By Betsy Rothstein - 11/07/07 07:21 PM EST
Susan Sweat never thought of herself as a pageant girl.
But when the 28-year-old, 5-foot-6 brunette with large hazel eyes watched her husband get deployed to Iraq last year, she desperately needed something to occupy her time and relieve the racing thoughts in her head.
A childhood friend who had done pageants suggested that she compete for Mrs. D.C. She thought, Why not?
It wasn’t without reservations. In fact, she didn’t tell a soul in the office of Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), where she is legislative director.
Despite her protests to the contrary, Sweat had the makings of a pageant contestant early on. In high school in Columbus, Miss., a community of 20,000 that reminds her of the John Mellencamp song “Small Town,” Sweat was a cheerleader and a member of the tennis team.
“It was very all-American,” she says.
She never took part in her high school’s “beauty review” — essentially, a high school beauty pageant — even though she “didn’t think it was stupid.”
“Maybe I’ve turned more girly the older I’ve gotten,” she says.
And maybe her husband being in Iraq was more than she wanted to handle.
A pageant “can suck up as much time as you let it,” she said during a recent conversation in the Longworth House Office Building Cafeteria. “You could let it block out reality if you let it.”
How did she handle the fear of her husband’s deployment?
“I think God had really prepared me for not being fearful,” she says.
But Iraq wasn’t the only fear that Sweat and her husband have faced. In December 2004, they were vacationing on a beach in Thailand when they found themselves running for their lives from the disastrous tsunami that ravaged the country. “If God can protect me in a situation like that,” she says, “what do we have to fear?”
Heavily made up and decked out in a hot-pink skirt suit on this morning in the House cafeteria, it’s not apparent that Sweat has ever had to face anything so harrowing.
In April of 2006, she entered her first pageant and did not place in any category. “I was just kind of there,” she says.
She and her husband agreed that she could participate in one more pageant, but they had a stipulation: She wouldn’t make pageantry a lifestyle.
In June of this year, Sweat competed in the Mrs. D.C. pageant, held as part of the Maryland contest — and won.
The timing was tough, and her office allowed her to take only half a day off. “You know the Hill,” she says. “Who takes half a day if you’re handing in an appropriations bill a week before a recess?”
She went, briefly getting lost on the way, to Frederick, Md., and participated in the pageant that evening. In the evening gown competition, she wore a red halter dress with a slit and train. For the bathing suit portion, she wore a deep turquoise one-piece.
She interviewed with the judges, but there was no talent component. “Because it’s Mrs. D.C., you don’t have to have talent,” she says, without a hint of levity.
If talent had been required, Sweat is hard-pressed to say what she would have done. “I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Maybe [I would have] learned a tap dance. It would have been a mess.”
After her win in June, Sweat traveled to Tucson, Ariz., for two weeks in August to compete in the national Mrs. America pageant. For the evening gown competition, she wore an emerald-green Jovani dress. They provided the women with swimsuits, “which is always harrowing,” she says. She chose a hot-pink one-piece.
Sweat was initially skeptical about what the competition would entail and the pettiness associated with these events. Her views soon changed as she got to know the other 51 women holed up in the four-star Loews Ventana resort.
“We don’t need to judge each other,” she says. “Let the judges judge us.”
During the pageant, she bonded with a former Mrs. D.C. who was none other than Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the famed former aide to Vice President Al Gore, who happened to serve as a backstage correspondent.
“She was paid to be dramatic,” Sweat says. “We all kind of knew it. They [the producers] really baited us. [But] we were all educated adults. We didn’t sign up for drama queen camp.”
But some of it was high drama. Mrs. Tennessee got a rattlesnake bite, and Mrs. California’s arm was bitten by a giant centipede, swelling up the day before the pageant.
Another surreal moment came when the women traveled to Mexico for a photo shoot. Upon arrival, a 30-piece mariachi band greeted them as residents lined the streets. The contestants painted ostrich eggs and visited a ranch where they learned to make tortillas.
The women also threw horseshoes. “I can’t throw a horseshoe to save my life,” Sweat says. “I almost took out the cameraman.”
Getting in shape for the pageants was a must for Sweat. She and her husband began running, competing in the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, the Potomac River Run half-marathon, and the Army 10-miler. She worked out in the staff gym as much as possible — 30 to 40 minutes on the treadmill and a regimen of crunches, tricep presses and reps on the abductor machine.
In July of 2007, however, a stomach illness prevailed. Sweat thought she had a parasite. But no. Testing revealed allergies she never knew she had to an odd assortment of foods and spices: garlic, turmeric, pineapple, wheat, dairy and eggs.
She also soon learned that despite counting her calories, she had to find balance in the way she felt about how she looked.
“I am never going to be a size zero,” she says, describing her body as a size 4 on top and size 6 on the bottom. “That is not my bone structure.”
Sweat insists pageantry is not just about beauty. “This is [about] having a brain and being well-spoken,” she says.
“It’s not like a Mississippi pageant, where it’s very focused on being a model.”
In the end, she placed in the top 15 in the Mrs. America contest. “In the pageant world, it’s all based on where you place,” she explains. “It’s tough because you’re around women who are so gorgeous, and I thought, ‘I don’t need to be here.’ ”
Sweat says she doesn’t mind that she didn’t win.
“I didn’t really want to be Mrs. America,” she says in hindsight. “I have a great life. You don’t need a crown to be fulfilled.”
Happily, her husband has returned from Iraq — and pageants are a thing of the past.