Ms. Senior Neb. breaks stereotypes
In her official Ms. Senior Nebraska head shot, Debbie Watts, 63, looks beautiful. Her crystal crown sits atop hair that’s lying exactly like it’s supposed to, her skin is flawless and her eyes are bright.
She looks like what many people would expect a pageant contestant to look, albeit a little older than the 20-somethings who descend on North Platte in June for the Miss Nebraska competition.
Being part of the pageant world often involves shattering stereotypes. Competitors must show people they’re not ditzy or vain — they’re talented and driven. For Watts, it’s also about breaking the belief that beauty and worth go away as a woman ages. If anything, women get better with age, Watts said.
Growing up, Watts wasn’t all that interested in makeup or glamour.
“I was the opposite of this,” Watts said with a laugh. “I’ve been a career tomboy all my life, actually.”
As one would expect, Watt’s entry into the pageant world wasn’t without its quirks. At one point, Watts waged war against a false eyelash.
Her daughter works as a makeup artist and accompanied her to the Miss Senior Tennessee Pageant last year. She convinced Watts to wear fake eyelashes for the first time. After the pageant, Watts was so tired that she went straight to bed without taking off her makeup — or her lashes.
She woke up in the middle of the night and opened her eyes. A black, fuzzy thing was sitting on the pillow. Watts reacted the way many people would: She jumped out of bed, grabbed a shoe and started beating her pillow furiously.
The commotion woke up her daughter.
“She turned on the light and she said, ‘Mother, it’s your false eyelashes,’” Watts said.
She started laughing as she retold the story.
“That’s my favorite pageant story,” she said.
Watts’ life is full of stories like that, stories of moments that didn’t quite go as planned, although they usually ended up being a good thing in the long run.
Like the way she competed for Ms. Senior Tennessee and ended up as Ms. Senior Nebraska. Watts, who lives in Nashville, realized that she wanted to be part of the Ms. Senior America family, even if it wasn’t in her home state, so she began looking into which states weren’t represented.
“There are 18 states that don’t have their own pageant,” Watts said, including Nebraska.
She submitted an application and was selected to represent the Cornhusker State.
There was also that time when Watts’ ex-husband left her and their children and lit the house on fire.
“I was a battered wife,” Watts said.
She used the experience as inspiration for creating a line of jewelry called Jewels For Her Crown. The proceeds benefit the YWCA’s women’s services, she said.
She used humor to move forward.
“I told the judge: ‘I’m not only battered, I’m battered and fried,’ ” she said.
Watts said her sense of humor has carried her far in life and she hopes it’ll bring her as far as Nebraska.
Watts has been a performer her entire life, which is fitting since she’s named for Debbie Reynolds. As a little girl, Watts learned to read music, play piano, sing and dance. She’d perform for her family and at church and school functions.
She earned a piano scholarship to attend college. When she was playing or in class, she was performing in theater productions or cheering at sports events. In grad school, she led the house band at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and found a passion for entertaining the troops. She still performs for troops whenever she can and is also a part of a corps called “Music for Seniors,” which provides entertainment for senior communities.
Although she’s never visited Nebraska, it has a place in her heart, thanks to some projects she’s worked on throughout her life. She works closely with a Dakota City man, Tom Dolan, to write and produce plays. They’re currently working on a musical about Rae Wilson, based on the 26-year-old North Platte resident who was one of the first women at the North Platte Canteen welcoming soldiers.
Wilson’s brother was supposed to be on the troop train coming through North Platte in 1941. When a train full of other troops arrived, the community showered them with love and snacks. As Wilson left that night, she had the idea to keep the service going for all the trains that stopped in North Platte.
Watts’ project tells a similar story, although she’s taken some creative license and given Wilson a love interest. She plans to visit North Platte during Nebraskaland Days to celebrate the state’s 150th birthday and to research Wilson’s story.
“I think it’s going to be a touching show,” Watts said. “I hope people in North Platte will want to see it.”
While she’s in Nebraska, Watts hopes to speak to local groups about ways they can support veterans.
“I’m very passionate about drawing attention to disabled American veterans’ advocacy and issues,” Watts said.
Every year, she has a fundraiser to take children of disabled veterans on a shopping spree.
“I’d love to be able to do something like that in Nebraska,” Watts said.
Watts has one more mission while she’s in Nebraska: Convince someone to hold a Ms. Senior pageant here. Watts said she feels the United States has an untapped resource.
“That’s women over 60,” Watts said. “They’ve got time and they want to do something. They’re not sitting on the sofa eating bonbons.”
She said she’s confident there are women across the state who will take to the stage and compete. She just needs someone to step up and offer the stage.
“It’s like the field of dreams,” Watts said with a laugh.
She said she’d do whatever she could to help get judges and participants if an organization was interested in sponsoring the event.
Watts said competing in a pageant gave her a sense of confidence she hadn’t experienced before. She also met women who’ve become friends that she’ll keep for the rest of her life.
“They say 60 is the new 40, but in my case 60 is the new 20,” Watts said. “I didn’t feel this good in high school. I know that pageants have done a lot for my attitude. I want to tell every woman over 60 to do this.”
Anyone interested in starting a pageant or having Watts speak or perform while she’s in North Platte can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-397-8259.