Ms. Senior America contestants line-up to take a photo before the pageant finals in Atlantic City, N.J. on Oct. 18, 2018.
Rosa Polin for TIME

'I'm Over 60, and I Feel Great.' At the Ms. Senior America Pageant, Women's Voices Take the Stage

October 20, 2018

Gayle Novak’s dark red pixie haircut is perfectly coiffed beneath her glittering tiara, the winking jewels of which are only rivaled by her silver evening gown and the glitter-flecked cherry red lipstick she’s applied to match her sparkling red acrylic manicure. On any given Thursday, you might find Novak manning her steakhouse restaurant in Aurora, Colorado, but on this crisp October Thursday, Novak is swanning sinuously in her spangled dress past a row of banquettes in the cavernous Superstar Theater of Atlantic City’s Resorts Casino Hotel, as Ms. Colorado ‘18, one of the 39 contestants vying for the coveted national title on the final day of the 2018 Ms. Senior America National Pageant.

“This changed everything,” she says, while gesturing to her white satin sash. “I’ll tell anyone how old I am. Yeah, I’m over 60, and I feel great.” Novak’s sentiments are echoed multiple times for the rest of the day by the hundreds of women who have flocked to the sandy boardwalks and lurid lights of Atlantic City to witness the crowning of Ms. Senior America, a title that honors women who have reached the “Age of Elegance” — age sixty and up.

Sherry Dodson, Ms. Texas, prepares before the Ms. Senior America Pageant finale on Oct. 18, 2018.
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The pageant began in 1972 after Dr. Al Mott, a theologian and singer, read an article about senior citizen neglect and sought to make an event that would combat that. “I wanted them to know their value,” he declares regally while shaking the hands of a seemingly endless stream of contestants and spectators during an intermission. “I wanted these women to know how valued they are and what they mean to America.”

Kimberly Albrecht, Ms. Illinois, left, and Georgia Lee, Ms. Alabama, touch-up each other's makeup before a group photo.
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One of these women is Fran Griffin, Ms. North Carolina ’18, a hospital talent recruiter and legacy queen (her mother, Sarah Brooks, won the same title 20 years). The self-described introvert who stands resplendent in a pleated raspberry gown outside of the bustling dressing rooms, said that the pageant has made her feel stronger and more confident as she’s grown older.

“I am my own self-doubter, but it made me realize that I had talents I never thought I had,” she confides, as she wraps an arm around her 90-year-old mother, who has attended every pageant in the past two decades since she won in 1998 and is here today to cheer Griffin on.

Brooks agrees with her daughter. “It’s a whole new world,” she says, while proudly straightening her sash from the year she won Ms. North Carolina. “Being involved in the pageant expands your horizons.”

All the of the contestants line-up before the top 10 finalists are announced at the Ms. Senior America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. on Oct. 18, 2018.
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"It’s been an exciting, wonderful year. I would recommend it for anyone in my age group. It’s a once in a lifetime experience." Carolyn Slade Harden won the 2017 Ms. Senior America Pageant.
Rosa Polin for TIME
Thirty-nine women competed in the Ms. Senior America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J.
Rosa Polin for TIME

Contestants hopeful to be crowned Ms. Senior America are judged in four categories over the course of the three-day pageant: interview, talent, evening gown, and philosophy of life. While the talent is the clear crowd-pleaser of the event (this year’s finalist performances ranged from a Mamma Mia! striptease to an epic rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partio” and the rest of the program included three tap dance routines and some delightful body rolls to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”), it’s the philosophy of life category that allows these women to achieve the kind of visibility that the pageant was founded on.

One of the pageant acts waits in the stage wing for their dance performance
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Several pageant acts wait backstage for their dance performances at the Ms. Senior America finals on Oct. 18.
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Mary Jane Lawler, Ms. Mississippi, gets ready before the Ms. Senior America Pageant finale.
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Fortunata Maluccio, Ms. Maine, right, and the rest of the contestants line-up for a group photo.
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Georgia Lee, Ms. Alabama, holds her crown in the dressing room between pageant acts.
Rosa Polin for TIME

Ms. Alabama ’17 and state administrator of the Alabama State Senior America Pageant, Rita Young Allen, noted that in the midst of a particularly difficult year for women, this pageant gives them the opportunity to sound off, something that feels even more prescient when you consider that when the pageant was founded, all of its eligible contestants were born during a time that women didn’t even have the right to vote.

"It enables us to have a voice, it enables us to be ourselves and to be true to yourself. And it enables us to speak out, so when things aren’t right, you can speak out and have people to support you." Fran Griffin, Ms. North Carolina participates in the 2018 Ms. Senior America Pageant.
Rosa Polin for TIME
"It doesn’t matter, the crown doesn’t matter, I mean it does, because it’s a pageant, but in our hearts, we’ve all done something that pushes the limits of what we’ve gone through. I wanted to be with like-minded women, women in business, women in philanthropy, and women that participate in and appreciate the arts." Gayle Novak, Ms. Colorado, won the 2018 Ms. Senior America Pageant on Oct. 18, 2018.
Rosa Polin for TIME

“I have a voice, I have power behind my voice, I have just as much right to speak my thoughts and feelings and beliefs as anybody else,” she says with a wide but confident smile. “I think we need to teach women that it’s very important for them to be vocal and to be powerful.”

Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.