story of Eve, the tractor beam pulled me right in.

When I began to talk with Tosca, I discovered that she was not the typical writer. Right off
the bat I was monstrously curious about one line in her biography, "Tosca Lee is a sought-after speaker and first runner-up to Mrs. United States 1998." You better believe I peppered her with questions.

I'd never met a true beauty queen, or a runner-up for that matter. But Tosca endeared me to her pretty darn quick when she told me, "You should run for Mrs. United States." When I laughed and she just looked at me seriously, I thanked her profusely.

Still, I have to admit I had plenty of prejudice about these beauty pageantry types, especially after Miss South Carolina's exhibition a few years back.

Here are the words from a woman who's been on the inside, a fellow-writer, and a woman I'm proud to call my new friend.

J: What got you into beauty pageants?

I was eating dinner at my mom’s house and one of her dinner guests who volunteered with the production of the Mrs. Nebraska pageant, said, “Hey, Tosca, you should run for Mrs. Nebraska.”

I laughed at him.

Now, you need to know that he was saying this to a woman who was one of those Smart Girls growing up—the kind that a boy would sooner copy homework from than ask on a date. I was short most of my early life, a half Asian girl in the middle of a 95% white school in Nebraska in a time when Christy Brinkley was on the cover of every fashion magazine. It was so not cool to be ethnic when I was growing up, or to be into the arts in a state that lives and dies on sports. And while the American definition of beauty changed around the time that I was in high school—by then I sprouted up from the short kid that I used to be--I was still voted Most Likely to Become a Librarian my senior year. If that tells you anything. ;)

I went on from high school to Smith College--the liberal feminist college famous for alums like Gloria Steinem, and first ladies Nancy Reagen and Barbara Bush (our class of ’92 t-shirt said, “There’s got to be a better way to get a woman into the white house.”)

So by all accounts, the pageant was a stupid idea.The more I thought about it, though, the more intriguing it was. The fact that he had mentioned it at all moved the idea from the outlandish to the possible. I was curious to know if I could do it. And If I’m honest, I think a part of me also just wanted some validation as someone who could be “beauty” material.

2. How did your college studies feel harmonious or incompatible with competing for Mrs. United States?

On the one hand, I had friends who really questioned my decision to take part. This is not what women from Smith College do. I kinda wondered if they were going to sic the National Organization for Women on me. On the other hand, my definition of feminism has always been that a woman has choices. She can work or not work. She can have children or not have children. She can go to school or not. She can compete in a pageant or not. The definition of feminism, to me, is not just about equality or equal pay, but about being able to exercise the full range of her intellect, her spirit, and her femininity.

3. What were the female friendships like among the contestants?

I met some of the coolest new friends. To this day I keep in contact with Cynthia (Mrs. Ohio), who won the 1996 Mrs. America title, with Annie (Mrs. Hampshire) who was also my roommate, and Christy (Mrs. Hawaii). I made a great friend in Deanna, (Mrs. Tennessee) in the 1998 Mrs. United States pageant, and also several great friends competing on the state level. I’ve also inherited a whole sisterhood of Mrs. Nebraskas—those before me and those who have won the title since—who have become good friends.

Sure, there was some cattiness, too, but that’s more a reflection of competition and life in general than the pageant system, if you ask me.

4- What moved you out of pageantry into writing?

I had already established myself as a professional writer several years before I entered my first pageant, having written on the staff of Smart Computing Magazine, authored two computer books and freelanced for several years. It was harder to get much writing done especially with the 1996 Mrs. Nebraska America title (I was by then working on a novel); I made some 60 appearances that year on behalf of charities and community events, and also started a speaking career that would help launch me into my consulting job a few years later.

I always say that a pageant is a very strange means to a good end—after all, aside from the national pageant, I never appeared in a swimsuit, and only attended a couple events in evening gowns. Most of my year was spent raising money for causes (I raised $8000 for breast cancer with my own Mrs. Nebraska golf tournament), meeting kids and talking to Girl Scout groups, taking part in events for the American Cancer Society, the Heart Association, Alzheimer’s groups, local fairs and state-wide events like Nebraskaland Days, doing interviews on the radio and TV about each of these causes. By the time I became an author, I had good experience with the media, which helped a lot.

In 1998 I ran for Mrs. United States, mainly because by the time the Mrs. America experience was over and I sort of understood the whole thing—it was over. Having not grown up doing pageants, that was my first national experience. So in 1998 I competed for the Mrs. United States title mainly to flex what I had learned about presence and interview and reaching out to people—even from stage in 5” heels. Seriously. I won first runner-up and when it was over was ready to move on to something new.

Once the pageant titles were behind me I had more time to pursue my own projects—one of which became my first novel, Demon. I also started my consulting job with the Gallup Organization a few years later, too—about the same time I started modeling professionally as a hobby. Strange dichotomies, I know, but modeling, consulting, writing and pageantry have all managed to inform one another in my life.

Five Inch Heels.... wow.

Meeting Tosca made me all the more eager to get back to writing my next book, "Walking in Her Shoes", a project that has been put on the backburner as Dale and I finish up our book on "Faith and Friendship." In the meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts about women, pageantry and competition.

Check out more about Tosca Lee and her new book, Havah at her website.

1 comment:

Marti said...

Thanks for both the review and the interview, Jonalyn! I know my library has "Havah," will also look for "Demon"!

Just got another in the slowly slowing stream of Christmas cards and letters, this from a college friend who is now the mother of six. Yes: one woman's life can be so different from another's, and while that is wonderful it is not always what we planned or hoped for. Yet there is lots of room for diversity and freedom!