Mr. Perfect Couple California has no pants. Somewhere between California and Texas, his pants went AWOL. He and his perfect wife must find tuxedo pants before tomorrow's evening wear competition. Mrs. Perfect Couple Kentucky has a scratchy throat and she's supposed to sing about God and an acorn for the talent segment. But Mrs. Kentucky and Mr. California know nothing's perfect. Heck, even their marriages aren't perfect! Just don't let the judges hear that or they may be disqualified from the fourth annual America's Perfect Couple pageant, held every November in Houston.
With so much divorce and adultery and couples waving their dirty laundry on talk shows, someone has to polish the image of a tainted institution. During the pageant, five couples compete in Western and evening wear and are grilled about what makes their marriage so special. Fluffy-covered albums with photos and love tokens account for 15 percent of their final score. Mr. and Mrs. California are automatically penalized because "no one told them to bring a scrapbook." The winning couple must sign a contract stating they won't separate or divorce in the next year.
"At first I was hesitant to enter because I thought, 'Gosh, we're not perfect,'" says Mr. California, Kenny Bray. "But the judges are just looking for a wholesome, down-to-earth couple to promote the values of marriage." Kenny and his wife, Wendy, have been married for five years and finish each other's sentences. Both have names that end in "y" and both look like they stepped off a Wheaties box. Kenny works for an airline and Wendy studies behavioral science. "I'm the envy of all my friends," she gushes. "Every Sunday I get strawberries in bed, and when I'm taking a shower, Kenny warms up my robe in the dryer. The best part is, we don't have to watch football on Sundays." Though it was fun being single, Wendy likes having "a husband who loves me no matter what -- even on that bad-hair day."
David and Karin Jenkins, Mr. and Mrs. Florida, were voted "cutest couple" by their seventh-grade class. On the first day of sixth grade, Karin came home and opened the yearbook. "David Jenkins," she murmured, tapping his photo. "That's the boy I'm going to marry." "Mmm," her mother replied. "And how was lunch, dear?" David composed a love letter to Karin during study hall:
Dear Karen, do you like me, I mean more than a friend!?! I like you more than a friend!?! Write back and answer all questions!
The note is included in their album, which is decorated in satin with seashells in the shape of a heart. The Jenkins and their two children model for Disney Studios as the company's "token white family." In fact, they went to Disney World for their honeymoon. They own a wedding and pageant consultation business: Karin does makeup and David does hairstyles and designs the clothes (he created Karin's pageant gowns). They also teach a marriage enrichment class. The Jenkins competed in America's Perfect Couple 1995. "We want to promote marriage and it's cool that this event celebrates marriage," Mr. Florida says. "If we could just touch one couple with a spark that might save their relationship, that would be really cool."
Roger and Cathy Carpenter, Mr. and Mrs. Kentucky, began a pen pal romance when she was 15. He'd dated one of her seven sisters before joining the Navy. "My mother should have been worried," Cathy says. "I was 15 with a 21-year-old sailor at my junior prom. But Roger was more of a gentleman than the Randy Andies I'd dated before. He's just a good ol' country boy," she adds, looking wistfully at the lanky man she married a month after high school graduation. Roger is an electrician whom everyone calls "the cowboy" because of the multigallon hats he wears. Cathy manages the family business with their 18-year-old daughter, Christella, who was recently named Miss Teen America. Christella is 5-9 (5-7 of that is legs) with strawberry blond hair. Under the application question, "What is your best asset?" Cathy wrote "my husband." Roger wrote "my wife."
"The word 'perfect' is intimidating," Cathy admits. "God may have someone for everyone, but you still have to do some of the work." Cathy is a Baptist. A halo would seem more fitting than a crown atop her cotton-candy hair. She claims she and Roger have never had a fight. "Well," she pauses, "an argument is the closest we've come to a fight. My mother always said, 'Never let the sun go down on your wrath.'" Roger strums guitar and serenades his wife with a song he wrote 32 years ago. It goes something like this: "She's got pretty green eyes and the sweetest smile, beautiful red hair that drives me wild, lips like honey, oh me oh my, I'm a lucky guy."
This marriage is the second round for Roger and Whitney Broach, Mr. and Mrs. Texas. He was divorced, and she was a widow. She has luminescent green eyes that never blink. She works as a paralegal and does tattoo removal and permanent cosmetics in a room that adjoins Roger's law office. "My first husband was abusive and I vowed I would never marry again," Whitney whispers in a petite voice. "But 20 minutes after meeting Roger, I knew he was a genius. And he's fantastic in bed," she adds, without batting a permanently lined lid. They eloped to Vegas on a very low budget. After spending $25 on a marriage license, Whitney talked a chapel owner into marrying them for $12. The honeymoon was dinner at a Mexican restaurant.
While Roger was recovering from heart surgery, Whitney averaged four hours of sleep in order to care for his clients as well as her patients. She wants to remove gang tattoos in exchange for ex-gangsters' performing community service. If they win, Whitney and Roger plan to visit women in shelters and prisons to illustrate that not all marriages are bad.
Frannie and Jeff "Moose" Christiansen are the reigning Mr. and Mrs. Perfect America. They're here to relinquish the title and compete for World's Perfect Couple, a category in which they are the only contenders. They own an automotive company and are born-again Christians. The Christiansens' key to a good marriage? Their hot tub, where they watch shooting stars. Instead of giving 50-50 to the marriage, each gives 100 percent. Their album chronicles the "progression of their love story" with metal hearts that play "Greensleeves" when you press them. When Frannie was filling out the perfect-couple application, she asked Jeff what to write for "name three qualities that describe your husband." "I'm not in the pageant mood," Jeff grumbled. "Just say, 'Bald, disgruntled and overweight'"
Commitment and communication are the keys to a healthy marriage, the couples all agree. They are eager to share these secrets with the American public and serve as role models, representing marriage "the way it used to be." Most have entered the pageant for another reason -- Sylviane Sydney Kitchen. The director of America's Perfect Couple and a former beauty queen from France, Kitchen plans to franchise etiquette workshops for children. She is the patron saint of pageants. Kitchen refers to the couples as "my babies" and they call her "Grandma."
"As large as she is, Kitchen's heart is three times larger," says Joelle Mahoney, Mrs. All Nations Universal 1997 and the mistress of ceremonies. Everyone claims that Sylviane Productions is not like other beauty pageants. "No daaarling," Kitchen oozes in her Cajun-fried accent. "Zis is not a beauty pageant, sweetheart. It don't matter if you fat or skinny. What counts is inner beauty."
J.J. Smith, the master of ceremonies, thinks Kitchen is "more beautiful than Miss Universe." Smith is a pageant prodigy. Little J.J. used to watch the Miss America Pageant on television and could always pick the winner. "Sylviane sets a certain tone. In the dressing room here, if someone doesn't have the right shade of lipstick, another girl will offer hers. I've been to pageants where girls had makeup cases shut on their fingers if they reached for someone else's lipstick!" At Miss America, one contestant asked another to zip up her dress, and the girl said, "Are you kidding? Do you think I'd risk breaking a nail for you!?"
"Pageants have taken a black eye lately," Smith sighs, alluding to the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder. "Pageant girls who go into modeling have a strike against them because photographers think they're afraid to break a nail." Advertising dictates popular styles, Smith explains, and the Calvin Klein look is anathema to pageantry. "Take Kate Moss," he grimaces, "that girl hasn't eaten in 23 years, she wears no makeup and she's never had a curler in her hair!"
"Delegates" and "ambassadors" in the other Sylviane Productions pageants this weekend (which include Glamour Granny, Mrs. Universal All Nations, Mrs. All Nations of America, Mrs. Perfect Petite Lady and Ms. Perfect Lady) know that thorns accompany a crown. "There's nothing glamorous about being a queen," Mrs. Universal All Nations testifies. "A queen must adapt and never complain. No matter what happens, she has to smile." Mrs. Universal All Nations knows all too well about obstacles. At her first appearance, Joelle had to change in a restroom in which the floor was flooded with water.
This year's theme is "Love is in the air." It was the theme last year and the one before that. Perhaps it could be changed to "Tension is in the air." Kitchen pads about in stocking feet and a spangly black dress, whistling for quiet and smacking her forehead. The interviews are about to begin, and where are Mr. and Mrs. Texas? Punctuality counts, girls. You are applying for a job to be a role model, but we are here to have fun and Kitchen loves each and every one of us -- and where are Mrs. Germany's lederhosen?
Red, pink and sky blue chiffon streams from the Marriott's ballroom ceiling. On the back wall "Sylviane Productions" is spelled out in pink rhinestones. Michael Bolton's "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" blasts from the sound system as ambassadors are introduced. They have perfected the parade wave, high in the air to reach a sea of fans. The 15 people in the audience have a perfect view of the wave.
Four judges are armed with criteria sheets:
Stage interview: Did the contestant answer your questions? Did you like her answer? Is this lady composed and do you feel she is sincere in her response? Is she smiling?
Evening gown: Is the gown appropriate for the contestant? Does the gown complement the contestant?
Kitchen has warned everyone about taboo interview topics. "We are not here to discuss politics or religions. We are not here to save the world. No one can save the world ... except God, and nobody is God. I would like to be God," Kitchen chuckles, imagining the endorsement possibilities.
"Last time, they asked what makes our marriage perfect," Frannie Christiansen mutters backstage. "I mean, what a stupid question!" Mr. and Mrs. Florida get stuck with that one this year. "Our love is like a wave," David says. "We ride the crest of the wave together and occasionally we fall off, but we pick each other up. We work on our relationship a lot, but it doesn't seem like work." Frannie and Moose are asked what makes a good spouse. "Trust," Moose answers, without missing a heartbeat. "If you can't trust your wife to go to the grocery store or run an errand for you, if you think she's not going to come back or might go out with another man, that's bad."
The couples had it easier than one of the Ms. Perfect Lady delegates. "I never dreamed they'd ask me that question!" she gasps, recovering from "What would you do if you won the lottery?" The other girls assure her she was right to answer, "I'd have to think long and hard about which charity I'd contribute to first."
Sylviane Productions' trademark camaraderie prevails in the dressing room. When Mrs. Germany asks, "Can you see my mustache?" the other girls lie. Or perhaps they just can't see through the AquaNet haze. Maybe Kitchen was right and contestants can't save the world. But must they destroy the ozone layer?
"Suck it and tuck it," Ms. Houston Perfect Petite Lady advises Mrs. Perfect Couple Texas as she wriggles into a borrowed evening gown. Whitney's dress still won't zip. It might have something to do with her breasts, which have been pushed to her throat thanks to strategically placed duct tape. "Some girls like to slick Vaseline on their teeth," Mrs. Perfect Couple Florida explains. "But if you get nervous and start salivating, it turns into cement. My only secret is 'the Cadillac of bras' from Frederick's of Hollywood." Another girl ignores Kitchen's "just be yourself" mantra and tucks a silicone-gel falsie called Curves into her bra (if chilled in the fridge, Curves can double as a stress-relieving eye pack). "Thank God for the Wonderbra!" a contestant sings, as she fishes through a tackle box of makeup.
Onstage, a dapper Mr. Perfect Couple Florida twirls Mrs. Florida in her slit-legged sequin dress. White smoke curls from a nearby machine, adding a misty, watercolored memory effect. The Jenkinses float offstage and take a seat as other couples congratulate their smooth moves. "Oops," David winces, glancing at his tuxedo pants. "My fly was unzipped!"
Before the show, our lovebirds recorded secret twitterings to each other. Speakers trumpet their Hallmark messages while couples stare at each other with that glaucomatous gaze of love:
Wendy may not have a castle, but she has a prince.
Karin loves David infinitely most.
Like the butterfly chain Roger put around Whitney's neck, he set her free.
A drumroll, please. It's almost time for the envelope. A collective tear drips through the room as Ms. Humble County Perfect Lady wheels up to the podium to receive a special award from Kitchen. On Friday night, Ms. Humble took a tumble doing the Texas two-step at the Cadillac Ranch. She spent the rest of the pageant in a wheelchair. But like a true queen, she smiled through the injustice of it all.
Was it fate that tripped Ms. Humble? And did fate award America's Perfect Couple to not one but two couples? When J.J. Smith announces a tie between Florida and Kentucky, a hush descends. This is unprecedented! And confusing, since prizes and public appearances will have to be split. "Can we borrow the sash and scepter?" Mr. Florida asks Mrs. Kentucky during the post-pageant photo op. Titles and goodie bags are distributed to all. Mr. and Mrs. Texas are America's Sweetest Couple and Mr. and Mrs. California are America's Friendliest Couple. The Christiansens are (drumroll, please) the World's Perfect Couple.
Mr. and Mrs. Florida aren't sure if they've won or lost. "After it was announced, girls kept patting our hands and saying, 'Sorry,' " Karin recounts. "The victory is a little bittersweet," David adds.
Mrs. Kentucky seems more amused than annoyed that she and Roger are half of a perfect equation. "We didn't need a title to be who we are," Cathy smiles. "I don't mind telling people we're not the only perfect couple."