Column: Over-the-Line’s Miss Emerson Contest isn’t what you think it is
Bikinis are optional for participants in Over-the-Line’s Miss Emerson Contest. But not in the way you might think.
It’s OK if your mind immediately lurches to a Not Safe for Work place. Now in its 65th year, the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club’s annual Over-the-Line beach-softball blowout has a longstanding reputation for inviting all and sundry for a walk on the bawdy side.
When the two-weekend event kicks off on Fiesta Island on Saturday, it will be wacky OTL business as usual. Some of the team names will be filthy, funny and unprintable in a family newspaper. Almost no one will be wearing much in the way of clothes. There will be some imbibing.
Who are we kidding? There will be so much imbibing.
But when the judging committee evaluates the civic-minded women vying to represent OMBAC and OTL as Miss Emerson 2018, they will not be basing it on how the contestants look in their bikinis. Even though it is very likely that the women will be wearing bikinis at the time. It’s really hot out there on the island.
Like the Miss America organization, which announced last month that it would no longer include a swimsuit competition in its proceedings, Over-the-Line won’t be judging Miss Emerson based on her beach body. Not this year. Not in a long time.
Despite the fact that the Miss Emerson name was inspired by a crude physique-related joke, and the fact that the OMBAC website still calls the competition a “legitimate bikini contest,” the gnarly gentlemen of the all-male OMBAC ditched the swimsuit portion of the Miss Emerson competition some time ago.
“Because the contest occurs on the island during Over-the-Line, bathing suits are just what people wear. But it is not required,” said Brad Pagano, marketing and media-outreach chairman for OMBAC.
“We don’t promote this as a bikini contest. If you want to show up in shorts and a T-shirt, that’s fine. We are not going to dictate to a female what she should wear. A bikini is not required and it is not in the rules.”
Like many chapters in Over -the-Line history, details on the bikini decision are a little fuzzy. According to OTL-related lore, the early Miss Emerson judging process mostly involved OMBAC members holding up numbered placards as pretty women walked by in their itsy-bitsy bikinis. The woman with the highest score became Miss Emerson.
At some point, the judging criteria became more extensive and community-oriented. Long before the #MeToo movement that spurred the Miss America Organization’s recent no-swimsuit ruling, the Miss Emerson contest decided that it was Miss Emerson’s insides that counted.
“We’ve gotten past what Miss Emerson started as, and now we are looking for someone who can be with us for a year and share our ideas about helping the community,” Pagano said. “Miss Emerson is really an ambassador and spokesperson for us, and we really enjoy that. She brings an air of sophistication to the Old Men Behaving Badly Club.”
The contestants — some of whom apply in advance and some who are recruited from the first-weekend crowd by OMBAC members — are interviewed on site by the Miss Emerson judging committee. What are they looking for? Plenty.
Despite its debauched reputation, OMBAC is a nonprofit organization that donates volunteer time and proceeds from its events to a host of nonprofit organizations. So Miss Emerson needs to have excellent people skills and an enthusiasm for service. She needs to be comfortable with public speaking and dealing with the media, the better to represent the organization at community events.
In 2000, Carlin Kowalskie was that woman.
That was the year an OMBAC member approached her during the first day of OTL to see if she was interested in vying for the Miss Emerson sash. Kowalskie — who was Carlin Palenske at the time — wasn’t sure at first. But the native San Diegan was working on her special-education credential, and when she heard that OMBAC worked with adaptive sports organizations, she was in.
“They definitely get a bad rap in the public mind with the team names and the rowdy stories from way back when, but at heart, OMBAC is a nonprofit charitable organization that makes money with this huge party and gives back to the community in ways people don’t see,” said Kowalskie, now a special education teacher with the San Diego Unified School District.
Over the years, Miss Emerson 2000 has been happy to join her fellow winners on the OTL stage when the new Miss Emerson is awarded her sash. Two of those times, Kowalskie was very pregnant with an August baby, but she was wearing a bikini anyway. Not because she had to, but because she wanted to.
“The first time, I asked one of the OMBAC people. I said, ‘I know there is a fitness component to this. Are you comfortable with me going out there with this big belly?’ They said, ‘By all means, go up on stage.’ I think I got the loudest applause of anyone that year.”
This is where Miss Emerson has a leg up on Miss America. What Miss Emerson wants to wear, Miss Emerson gets to wear. And out of the BYOB bacchanalia that is Over-the-Line comes a pageant-winner we can all feel good about on the morning after — and beyond.
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.