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Photo courtesy of Hypnox

Every Vagina Is a Snowflake: A Dispatch from Portland's Vagina Beauty Pageant

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

The contest's judges were supposed to rate vaginas on "20 percent physical beauty, 20 percent talent, 60 percent vagina beauty," but shock value mattered more than anything else.

Photo courtesy of Hypnox

Here's how tough it is to win the Vagina Beauty Pageant: The woman who made her vagina lip-sync Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun" into a tiny rhinestone microphone didn't even place, and in last year's competition, a woman with two vaginas only came in third place. This year, only three of the 22 competitors walked away with trophies in their hands and prizewinning vaginas between their legs.

An event called the Vagina Beauty Pageant isn't trying for subtlety. Anyone who sees DJ Dick Hennessy driving the Vaginamobile, a hot pink 1987 Chevy Caprice Classic that has "VAGINA" painted on the doors, is shocked into paying attention and probably into taking a photo to post to Instagram or Facebook. Since 2010, the Portland strip club DJ and promoter has produced the event as part of his mission to elevate the national profile of Portland's strip club scene. In a city with roughly 50 strip clubs and more stripper competitions that art house film showings, Hennessy needed to create a sensation. He thought about boob and butt contests, but why beat around the bush? (Technically, it's not really a vagina contest since it's mostly the vulva that's visible, but the public generally understands "vagina" to mean "genitals.

"When you go to a strip club and you sit at the rack and you put money down, if a girl doesn't take her bottoms off, and you don't get to see her vagina, it's almost like you've been robbed," Hennessy said. "That's the moment that everyone is waiting for, that's the final fig leaf, that's the thing. Knowing that, I decided to skip right to the finish."

Hennessy takes the contest very seriously. This year, Voodoo Doughnut, E-40's Sluricane and the Pink, and Black Waffle Shack sponsored the event. (The Waffle Shack even names a waffle named after the winner.) With its success, the pageant has attracted haters and imitators. This summer, sex toy company Autoblow launched a vagina beauty contest in which the judging is based on closely cropped crotch shots of disembodied genitalia. "What kind of pageant is that?" Hennessy said. "Everything about it is degrading and embarrassing and chauvinist." He takes particular issue with the way Autoblow's founder uses cold cuts to demonstrate different labial looks and brings a cold scientific gaze to vaginal beauty. But Hennessy's pageant has gained more notoriety because it features live performances, reveals contestants' identities, and has 12 judges instead of faceless judges behind a computer screen.

This year, Hennessy invited me to judge the first of four pageant preliminary rounds at the beginning of July, which forced me to refine my mostly unexpressed ideas about what makes a vulva attractive into numerical scores. Typically, I prefer some hair over razor burn, place a lot of importance on the appearance of the cleft, and appreciate visible labia minora. I could care less about labial symmetry or doll-like puffy labia majora, which my friend Kat described as resembling a "hot dog bun inside a sealed bag." But the most important thing a contestant could do in my eyes, and those of the other judges, was present her entry with energy and pride, giving the judges ample opportunity to view her vulva clearly from multiple angles. If they spend more time on elaborate pole tricks, they lose. At the Vagina Beauty Pageant, the most beautiful vagina is the friendliest vagina.

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While the pageant allows any woman with a vagina and $30 to compete, word might have failed to reach the community at large, since most contestants appeared to have experience displaying the genitalia professionally. When the finals took place last Thursday, the 22 competitors who had qualified (it was a very long night) took turns performing at the Runway, a club about 30 minutes from downtown Portland in Hillsboro.

Over four hours, the contestants tried to impress the 12 judges seated at the stage and the audience. Some contestants had developed elaborate themed performances, but other strippers did the same routine they would do at any shift. Throughout the night, audience members stood at the end of the stage, making it rain on their favorites .

The contestants freely interacted with the judges, straddling their shoulders, doing handstands in their laps, spreading their legs in front of them, and demonstrating their kegels, a.k.a. popping their pussies. My hopes of seeing vaginal weightlifting went unfulfilled, but I did see diverse items enter and emerge from vaginas. In most jurisdictions, a stripper inserting fingers or foreign objects into her vagina would at least jeopardize a club's liquor license, but in Oregon, such performances are protected free speech, so Portland's Vagina Beauty Pageants was much more explicit than it would have been in another state. I saw light-up dildos, popsicles, and candy go into vaginas, and I watched glow sticks and glitter emerge from them.

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One of the returning judges, Portlandia regular Jedediah Aaker, brought his own props to the pageant: ping pong balls, in the hope that eventually a contestant will shoot one from her vagina, and a magnifying glass.

"You get texture, it's getting real deep down inside," Aaker said. "Every vagina is a snowflake. It gets you closer to the subject." What's his criteria for a winning entry? "I like a solid outer labia and then matching inner labia."

Another judge, Portland's Abraham Lincoln impersonator, appreciated the props. "If they're willing to do the ping pong ball, they get bonus points for that," Lincoln said. "The performance is big for me, the presentation, because I do Abe Lincoln."

Photo courtesy of Hypnox

Stacking the judging panel with performers seemed appropriate. The split was seven men to five women, and all of the women were current or former exotic dancers: BJ the Clown, whose performances include balloon animal making; Natalia Bentley, who competed in the very first pageant; local hip-hop artist Tyreka; Elle Stanger, a columnist from Exotic, Portland's industry magazine and Vagina Beauty Pageant chronicler for Tits and Sass, a site I used to co-edit; and Candice Cassaday-Carrico, who has been in and around strip clubs for 21 years.

"I like pink surprises. When it's nice and closed and legs are kind of spread and all of a sudden it opens up, it's like a pink little flower on the inside," Cassady-Carrico said. "I like the bedazzlement. It's like lip gloss on top of the lipstick."

Many of the performers chose to bedazzle their pussies; there were far more crotches sporting accessories (eight) than patches of pubic hair (six). No one's adornments survived their entire set, save for the few who chose to use glitter or gilt temporary tattoos. Some performers wore pasties, which made for a reverse topless effect once their bottoms were off but their nipples were still covered. A half dozen were sporting jeweled butt plugs. The sparkles distracted me. The nude competitors weren't immune to wardrobe malfunctions or stagecraft failures either. One contestant's bikini top got tangled in an earring and stayed there.

About half of the contestants had a gimmick. Trouble, owner of the aforementioned rapping vagina, performed an elaborately costumed 90s rap tribute, and dancers performed Orange Is The New Black, 50 Shades of Grey, and The Little Mermaid-inspired sets. There was the light-up taser dildo wielding performer, the body-painting artiste, and the one with elaborate Lichtenstein-inspired body art who slapped a ping-pong ball on her pussy, where it stuck for long seconds as she spun around the pole spread-eagled. By contestant nine, I started to lose track of how many vaginas I'd seen and began to forget the entrants who forwent elaborate theme sets.

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Then there was Ram-Page the Clown Gurl, who was rude, nude, and lewd. Portland was supposed to be a stop for Ram-Page in between her regular job at Jumbo's Clown Room in Hollywood and a gig at Sturgis when she met the event's photography sponsor, HYPNOX. He gave her tickets for the last pageant heat.

"I was like, 'I am not going to a vagina beauty pageant and not competing!'" Ram-Page said. "I went and I won the evening that I did it. I'm leaving at six in the morning to Sturgis, and I just hope that my vagina trophy will fit on the Greyhound."

Bold words, matched by her set. Taking the stage in full circus makeup, Ram-Page pulled noisemakers from the crotch of her leopard bodysuit and distributed them to the judges. Stalking the stage aggressively, she tore off her panties, pulled a balloon and an inflator from her costume, and pumped the balloon up--legs spread, till she had a three-foot balloon phallus protruding from her crotch. To "Baby's On Fire," she danced with flaming wands before using one to set a dollar bill on fire. The unbeatable finale came when she extinguished her flaming tool by plunging it into her vagina.

And yet that wasn't enough to win. Much to my shock and that of her rather large, clown-costumed entourage, three other contestants came out ahead of her. In third place, winning $300, was Ryder Burton, who performed in tutu and pigtails to a fully realized theme set to "Lollipop" and "Candy Shop," putting a rainbow penis-shaped lollipop to serious use. Second place went to Mary Gina, whose theme was apparently a tribute to Oregon's recent legalization of marijuana. Her set involved a functional vape pen and a second vagina when her friend joined her for some brief but visually convincing interaction.

First place, $2000 cash, and bragging rights went to Synodic, who performed right before Ram-Page. She didn't have a theme set, but did have "Lick Me :P" in silver letters on her mons venus and a pair of Wonder Woman knee socks with capes. This was her first competition, but the Alaska native was a competitive gymnast and partially credited her win to her athletic stage performance.

"I don't really have a special opinion of what I think makes a beautiful vagina," Synodic said. "If it's pretty it's pretty. I love my vagina. It's really pretty. It's a good vagina."

She does have very nice genitalia, but it goes against everything Portland is about when a clown stripper with a fire-eating vagina doesn't place even with another clown stripper sitting on the judges' panel.

"I tell the judges it's 20 percent physical beauty, 20 percent talent, 60 percent vagina beauty," Hennessy said. While the judges held up numbered score cards after each performer, ranking them from one to ten (an 11 was provided for each judge to give their favorite), 60 percent of the vagina beauty score was scored privately on a V-card. Unfortunately, a handful of performers had completed their sets before Hennessy reminded the judges to underline the six's and nine's to avoid scoring confusion.

"That's the problem when you do strip club events," Hennessy told me earlier in the month. "If you lose, all of a sudden it's rigged. [You think it] had to be. There's a lot of hurt feelings and irritation, speculation."

After the pageant ended, an anonymous audience member emailed me, complaining that the judges seemed less than fully engaged in the judging process, at times texting or on their phones while the performances were going on. Another tipster pointed out post-contest sniping on a competitor's social media accounts, much of which appeared to stem from misunderstandings about photo release forms and the judging process--some competitors believed audience participation would work in their favor, when judges never factor this into their opinions.

"Never have I invested so little into and been so sure of something and been so shocked by the results," Ram-Page said. She may not have won, but to be memorable in the Vagina Beauty Pageant, it's not whether you win or lose--it's how you lay the flame.