On weekdays, Zak Slemmer is an ordinary blonde-haired, blue-eyed twentysomething with a habit of making inappropriate jokes and a wardrobe only slightly more advanced than a college student’s.
But on weekends, Slemmer can be found clean-shaven, clad in a tuxedo and arm-in-arm with beautiful young women—at least when he isn’t consoling crying girls, catching sweet lasses before they drop to the ground in a faint and, once in a while, standing in puddles of urine.
Welcome to the life of a teenage beauty pageant host.
“I have been doing this for about a year now,” Slemmer said by phone from Phoenix, where he was hosting the 2013 Miss Teen Phoenix/Tucson Pageant one weekend in mid-March. “And I gotta tell you, I absolutely love it. It’s great for me, because I have a silly, not-serious personality, and young people and I seem to get along. And professionally, I get to be on stage wearing a tuxedo and presenting a show, and I enjoy that.” In the past year, Slemmer has hosted Miss Teen pageants in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, Milwaukee and Nashville, among other cities.
Given how inclined he is to make fun of anything, his earnestness about teen beauty pageants is disarming. In the blasé “Girls” era and the feminist “Lean In” moment of high-powered female CEOs like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, here is a 29-year-old Gen Y-er who not only works in a throwback industry that enjoyed its greatest heyday more than half a century ago, but loves it, and, like a true believer, openly proselytizes about it.
“Every beauty pageant says something like, ‘We promote inner beauty as opposed to outer beauty,’” says Slemmer. “But this pageant is really about the personality—and that’s why our personality score really does matter. We don’t promise these girls a new car, or fame and fortune. We promise them any number of three things: They will make new friends, they will boost their self-confidence and strengthen their self-esteem, and they will have a new experience. And that really does happen.”
For example, he cited the personal interview, when girls from one of four age groups (7-9, 10-12, 13-15 and 16-19) answer questions from a panel of local industry professionals: photographers, cosmetologists, casting directors or pageant veterans like Miss Arab USA or Miss Black Arizona.
“I see these girls before their personal interview, and they are shaking and shivering, and then they come out, and they are ecstatic! ‘The judges are so nice! Those judges were so easy to talk to!’ When they go into a job interview when they’re in their twenties, they will remember that predicament, and it will help them,” says Slemmer. “People our age do this, and they are nervous, but these girls will already have done it when they were 19.”
While it sounds like Slemmer, an actor who has done Off-Broadway theater, commercials and comedy, has found his calling in life, it turns out he’s considering a career 180: He did a study-abroad program in Seoul during his undergrad years and is dreaming of a future role in the State Department working on Korean diplomacy. He continued with Korean and also took economics and GRE prep classes this past spring as he considers a potential international relations grad school program. He hosts pageants Friday through Monday, and attends grad school prep Monday night through Thursday night.
“The world of entertainment is not the most surefire way to have a career,” he explained. “My problem is that I really love doing this.”
And he’s already thinking about how to host teen beauty pageants while studying to be a diplomat. “I’d try to work it out so I could go to class Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” says Slemmer.
* * *
The following Saturday, at 6:05 a.m., Slemmer woke up, showered and ironed his tuxedo shirt at the Sheraton in Salt Lake City. He went out into the cold, blustery day, admired the gorgeous mountains, and, along with pageant director Jen Klem and photographer Tyler Ross, loaded photo equipment and pageant paraphernalia—programs, certificates, ribbons—into the car. After grabbing coffee, they went to the “theater”—a high school where the bathrooms have old-school cloth towels on a circuit, and where the auditorium curtains stop four inches from the floor. The stage had an extra lip that extended out into the audience; this meant he could put the girls’ masking tape “marks” there, essentially directing the contestants to do their spins in the middle of the audience.
After the stage setup and a tech run-through, the doors opened and 107 contestants and their families took their seats. Slemmer led them through everything they’d need to know for the day: where to go and when, how they would move on stage, how the top ten round (for finalists) works, and more.
With such a small group—the pageants sometimes have two hundred girls—Slemmer is able to develop a rapport with each contestant. After the competition, a pair of contestants thanked him for helping them feel “comfortable and relaxed.” He was touched. “The truth is that I enjoy having fun with them, and I want them to know that if they trip on stage—no, that’s too cliché—if they don’t do the full turn on the third X in their modeling routine, they can be embarrassed if they want to, but we don’t care. It’s lovely, because it’s them. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, ashamed about, frustrated about, regretful about.”
Younger contestants often ask Slemmer how old he is and if he’s married. That day in Salt Lake City, one of youngest girls asked him, “Zak, if you had to date any of the girls here, who would it be?” (She, of course, was referring to the older girls, such as the 18- or 19-year-olds.) When I asked him if he is ever attracted to any of the contestants, he said, “I think professionally, I have to say no. But I was in a relationship for a couple years, a pretty serious one, and it ended not the way I would have chosen. I’m still not 100% back to where I need to be, but I’m getting there, and I’m looking for the right girl. My cousin said, ‘Zak, you’re an attractive guy. You can meet an attractive girl,’ and I thought, ‘I stand next to beautiful women for my job. Why not in my personal life?’”
Though Slemmer tries to keep his hosting as smooth as possible (and succeeds at it by pretty much all accounts), one thing can make him stumble: exotic names. A Salt Lake City contestant had one of the most difficult names he’s ever had to say in a pageant. “As soon as we registered her yesterday, Jen turned to me and said, ‘She’s going to make it all the way through, and you’re just going to have to keep saying her name over and over and over.’ And she won the division,” he said, “and I had to keep saying her name over and over and over—in the casual wear, the top ten pageant, the awards.”
When I asked him what her name was, he paused for four seconds, and finally said, “It’s the Hawaiian/Fijian name.” Which was? He paused for seven seconds, and then uttered, “Mehrae…Mereaore,” he said finally, like there was a big ice cube in his mouth. “Mereaore,” he repeated, still practicing. “If I said, ‘Mereaore,’ to her, she’d say, ‘Eh, that’s close.’” He laughed. “She said to me after the top ten round”—here he affected a girlish voice—“‘You had to keep saying my name all night!’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, I’ll have to say your name one more time, and you don’t know it.’ So I said her name one more time. And when she was getting her trophy and crown and banner, I said it again, just for fun, and she looked at me as if to say, ‘You don’t have to keep saying my name! You like my name! You said it again! You said it right!’”
* * *
Before I go to interview Slemmer at his East Harlem apartment, he warns me it is crammed full of furniture—leftovers from a cousin who just unloaded his storage locker. When I arrive, stuff is overflowing out into the hall, and Slemmer asks me if I’d like a dining table or a desk. Inside, all the furniture turns the apartment’s empty spaces into a human Tetris-like obstacle course stocked with corners, legs and edges to avoid. The bed is covered with laundry, and dirty dishes rest in the sink. In the window sit three potted plants. At one point, he mentions that one of them is called a clivia, “which,” he gamely admits, “makes me uncomfortable to say.”
A Cincinnati native, Slemmer was born to an actress and a stockbroker who divorced when he was mere months old. As a child, he did commercials and voiceovers with his mother, and he also studied theater at Miami University of Ohio and in Seoul. But his transition to adult actor was hardly seamless. During high school, he was nearly expelled and his mother and stepfather asked him to live elsewhere. “I never hurt anybody, and I never necessarily broke the law, but I had my moments. I would skip class. I basically had an issue with authority,” he says. (He is now very close to the same assistant principal who disciplined him.)
Eight years ago, he came to New York to stay for a summer with his mother who then, as now, was living in a Zen Buddhist meditation center on the Upper West Side. “I’ve never sat and meditated with her, but she imparts lots of knowledge and philosophy to me,” he says. Zen Buddhism allows him to weather the ups and downs of an unstable career: “Nothing is special. If you get the job, soon the job is over. Then what? If you didn’t get the job, the job is over. Then what?”
On his third day in the city, he decided to find employment, and by 7 p.m. he had—at Level V, a club in the Meatpacking District. He worked there during summers while staying with his mother and full time when he moved to the city in 2007. He bussed tables, bar-backed and worked the door, but the club soon took him off door duty. “You’re supposed to create a line, but I would just let people in,” he says. He was, in his own words, “a dancing sensation,” and he jumps up to demonstrate what he could do with a drink tray, since he actually kept one as a memento. He spins it on his finger and tries spinning it on his elbow and knee—at the time, he could also do his head and foot and even the wall. Once, the actress Rose McGowan came to the club and called him a hunk. He didn’t know who she was.
One of his coworkers was in a comedy troupe called City Hall Comedy and asked Slemmer to fill in one night—and then to stick around. For three years, he did sketch comedy and improv with the six-member troupe in Montreal, Los Angeles and Chicago. At the same time, for four years, he also taught a non-profit after-school drama program for kindergarteners through fifth graders. He also spent a few months as a pantry stock boy in an office building. “I literally would replace the plastic forks, and there was no title for me, so I called myself the Director of Pantry Affairs,” he says, strutting around, barrel-chested.
It’s easy to see how Slemmer’s high energy, ready physicality and oddball sense of humor would make him a superb improviser and a delight to children. But adults are another matter. His three main jobs (excluding Director of Pantry Affairs) ended on sour notes. During a disagreement with the comedy group, the other members said, “We can do the show without you,” and Slemmer, opening his arms wide, said, “You got it” — and never went back, though he says he is still friends with the members. When Level V closed and reopened as Dos Caminos, the owners let go of the staff and invited them re-apply for their old positions. Slemmer thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve worked for you for how many years?” He refused to apply for his old job, but, again, remains friends with his former bosses.
Slemmer’s temperamental side seems to stem from his idealism. When people exert power or authority in what he perceives to be a disloyal, unfair or underhanded way, he refuses to work with them, even if it means walking out the same day.
That kind of purity makes it seem improbable that Slemmer would go into diplomacy. But his experience in Korea had a strong impact on him: “I wouldn’t change it for the world. I fell in love about eight times over. I don’t want to offend you,” he says to me, “but before, Asians never did it for me. But by the time I got back, I swore I would never have a white wife.” (Then again, his last girlfriend was white.) He imagines himself working in the State Department, shaping policy on North Korea, or helping Korean immigrants assimilate, “almost like a travel show, and I’m the host. Bringing people together.”
As he and the after-school group were “growing apart,” he started looking for new work. He auditioned to be a Barnum & Bailey Circus clown, for which applicants flew in from places as far-flung as North Carolina and Nevada. During the audition, he noticed that all the other applicants had not only brought props such as mats (for their falls) and chairs, but they also cued music by making a large, pantomimed gesture, which Slemmer demonstrated by swinging both arms, thumbs up, to the right and dropping his jaw in a perfectly clownish grin. Slemmer, meanwhile, created his routine on the subway ride down. “The night before I went like this,” he says, tossing his tray in the air and spinning around to catch it. He also brought two juggling balls and, since he had lost the third, stopped to buy a lime on his way to the audition. During his turn, he dropped every ball and the tray too—and then cued the music with the same signal everyone else had used. He pretended he was surprised that no music came on. He tried again. Silence. He acted as though he had expected music to start and he now had to come up with an alternative solution. “So I pushed an imaginary tape player and started ballet dancing around the ring, and then I’d go ‘ding’”--here, he presses the imaginary tape player again--“and started doing my club dancing, and then I’d go ‘ding,’ and start tap dancing. I can’t even tap dance. And they called me back. They wanted me.”
Around the same time as the clown audition, he also answered an ad in Backstage, which lists casting calls, to be a teen beauty pageant host. They were looking for someone with stage experience who had worked with kids. After making a three-minute video of himself and going to an interview in Orlando, he got the job.
So it came down to, as he puts it, “either travel with the circus by train or travel with the beauty pageants by plane.” While Slemmer loves animals—his father has a zebra, French donkey and three goats on his property in Cincinnati—with the clown job, he was concerned about whether the circus would take care of them the way he’d want, and besides, that gig was a one- or two-year contract, “and for somebody who hasn’t been able to give you a straight answer about their life, that was quite a commitment,” he says. Plus, instead of being one clown of many, at the pageant he’d be the only guy on stage. In a tuxedo.
Now, for work, he wears his “slim fit” Calvin Klein tux, Royal Marines cufflinks and shiny shoes that are a little longer than his feet. “Like clown shoes,” he says.
* * *
At ten a.m. on a chilly, blue-sky April Sunday, a Latina girl, about eight, walks along the sidewalk with her mom and dad. Her hair is curled and pinned up into a cascading side ponytail crowned by a cloth pink hibiscus glowing in the sunlight. They walk into Bishop Ford Central Catholic High School in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, and enter the concrete-walled auditorium, where made-up girls and their families sit in the wood-backed seats, looking up at Slemmer, dressed in a gray sweatshirt, jeans and leprechaun green sneakers. It’s the rehearsal for the New York City Miss Teen pageant.
Though he is giving the same spiel for almost the 20th time, he makes it fresh, and people are not only paying attention but laughing. When Klem, the pageant director, who participated in and won teen pageants herself, demonstrates the spins that the girls will do on the Xs marked onstage, Slemmer asks the audience, “Did she do this?”—and here, he walks bent over at the waist, head down like he’s hunting treasure, until he reaches the X, at which point he stomps his feet on it. Then he shows how he would do the spins instead—and does them while keeping his head aloft, eyes forward and tossing his head this way and that, as if it were a delicate, fluttery scarf.
Behind me a woman laughs, and a girl says, “He’s very funny.”
* * *
Backstage before the show that afternoon, Slemmer is shaving in the dank and grimy sea-green-painted bathroom in a stage wing. Elsewhere, amidst the boxes of prize ribbons and stacks of papers are 100-calorie chocolate-flavored Chobani Greek yogurts and Slemmer’s standby: a bottle of seltzer water. He exits the bathroom and, while putting on his tux, jokes with the photographer about getting a shot of him in his underwear. “I’d do the whole show in my underwear if they’d let me. Right, Jen?” he goads the no-nonsense Klem, who immediately says to me, “Don’t print that.”
A few minutes later, beyond the curtain, the auditorium is about three-quarters full. It falls dark, music starts, and someone claps, but for a moment, nothing happens. Then, Slemmer, dressed in his tux and gripping his notecards, emerges from the center curtain without so much as a ruffle.
He tells the audience that, of the initial girls interested, “a select 244 contestants were chosen.” After giving a short intro about what will happen during the pageant and its mission, he finishes, “When you see the girls on the stage tonight, this is not the beginning of the pageant. They have already sat across from a panel of judges, told them who they are, why they are and what makes them smile. I need you to let them know how proud we are of them.”
The procession of spins begins. One girl doesn’t spin quite all the way, so her final hip swing sends her derriere toward the audience instead of to the side. People laugh. One contestant blows kisses with each hand. Another lowers her sunglasses from the top her head at the first spin, then flips them back up after the second. For every girl, people follow Slemmer’s direction and cheer.
During the casualwear for the next group—ages 10-12—a mom runs backstage and tells the helpers that her daughter is about to pee on stage. “She’s like this,” she says, making balls of her hands, straightening her arms at her sides and crossing her legs. She points out her daughter, who is rocking back and forth with one foot in front of the other, as though she’s riding a rocking horse. But when the time comes for her twirls, she does fine. The moment the curtain is pulled, a backstage helper runs to her and steers her into the bathroom. Crisis averted. Two weeks prior, in Sacramento, the emergency had not been attended to, and Slemmer, after hearing someone say, “Don’t let him step in it, don’t let him step in it,” found himself, during the top ten round, standing in a puddle of urine.
* * *
Just before the formalwear competition for the oldest group, Slemmer gives the girls a pep talk backstage. “Who was nervous before going on stage tonight?” he asks, adding, “Me too!” when hands go up. “Who has gone on stage tonight?” he says. All the girls raise their hands. “Did anyone make friends?” Arms rise again. He lets out a whoop and the contestants start screaming and waving as the curtain opens.
At the end of the round, he announces each finalist’s name with gusto, as though she had won a car. But backstage, as the girls not selected exit, several of them do so with tears streaming down their cheeks. Out in the auditorium, their families file out. Soon, it’s only a quarter full.
During the top-ten round, Slemmer asks each contestant a question such as “What is the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make and why?” Some of these make him introspective about his own life. At his apartment, he told me, “When I ask these girls top ten questions and they’re deep, thoughtful questions, it gives me a chance to explore my own heart. I’ve got nothing but time on the planes, so I think about those things.”
Tonight, in the 10-12 group, one girl begins, “I feel the best part of my personality is that …” She stalls, then puts her hands to her face as though crying. After an off-mic prodding by Slemmer, she finally says, “My best part of my personality is my confidence, and I’m really sorry for what I did just now.”
At the end of the night, Alina Manzueta, an audience member whose sister won second-runner up in her division, said she was really impressed with Slemmer’s performance. “He saved a few girls today. If they went the wrong way, he made it seem like what they did was cute.”
Klem also praised him: “He’s exciting to watch and keeps the excitement no matter whether he’s said something 400 times. I think he might secretly be the same age as some of the girls.”
* * *
The next week, after a pageant in Oakland, Slemmer emailed me: “Before the curtain opened, I heard one of the girls say to her pal, 'if I could only have confidence like that.' (Referring to me!)
“Until that point, 'confident' had not been a term I would have used to describe myself,” he said. But her words did make him contemplate his own self-confidence—and he framed his epiphany according to some of the top-ten questions, in parentheses below.
“Partly responsible for my level of confidence, I think, is the fact that after my heartbreak (the worst thing that has ever happened to me) I had to decide to accept the fact that I would continue to live, grow, learn, laugh, love and enjoy life again (the hardest decision I've ever had to make). If you've got nothing, you might as well have all the confidence in the world.”
He’d also been mulling the grad school question. “Yeah, I don’t think the international relations thing is going to happen,” he said by phone. “I was really into it for a long time, but thinking about it more, it doesn’t seem to be a great fit for my personality. I don’t see me being in an office and having a boss.” He slowly seemed to be approaching the conclusion that most people, within five minutes of meeting him, might have reached. Or not. He said he would still probably take the GRE and apply to grad school anyway.
At the same time, he’s contemplating doing an educational TV show for kids. And by “doing,” he means hosting. “Yes. Host. Actor. Enricher of Young Lifes,” he says, purposely mispronouncing “lives.” But the project is in very early stages. He plans to work on it during the pageant off-season this summer.
During our talks, Slemmer repeatedly expressed concern about giving the wrong impression of the pageants, that he would say something that would cost him his job, uncertainty over the stability of an entertainment career, and angst about his love life. (At one point, he said, “Can you write that I’m single in there?”)
Given how much he inspires the girls and helps them believe in themselves, it was surprising to see how apprehensive he is about his ability to reach his goals. It seems that he needs someone to play, in his life, the role that he plays in the contestants’: someone to tell him, “Zak, it’s just like you tell the girls. Everything will be all right.”
* * *
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Laura Shin is a freelance writer and Forbes contributor who has published stories in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and others. She is working on a book about how the lives of her ancestors and relatives reflect the social and cultural transformation of Korea over the last hundred years.
Sophie Butcher is a freelance writer, photojournalist, illustrator and designer who lives in Brooklyn. She has exhibited work in The New York Public Library and The Museum of the City of New York, among other places. Twitter @sophiemmbutcher.