Kevin Bondonno’s boyhood dreams never once involved a triumphal parade ride through downtown streets waving to Fourth of July crowds from an open convertible. “Especially not wearing a sash” says the unlikely pageant titleholder. When he found himself vying a year ago for “Mr. Redwood City” the realization that “I don’t have a talent” could easily have been a showstopper.
“I always wanted to play the ukulele,” Bondonno adds, “so I thought, ‘I’ll go ahead and make that my talent.’” He bought one and learned enough to pull off a solo performance of Bob Marley’s reggae ditty, “Three Little Birds.” Though the judges named auctioneer Frank Bizzarro Mr. Redwood City, Bondonno took home the “Mr. People’s Choice” title, which includes votes from the audience. “I joke with people and I say that Frank may have actually gotten the Electoral College,” Bondonno says. “I got the popular vote.”
To anyone who in 2018 says “beauty pageants” are passé, or for that matter that chivalry is dead, the men-only offshoot of the Miss Redwood City-San Mateo County Competition offers a gentlemanly rebuttal. Launched three years ago to raise both awareness and funds for the “Miss” program, the light-hearted Mr. Redwood City event that is coming up April 28 is scoring top marks in both categories.
“Every time we do this, it’s just a hoot,” says Allison Wood, executive director of the Miss Redwood City organization. Not only that, “it’s truly become our major fundraising source.” Every dollar helps because the reigning queen receives a scholarship of at least $1,000, and the local pageant is unusual in giving each participant a stipend. Sponsorships from the Peninsula Celebration Association, businesses and others also help fund pageant-related expenses.
The 60-year-old Miss Redwood City-San Mateo County competition is a preliminary to Miss California and Miss America. The Mr. Redwood City event mirrors their judging criteria but instead of swimsuits, the men don leisure attire and there are no age limits. (Miss California sets eligibility at 17 to 24.) There’s an evening wear promenade in tuxes and other uptown attire. Men who may never have given a thought to how to bring about world peace find themselves having to articulate cogent responses under the hot lights of the Veterans Memorial Senior Center stage.
And then there’s “the talent.”
Ralph Garcia, who owns a vacuum cleaner store on Main Street, has competed two years in a row and did walking stand-up, pushing a vacuum around the stage. He didn’t win – “The comedian never wins,” he reasons – but enjoyed the fun backstage with the pageant brotherhood and will return if organizers run short of men.
“I call myself the two-time loser,” Garcia quips. “. . . A great platform would be a three-time loser.”
“We all come together for a lot of fun and a good cause, and we had a blast,” Bondonno agrees, noting that all the Miss Redwood City contestants get a scholarship. He too would be willing to take another shot at the title if he’s needed, but says “it’s time to pass it on.”
On the distaff side, of course, competing is serious business, and young women who want to wear the crown work hard and may enter multiple times at pageants around the state. Brooke Muschott racked up eight losses before being crowned Miss Redwood City/San Mateo County 2018 in November. Losing may be discouraging, the Pepperdine College graduate and national roller skating competitor concedes, but each event is a building block.
“I was not ready to win and I was not ready for the job all those times that I lost,” the 22-year-old Menlo Park resident says. “And every single time I competed, I learned something new. I got better at interview. I got better at hair and make-up, which is not something I do on a regular basis. I became a better skater. I’ve gotten so much better at stage presence, and all of these things are really important qualities in life, I think, too.”
To enter the Miss Redwood City/San Mateo County title – classified as a “structured” or “closed” competition under the Miss California rules — young women must live or work in the county or be a full-time Stanford University student. An outstanding teen category is also available in Redwood City to girls from 13 to 17 years of age. Some competitions in the state are “open,” which is why Muschott could also try for Miss LA County/Culver City and Miss Orange County/Orange Coast.
Muschott never remembers a time when the Miss America program wasn’t on her radar screen. Her mother and her aunt were Miss Arizonas (1986 and 1989 respectively.) During visits to Muschott’s grandparents, “there were pictures of my mom on the wall and a crown. And at age three or four that seems like the coolest thing in the world, especially because I loved Disney and was a princess-obsessed little girl.”
Two years ago she entered her first competition, Miss Beach Cities in El Segundo. “I had no idea what I was getting into at the time,” she says, laughing. “But it was a good experience and I think everyone who enters their first competition either they get hooked or they decide it’s not for them. And I got hooked.”
Too tall at 5’ 11” for a partner, Muschott honed her skills as a teen-ager in both ice skating and roller skating. She executed a roller routine to the tune “Shake It Off” for her Miss Redwood City win, but is currently practicing a retooled dance for the larger stage at the Miss California pageant in June. The biggest challenge, though, is preparing for off-stage interview sessions with the judges, during which contestants field rapid-fire questions for almost 10 minutes. They need to be up on current events, able to respond to hot topics and also explain their “platform” and why they want to win.
A creative writing major who has collaborated with bestselling author Ridley Pearson on his Kingdom Keepers series, Muschott’s wants to help high school girls “write their own path,” and she’d like to develop a writing mentorship program with the library. Since being crowned, she has made nearly two dozen appearances as Miss Redwood City and gotten to know city officials.
“Redwood City and San Mateo County, they love to see their titleholders go to events,” Wood says. “It’s an awesome opportunity that our girls get to have that is not uniform throughout the state . . . Redwood City makes everything into a party. It’s a fun place.”
Jeri Daines, who came in second runner-up to Miss Teen California All American in 2002 at the age of 16, competed twice for Miss Redwood City but wasn’t chosen. Now 35 and a partner at Sequoia Realty Services, she’s part of a “sisterhood” of former contestants and other supporters who serve on Miss Redwood City’s organizing committee. Daines sees the program as empowering for young women, as well as an opportunity to make lifelong bonds.
“Each pageant I walked away feeling good about myself,” the Redwood City resident says. “Whether or not you win, it gives you confidence. It gives you life skills. Public speaking. Performing talent.”
And the often-derided swimsuit element, supposedly to assess physical fitness? Some hope the recent election of former Miss America Gretchen Carlson to the national board will usher in a change. Daines, on the other hand, says she knew some fellow contestants were uncomfortable with the swimsuit competition, but “that was my favorite part. I’m not a shy person and I had fun with it.”
Muschott, who has ordered one of the four made-for-the-stage swimsuit options for Miss California contestants, has mixed feelings about that required element. The experience walking on stage in a swimsuit can be energizing later for job interviews and other challenging situations, knowing that if she can do that, “I can do anything. And I think there’s a certain value to that that we tend to forget when we get caught up in the objectifying women mindset.”
If the manly competitors choose to model swim trunks, so be it. Bondonno played it safe with khakis and a cardigan. City Librarian Derek Wolfgram’s leisure wear choice was a kilt and a “Trust Me, I’m a Librarian” tee shirt. (He got a once-in-a-150-year honor of being chosen “Mr. Sesquicentennial” for 2017.)
Wood isn’t sure whether the Mr. Redwood City event was a first, but representatives from other cities have inquired about doing their own parody pageant. Though the event gets lots of laughs, no one is made fun of, Wood adds. “The men had a ball, and the audience loved it.”
When Garcia was asked to participate, he could hardly say no: His wife, Theresa, had been active with Miss Redwood City for several years. He thought it was a great idea and was glad to help raise scholarship funds. “A lot of people just don’t like pageants at all, but there are some ladies that have gotten some serious money for their education.”
For tickets to Mr. Redwood City and other information, visit missredwoodcity.org.