Beauty and the release

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Stepping to the front of the makeshift stage, she rolled up her essay on "What Independence Means to Me" into a tight cylinder in her hands. "I'm not going to read my essay," Darlene Escalante said, her eyes watery, her voice a husky whisper.

An audience of more than 70 women waited at the second annual Miss Independence Day Pageant at Walden House, a residential treatment center for women halfway between prison and the daunting rest of their lives.

Walden House: A photo caption with an article in Friday's California section about a Miss Independence Day Pageant at Walden House, a residential treatment center for women leaving prison, identified the woman singing as Rita. Her name is Carri Vizcarra. —

Upon arrival, they're deposited at a side door in handcuffs and jail-issue "muumuus," then whisked into a world of rules, creeds, meetings, counseling and beds that must be made every day.

Now, just three weeks out of the state women's prison in Chowchilla, where she'd been incarcerated on drug charges, Escalante was in a beauty pageant. And this contest, held two nights before the Fourth of July, required some words on independence.

"I'm just going to talk to you from my heart," said Escalante, 25, eyes rimmed in dark liner, lips outlined in dark pencil. "Independence means breaking the cycle of three generations of incarceration. It means independence from three generations of drug addiction. It means independence from living a gang life."

Her voice grew stronger. "My independence means getting myself together and living for my kids." The room erupted in applause. In a treatment facility where tears and anger and angst are the rule of the day, a beauty pageant was an opportunity to let self-esteem flourish.

The walls of the fluorescent-lit meeting room were draped in sparkly velvet and American flags. Three rhinestone crowns sat on a pillow waiting to be placed on the heads of the three winners.

Other than that, there were few hallmarks of a traditional pageant. Not everyone dressed up. Some of the 21 contestants read their essays in baggy chinos or tight capris. Most sported elaborate tattoos. Not one baton was twirled or piano concerto played. There were no swimsuits.

But when it came to the part where the women had to answer a question -- or, in this case, write an essay on independence -- they had every professional beauty contestant in the world beat hands down.

In the emotionally intense community of Walden House -- where the women attend workshops and meetings, refer to their housemates as family and grapple with substance-abuse problems, forsaken children and how to get a job -- the pageant is another avenue for them to express themselves.

Most spend a few months at the old brick building on Hill Street south of downtown L.A. before they are released into the world at large.

"All they've ever been is shut down in their lives, and now they have this chance to verbally emote," said Joe Loya, a senior staffer who works at several of the Walden facilities throughout the state.

Like any beauty pageant, it was also about primping. Just half an hour before it started, the upstairs hallway was full of dark red lips and masses of hair as women hurriedly tugged at borrowed dresses and pulled on strapped heels.

"The chaos," said Carri Vizcarra, grinning calmly in a black dress with handkerchief hem.

"Any words of encouragement? Please!" begged Jessie Gonzalez to Claudine Macias, clinical manager of Walden House.

"Break a leg!" Macias offered.

Gonzalez rolled her eyes.

"Independence," Gonzalez told the audience, "means cutting off the anchor that weighs so heavy on my heart and breaking through the bar that's keeping me prisoner within myself. I don't need you to wipe the tears off my face anymore. It's OK for them to fall."

In most beauty pageants, the talent portion is dreaded. Not this one. Whatever hesitancy the contestants had as they started to lip-sync, recite, dance or sing melted inside a room filled with supporters cheering, whistling and eagerly singing along.

"Whoa-oa-oa!" Vizcarra screamed into the microphone on the karaoke machine as she launched into her rendition of James Brown: "I feel good, I knew that I would, now; I feel good, I knew that I would, now. So good, so good, I got you . . ."

The audience howled its approval.

When Nancy Sherman took the mike to sing the Billie Holiday standard "Good Morning, Heartache" (a flower pinned in her hair, à la Holiday), there was stunned silence. Her voice, assured and mellow, wafted through the room, leaving her audience mesmerized.

And then there was Anna Gonzalez's poem, "Invisible Mail," about waiting for a letter that never arrives:

The strangest thing happened today.

An invisible man came my way.

He brought me something that wasn't

quite there.

To receive invisible mail is extremely


So I opened this nothing. Opened it


Only to find less than nothing inside.

For the dressy part of the competition, the audience members moved their chairs to create a narrow center aisle. With her Bettie Page bangs and pale skin, Angelina Tassone flounced down the "runway" in a short, strapless print dress, her head bobbing coquettishly from side to side.

"Something you might wear to the Ivy," pageant organizer Jaren Francis intoned into the microphone, offering commentary on each contestant's outfit.

"I figure I've got to put my all in it," said Tassone, 33, who has been at Walden House two weeks. She was in Chowchilla for petty theft related to her drug abuse, she explained. "I stole a steak from a grocery store," she said.

After a break for snacks, the judges returned with the results. Second runner-up: Angelina Tassone. First runner-up: Nancy Sherman, the would-be Billie Holiday. She blew kisses to the audience.

And the winner?

Darlene Escalante.

She clapped her hands to her face, eyes teary in true beauty queen fashion, as a tiara was placed on her head. Her slinky maroon evening gown revealed a tattoo of praying hands on the left side of her upper chest. A fur stole was draped around her shoulders like a cape.

"I want to thank Tracy, my roommate, because it was her idea," she said as she launched into several thank-yous, including one to her cousin, who was also in the show. "I'm so shocked!"

Half an hour later, the stole was returned and the borrowed gown had been peeled off. Escalante was back in her casual clothes. Swinging from a long cord around her neck was the plastic I.D. card identifying her as a California Department of Corrections inmate on drug treatment furlough.

Initially, Escalante said, "I didn't have a dress, a talent, a skit, nothing." She seemed surprised she got organized enough to compete, let alone win. She chuckled at the thought.

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