Al Mott ’58 was reading the Asbury Park Press one morning when a photo grabbed his attention. It showed an older woman eating dog food out of a garbage can.
Growing up with Italian parents, Mott had been taught to revere the elderly—“to literally consider them priceless,” he says. So the photo rattled him. Why was this the image of an older person that made the front page? And what could he do to counter it?
“I said to myself, what would happen if an older woman got as much attention as Miss America?” he remembers. “What would that do to her life?”
Now he knows. For more than three decades, the Ms. Senior America Pageant that Mott founded has encouraged hundreds of 60-and-older women to pull on sparkly gowns, tune up their talents, and embrace their “inner beauty and outward charm,” as Mott puts it.
Last fall, 39 state title holders arrived in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to vie for the national accolade. After a competition that included individual interviews, talent performances, evening gown presentations, and a “Philosophy of Life” portion, Carolyn Slade Harden from New Jersey became the 37th woman to don the winners’ crown. She’ll spend the next year traveling to state pageants; performing in assisted living facilities, hospitals, and nursing homes; and speaking at venues.
“The women I’ve met [through the pageant] are so devoted and enthusiastic about what they do and so thankful that there is an opportunity for them to express themselves and to participate and still be youthful,” says Harden. “I’m glad [Mott] had the vision and the desire to do something for women in our age group.”
Mott launched the pageant’s earliest iteration in 1972 when he was running the Asbury Park Senior Center. It was a Monmouth County competition that first year, with a total of 18 contestants. Their average age? Eighty.
“My message right away was totally opposite Miss America, totally opposite any pageant there was out there at the time,” says Mott. “From the beginning, we were looking for inner beauty.”
In 1980, Mott’s inner-beauty contest went national. Now it operates as the nonprofit organization Senior America Inc., powered by entry fees, sponsors, and volunteers. This year’s five-day finals in Atlantic City included not just the competition itself, but rehearsals, alumni events, a dinner dance, and a talent showcase of past winners.
Mott says he’s never spent money on advertising, nor has he placed a cap on the pageant’s potential to grow.
“There is no limit to this,” he adds, “and there’s no limit to what this pageant does in contestants’ lives. It’s incredible.”
Before he founded Ms. Senior America, Al Mott had already enjoyed success as a recording artist, record producer, and band manager. You can read more about it here.