Durham competed against seven primped participants for the Illinois tiara, and 10 state winners went toe to sequined toe for the crown. Actually Durham raked in an armful of crowns, leaving Georgia with kudos for talent, spokesmodel, calendar girl for October/November, and the top prize of the evening. Durham’s tiara is just one of many hats she wears. “I don’t like to be bored,” Durham says. “At the pageant this weekend, the reigning American Beauties Plus Woman queen kept telling me, ‘Sit down, relax.’ It’s, like, ‘No, I need to be doing something. You don’t know me very well. My mother will tell you, I cannot sit and do nothing.’ ”
DoraLee is wife to husband Chris, 38, and a mother to sons Michael, 20, and Timothy, 17. When she isn’t behind the wheel of a tour bus for Springfield’s Classic Limousine, she drives senior citizens from Hickory Glen Active Retirement Community. She serves as assistant pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, on the North End; sells Avon products; and is an avid NASCAR fan. Pageants and NASCAR racing don’t typically go hand in hand, but Durham prefers that her life never be boring. She and Chris chose their favorite driver by picking his number from a hat at their first NASCAR party. Soon after, the couple started driving a replica race car, and painted the number 18 on the side.
Durham croons bluegrass and Southern gospel at Holy Ground Coffeehouse on the fourth Saturday of each month with the New Jerusalem Singers. Her voice is so powerful, she jokes, passersby can hear her singing three blocks away — even when she’s not using a microphone. Cindy Spellbrink, manager and keyboardist of the New Jerusalem Singers, confirms that Durham takes the lead on most of the songs they perform, singing with enough force to get her point across. The pageant judges got the point. For her performing talent, Durham belted out the Loretta Lynn number “Your Squaw is on the Warpath.” Coupled with her nonperforming talent of making and designing American Indian clothing and regalia, Durham — who says she is seven-eighths Cherokee — tallied up another award. Durham tried out a few tunes for an audience of Hickory Glen residents before the competition. Her pageant platform is “always help a senior,” an issue Durham has been interested in since she began working as a driver and advocate at the retirement center. She chauffeurs seniors to appointments and helps them in and out of the vehicle. “The everyday interaction with the seniors, I think, she really takes it to heart,” says Cynthia Fischer, Hickory Glen activity director.
Wearing the sash and pageant regalia is a dream Durham has tried to fulfill off and on since entering her first pageant, in her hometown of Baltimore, Md., at the age of 17. She won third runner-up in the Maryland Junior Miss pageant.
In 1986, she decided to go for the crown again. Durham sought the Mrs. Illinois designation to contend for the Mrs. America pageant, but didn’t qualify to move on to the next round. Durham hung up her sequins for some years, before trying again last year for the Illinois award. She went the Mrs. Plus America route, capturing the state prize but failing to place nationally. Durham hasn’t been confident all her life, but now, in true pageant style, she prefers to accentuate the positive. She does divulge her secret to holding her head high. “There was someone in my past life that would always tell me that I would never amount to anything. I was no good for nothing,” Durham says. “I wanted to prove them wrong, and [show] that I can do whatever I set my mind to. “If I want to be a beauty queen, I can be a beauty queen.”
Durham says the tiara, sash, flashy pins, and recognition are nice, but they’re not her impetus for stepping out onto the runway in a plus-size beauty competition. The recognition, she says, gives her an opportunity to show plus-size women that they can do whatever they want to do, whether it’s pageantry or competitive go-kart driving. “I’m not a size 3, and with the American Beauties Plus pageant it shows women that you don’t have to be a size 3 to be beautiful,” Durham says. “You could be a size 14; you could be a size 24, and even bigger than that. It’s all in how you take care of yourself.”
Just pageant-speak? Coming from Durham, the sermon sounds convincing. “I think that her just knowing what her standards are, that helps her a lot,” Spellbrink says. “She’s not a fake, she doesn’t pretend to be something she’s not. I appreciate that about her.”
Two days after the competition, the newly crowned queen beams and sits with her chin held high. She places her hand with the big sparkly rock atop the other in her best competition form. Durham practiced her pageant persona for months. From the walk to the talk to the way she holds her hands, Durham’s got it down. “My husband said, ‘Put an apple under your chin and walk around with it,’ ” Durham says. “ ‘You’ll for sure keep your head up.’ ”
Her husband, Chris, was perhaps her biggest booster. He helped her decide what to wear, and, at the competition, tuxedo-clad Chris stood by the stage, helping the contenders step on and off the platform. Chris had no idea when the couple left Springfield for the competition that he would be helping people on and off the runway, but the officials needed a tall person, and Chris’ 6-foot-1 frame came in handy. He was happy to oblige. “I pretty much knew she would get it,” Chris says. “I had a feeling ever since we left. I was very proud.”
For Durham’s pageant groundwork, she enlisted the help of Fischer, her co-worker at Hickory Glen and onetime Miss Teen USA participant, to teach her how to glide across the stage. Fischer worked with Durham for weeks and gave her a few tips on sitting correctly, controlling nervousness, and positioning her hands prettily for interviews. They practiced answering questions without the “ums” and “ahs” that make anxious wannabe queens stick out. “Years ago, I was in the Miss Teen USA thing, and I had a friend who helped me walk and stand and pose,” Fischer says, “and, years later, I still know how to do it.”
They practiced. Durham gave the competition the same intensity that her favorite driver, J.J. Yeley, might give a spin around the track. “A lot of prayer and quiet time, then it’s all 90 miles an hour,” Durham says. Durham’s secret weapon was a choreographed walk she prepared herself. The other pageant contestants did the elementary walk-pose-turn combination. But Durham dazzled. For the sportswear competition, she wore a sequined blouse and a glittery jacket, buttoned. She made her entrance and posed. She walked to her next mark on the stage unbuttoned the jacket, but kept it closed. As she circled the end of the runway, Durham tossed the jacket over her shoulder.
“I worked it really good,” she says. Durham gets to cool her high heels for a year because of a clause in her American Beauties Plus contract that prohibits her from competing, but she has big plans for next year. Durham will put on her evening attire again, but this time to face more intense competition: The 2007 pageant winners from five divisions vie for the coveted title of Ambassador Elite. Winning the prize would make Durham queen for a lifetime.
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