By 10:30 a.m. Sunday, March 5, both parking lots at the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay were already packed, and the valets were in full apology mode. Thanks to a swarm of plus-size women heading toward the hotel entrance, escaping the curved driveway wasn't easy. One lady clad in a slinky black dress shot a baleful glare at the honking cars behind her and then turned her back dismissively. She was on a mission.
Hundreds of women had come, hoping to be crowned Miss F.A.T. (Fabulous And Thick) on Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance, a reality-television beauty competition on the Oxygen Network that has emerged as the female-centric channel's highest-rated program.
It was a casting call like no other. Where there is normally vicious rivalry, there was support and encouragement. Where there are typically svelte, insecure contestants, there were cheerfully chubby women of all ages. In the most image-conscious city in America, the event proved to be a markedly atypical Miami experience.
Mo'Nique Imes started out as a stand-up comedian seventeen years ago. In 1999 she parlayed her honest humor into a successful sitcom, The Parkers. She has toured the nation and starred in the comedy documentary The Queens of Comedy, and she has taken her outspoken opinions to the bookshelves, releasing the best-selling Skinny Women Are Evil in 2003.
The first installment of her reality competition aired in August 2005 and became the most successful original program in the Oxygen Network's history, earning 3.8 million viewers for the program's two-hour premiere. This year's contest will close in April, and a three-hour special is scheduled for July 15.
"I've had people say to me, Why are you encouraging these women to be unhealthy? Please understand me. I'm not. The myth is, because you're big, you're unhealthy. But I work out five times a week! I'm just a fat girl, and I love food," the comedienne explained.
All shades of plus-size came out to audition, some close to size 12, some cinched into size 26. Baby-faced eighteen-year-olds sat next to silver-haired ladies. Although the turnout was overwhelmingly African-American, several white faces dotted the crowd. Some sported impressive cleavage and scandalously short skirts. One woman exposed herself in a blouse with no sides, completely revealing her curves to the room. Others dressed as demurely as they would have at church.
As the clock inched closer to 11:00 a.m., an interloping amazon in a flowered dress jumped onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from one of the few male Oxygen employees.
"Ladies, we gonna sing some öRespect' up in here," the woman shouted, and the staid event transformed into what felt like a religious revival. Women quickly crowded the stage, joining in the a cappella chorus.
"How many of y'all been to church this morning?" another lady asked, before bursting into a hymn that brought the crowd to its feet. She had the voice of an angel.
Soon the room was filled with singing, clapping, and laughter; then the sacred took a turn for the profane. The singer ended her song about Jesus with a chant reminiscent of the booty bass anthems of 2 Live Crew. "Fat chance, Mo'Nique let's turn this party loose!" The crowd roared with approval.
"Last year there were 800 women in Los Angeles and 1000 in Atlanta," recalled Noelle Llewellyn, a junior publicist with the Oxygen Network. For the Miami casting call, executives estimated attendance at 520.
A weary-looking male Oxygen event organizer shooed some of the crowd off the stage and announced that Mo'Nique was expected to arrive at 11:30. While hopeful ladies were interviewed and filmed for callbacks, Bernisha, an ample woman in an overflowing pink tube top, found a better way to pass the time. "We're having a fashion show," she screeched over the hubbub, and an eager crowd of waiting women formed at the back of the Marriott's ballroom. Someone put a cell phone close to the microphone, and the tinny sound of urban ring tones reverberated through the speakers.
Bernisha sashayed down the aisle to the serpentine beat of Remy Martin's "Conceited." Suddenly she stopped, turned, and bent over, shaking her behind for the crowd. The audience screeched and cackled, and a few men held camera phones aloft. Next a gravity-challenged female with a sassy 1920s flapper bob strutted confidently to the middle of the room. She posed, removed her shoes, and nonchalantly dropped into a full split. The crowd went wild.
Britney King, a gorgeous, top-heavy, sloe-eyed 22-year-old with blond highlights and a silver stud in her chin, explained the phenomenon: "We're here just to show the world that there's nothing wrong with being big and beautiful." King admitted to having tried out at several casting calls. She'd been rejected many times but thought she had a shot here. She had already been interviewed and filmed, and she proudly sported the glittery red bracelet that meant she'd been asked to return for callbacks. "It's different sitting in a roomful of women who look like you. It does a lot for your confidence," she explained.
The fashion show continued, and the women with the most outrageous moves received the loudest applause. A throng of excitable, hoarse-voiced ladies took the reins from the overwhelmed Oxygen staff, giving encouragement to the auditioners: "Show me why you fabulous up in here! It's big-girl Sunday! Fat girls, let me hear you say hey!"
When it was announced that Mo'Nique's arrival was imminent, the crowd began chanting her name. At noon the doors at the back of the auditorium opened. When the host entered, the women screamed and stood on chairs to take pictures. It dissolved into chaos.
Mo'Nique slowly made her way to the stage at the front of the room, stopping to embrace excited women along the way. When she reached the podium, she was verklempt. She touched one hand to her face as if to stop the tears. When she finally spoke, it was in a purposeful, husky tone.
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"I honestly wish that I could bottle up what I'm feeling right now to give to y'all for the days that aren't too bright for the days that your thighs rub too hard together. Because I am y'all. I know how you feel," she said. "All of you ain't coming to LA, but all of you who are here have already won. Walk away with a pride that says I am a fat girl. Embrace it and love it."
Contrary to the Frankie Valli song, big girls do cry. After Mo'Nique left, many aspirants trudged slowly away with their heads hanging, tears trickling down perfectly made-up cheeks.
Even though she wasn't asked to return for a callback, Tess, a pretty, zaftig woman with caramel-color skin, expressed gratitude and happiness. "There are so few opportunities for women of size. Even though nothing came out of it, just the fact that I supported this makes me feel good."