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Meet the ladies of 'The Miss Neo Pageant'

The Neo-Futurists' new show uses a beauty contest format to explore competition

  • "The Miss Neo Pageant" cast left to right: Megan Mercier, Jessica Anne, Leah Urzendowski-Courser, Molly Plunk, Tif Harrison
"The Miss Neo Pageant" cast left to right: Megan Mercier, Jessica… (Courtesy of Joe Mazza/Brave…)
May 14, 2013|By Julia Borcherts, For RedEye | For RedEye

It took Megan Mercier a few years to realize that the "Grrrl Power" motto she'd grown up hearing in the '80s and '90s might be a myth.

"We were told that we could do anything in spite of our gender, that anything was possible, and so we expected it," the Neo-Futurists ensemble member said. "The problem is that it wasn't true."

So she decided to create "The Miss Neo Pageant," which taps a traditional beauty contest structure as a jumping-off point to explore the broader range of life's competitions. "Experiences that we know are shared but rarely discussed openly," Mercier said, "like competing with friends, having friends, feeling that you are working as hard as you possibly can toward a reward that is vague to the point of possibly not existing at all, graduating out of girlhood or boyhood while living in environments that glorify it."

The show is directed by Stephanie Shaw and features five "contestants" who share their true-life experiences about their coming-of-age struggles. We couldn't resist asking them pageant-style questions of our own.

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"The Miss Neo Pageant"
Go: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through June 22 at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave.
Tickets: $20; $15 for students; pay what you can on Thursdays. 773-878-4557; neofuturists.org
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Meet the contestants
Miss I'm Fine: Megan Mercier
Miss Indiana: Molly Plunk 
Miss Crispy: Leah Urzendowski-Courser
Miss I'm Not Gonna Cry: Tif Harrison
Miss Unbridled Rage: Jessica Anne 

Tell us about your show.
Molly: This show is about how I never made the cheerleading squad.
Leah: My story is more of a physically manifested emotional journey. It's about the levels that I—and, dare I say, we—encounter either day to day, minute to minute and sometimes, second to second.
Megan: I grew up well-disciplined and politely eccentric in Alabama, where my family was one of a few who didn't go to church, so despite my manners, I was mildly outcast to heathenry. I'm highly competitive and terribly confused about where I fall on the child-adult spectrum.
Tif: I can't define myself by the positions I've held or the things I collect because those are fleeting.
Jessica: Because I am of a petite size with a Sarah Vowell-esque set of pipes, I have been told over and over again that I am "adorable." In this show, I explore the ways in which my physicality has held me back socially/professionally and deconstruct a determination to be taken seriously, as an equal.

If this were a real pageant, at which category would you excel?
Jessica: I'm a good writer; I could write circles around those bleach-blond gazelles.
Tif: I'm going to say [the] interview because I have been to at least 50 in my lifetime and I don't really foresee that trend stopping.
Megan: Extemporaneous speaking or the "platform" section. I'm pretty good at talking about anything on the fly and getting in a few good jokes in while I do it.
Leah: Can I just be the host? I'm a great hype man ... sorry, hype woman.
Molly: This isn't a real pageant?

What's your proudest accomplishment in life so far?
Molly: The pinnacle of my life is marked by my swallowing a stranger's diamond engagement ring in 2006.
Megan: Moving to Chicago to be a writer and performer. Also, having the courage to just get on a CTA bus one day in 2006, having no idea how the routes worked.
Tif: Out of the 86 people in my graduating class, I was one of the few that left my hometown and never returned.
Leah: I made it past 30. I'm happy. I'm in a healthy marriage. I make art with my friends. I pay my bills on time.
Jessica: Standing on my own two feet; it's not easy to live in an apartment and pay bills on time. I'm real proud—so proud, in fact, that I feel compelled to make art out of it.

What's your biggest failure?
Leah: I could have won the mile run competition in seventh grade. I let a boy pass me, because he said no girl could ever win over a boy. I wanted to be liked so I let him get ahead of me. Seventh grade is hard.
Tif: Allowing my financial state to hijack my emotional well-being. It's just not a good way to live.
Megan: I'm a smart person, but I didn't understand what a GPA was for almost the first two years of high school. I feel like I could have gotten into a good college if I'd known to try. But I'm 29, so the fact that I'm still thinking about that on a daily basis is more likely my biggest failure.
Jessica: I dropped out of college. I eventually finished and am now working on an MFA. I don't regret it, but it literally was a failure.
Molly: I don't believe in failure.

Which woman do you consider your inspiration?
Tif: Her name is Tavi Gevinson, she is 17 years old and she lives in Oak Park. Look her up because she is a voice that the world should be listening to.
Molly: RuPaul because she's a gender-bending, self-made queen.
Jessica: Two come to mind: Kathleen Rooney and Kristy Odelius, accomplished local Chicago writers-professors and strong, confident women artists.
Megan: When I was about nine, I pretended to be Geena Davis' character in "A League of Their Own" for about a year straight. She was tough, she played baseball, had a great sense of humor, she was a strong leader, she looked great wearing anything and had a little sister who resented her. It spoke to me.
Leah: Dead? Lucille Ball. Alive? Joan Rivers. More alive? The women I share the stage with.

Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor. redeye@tribune.com | @redeyechicago

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