Picking Miss Polonaise | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Picking Miss Polonaise 

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"SOLIDARNOSC," proclaims the sign out front. "Illinois Division Polish American Congress, Mutual Aid Association, Social Service Center." Saturday-afternoon traffic streams by steadily here on Milwaukee north of Foster. Animated conversations in Polish, incomprehensible to me, halt abruptly in the front office when I enter to inquire about the Miss Polonaise Competition. A woman politely directs me to a room toward the back, where the eight judges are settling into white leather chairs.

The competition for Chicago's Polish queen has been going on for four decades as part of the annual Polish festival. Polish businesses have donated this year's prizes: a red rose and a Krakus ham for every contestant, and $1,500 cash for the winner. Today's 15-minute interviews will narrow the field from nine entrants to five semifinalists, who will be announced during the actual contest tomorrow at the Festival Polonaise in Grant Park.

"This isn't a beauty contest," insists Maria Otto, president of the Coalition of Polish American Women and one of the contest judges. Contestants will make points for their grooming, posture, and pleasing manner, but a glance at the judges' scorecard shows they are to be rated, on a scale from one to ten, primarily on their ability to "articulate occupational goals" and to describe their "values related to home and family life." They'll also be judged on their familiarity with Polish history and their involvement with Polonia, Chicago's Polish community. And they'll be critiqued on their overall ability to communicate.

The strikingly beautiful Alicja Zacharczuk, her long blond hair framing a dark-browed face, is at a loss for words. "Why am I doing this?" She echoes my question in singsong. Her mother, Bozena, is sitting beside her in the waiting area outside the judges' room. "I know why," Bozena replies in a strong Polish accent. "Because I pushed her. Because her grandmother, my mother, died one month and two weeks ago, and she wanted her to do this. Because--" Bozena begins to cry as she describes her mother's long illness. "She had everything wrong with her. It was good that she finally died." Alicja silently nods her head and draws close to her mother.

Easing into the empty chair center stage in the judges' chamber, 18-year-old Monica Magdziak is poised and charming. She has, after all, been through this sort of thing before. "I placed 29th out of 130 girls in the Miss Illinois Teen USA Pageant," she says.

"Hm, 29. Very good," the judges comment.

Each contestant has completed an entry form that the judges flip through as they consider their questions. On her form Magdziak listed among her assets a green belt in tae kwan do. "My most recent accomplishment," she wrote, "is being accepted into Columbia College, where I can fulfill my dreams in TV broadcasting. Also, I had the opportunity to do some advertising for Jones Hillshire Sausage."

"As far as Polish heritage is concerned," a judge asks her, "are you aware of some of the needs that Poland has at this time?"

"Well, right now they're going through some tough changes," she answers. "Poland has been communist for about 50 years. The changes aren't going to take place overnight. The people who were communist are still going to have that in them for quite some time. So they're going through a tough time."

Here at home, she says, she has volunteered in soup kitchens and made cookies for nursing-home residents. Her future includes plans to "help out with the homeless, if not the mentally impaired."

"I'm attending Northern Illinois University right now and am looking forward to a career as a CPA," Lily Cudak says, responding perkily to a judge's question. "Do I speak Polish? Yes, I do. I attended Emilia Plater Polish School for eight years."

The judges murmur approvingly.

I'm very proud to be Polish. I belong to the Polish National Alliance. To anybody I meet, I always talk to them about my Polish heritage because I find it very unique, since my parents came from Poland and we always do the Polish traditions."

"Which traditions?" a judge asks.

"At Christmas we set the extra plate and put hay under the table. And for Easter we bless the eggs."

"What do you remember about our great Polish heroes?"

"Well, I know that they came over and fought in our war too to bring freedom, and I thought that they were very brave people."

"Do you know what happened to General Pulaski?" a judge asks.

"No."

"He was killed fighting for our freedom," the judge whispers plaintively.

"It was her idea," says Katrina Winiecki's mother. She and Katrina's father are keeping her company in the waiting room before her interview. "We were completely surprised. She just started this about three days ago. All of a sudden it pops up. Her grandmother had encouraged her to do this. Oh well--no guts, no glory." Katrina, who's petite with impressively wavy hair, is on the dean's list at Saint Mary's College, has plans to go on to law school, and has occasionally worked as a hair or shoe model. She forces herself to smile and pay attention to her mother while darting glances toward the interview room. "Yes, we keep the traditions," her mother is saying. "We celebrate Wigilia every Christmas Eve. That's a Polish Christmas Eve dinner that has 12 courses--it's always meatless, you always eat the foods in a particular sequence."

"If you don't have food for 50 people, it's not successful," says Diane Sajdak, who joins and then dominates the waiting-room conversation. "I'm 100 percent Polish. My parents were born in Poland. Everyone knows me as Polish Diane. My mom, when she has a dinner, she has everything--five types of meat, five types of hors d'oeuvres, soup, and all. My mom's a wonderful cook. The only way I stay in shape is I go to the health club two hours every day.

"We visited Poland last summer. We had mountains like right in our backyard. You woke up, and there's a little farm and huge mountains--it looked just like a painting you'd see on a wall.

"My sister was named Miss Polonaise not last year but the year before. I entered the contest last year. I'm nervous, believe it or not. You wonder, what are they going to ask? But you're so nervous you don't even know what you're saying."

Monika Sokolowska, a tall brunette in a slinky black dress, glides into the waiting room. A student at the School of the Art Institute and a fledgling model, she speaks in an exotically thick Polish accent. "I just came to practice, basically--to get in front of people and overcome my fear. I don't really count for winning. I mean I do care in a way, but it's not a big deal. Every day I go to auditions. Sometimes I get a job, sometimes I don't. It's just the way life is. I don't cry when I don't get it."

"Why do I want to be Miss Polonaise?" Alicja Zacharczuk echoes a judge. "Actually, I didn't even know about this. My mom told me about this. I wouldn't have came if my mother wouldn't have pushed me. I'm not very positive about myself. This is very surprising to me."

"What are your goals in life?"

"I want to be proud of what I want to be, and do it because I want to do it."

"What are your hobbies?"

"I love drawing, art. I love to walk, going to the beach, swimming. I love practicing cosmetology--maybe I should get into that."

"What do you think of recent developments in Poland?"

"Lech Walesa, he's done a wonderful job over the years. He was just a regular person, but what he's done is incredible. I know that in the future I would love to meet that man, love to meet him and tell him what a great job he's doing."

"You have about one minute left. Is there anything else you'd like to add that hasn't been asked?"

"Uh, yeah. This was a great opportunity, even if nothing will happen. This was a very nice thing, but a terrible experience for me. My mind's been a blank. I've been working two jobs and going to school. And recently my grandmother died, who I was with since I was a little girl, and I've been trying to get over it too. I don't really know what to do with myself."

"Join us for meetings here at the Polish American Congress," offers Virginia Price, the vice president of the congress and the director of the contest. "We invite you."

"OK," Alicja says, brightening. "And I'll get my mother to come with me too."

"Yes, get your mother in on it."

Three other contestants won't arrive until after I leave, so I read through their entry forms. Monika Job is a junior at UIC who teaches Sunday school, recycles cans, and has been selected as a Miss Illinois 1992 contestant. Elizabeth Ilowski, a future surgeon or businesswoman, is a state science-fair winner, a volunteer English tutor for the Polish Welfare Association, and a sometime "helper" at the family sausage factory. Loyola University student Barbara Augustynski, aka Barbara August, intends to "move to California in the near future" to become an actress. She writes that the biggest contribution she makes to her community is to encourage people to believe in themselves. "I also believe that 'Within our reach lies every path we ever dream of taking. Within our power lies every step we ever dream of making. Within our range lies every joy we ever dream of seeing. Within ourselves lies everything we ever dream of being.'"

"Do you know what we're gonna do?"

"No, do you know?"

"You were here last year. What'd you do last year?"

"We didn't know what we were doing then either."

We're crammed into a ten-by-ten paneled dressing room in a trailer beside the main stage at Festival Polonaise. The contestants are wearing the "nice summer dresses that you would wear to church" that Virginia Price suggested, and are seated in a circle of metal folding chairs, ankles crossed, hands in their laps. Except Monika Sokolowska, the art student, who's wearing a black dress, black stockings, and black shoes and who's standing in front of one of the room's two flimsy mirrors applying various shades of lavender eye shadow. Show time is 2:30. It's now about ten past.

"I'm not nervous now, but once we get out there I'll be just like--" says Diane Sajdak, rolling her eyes. She's dressed in white, sitting on the edge of her chair, knees shaking. "Oh, I've gotta go to the bathroom!"

With her is her younger sister Eva, whose three-inch blond bangs stand nearly straight up from her forehead. "I'm 13," she says. "I'm going to enter the competition in five years."

"Are you scared?" someone asks someone.

"I'm not scared," someone answers.

"I woke up scared," says Alicja Zacharczuk.

Sajdak returns from the bathroom. "Last year it was so much fun. Did you stay after? Bobby Vinton was singing 'Roll out the barrel.'"

"I wonder what questions they'll ask today?" someone wonders.

"Something like what you'll do if you win or when you win or how you win," suggests Eva.

"I don't even remember what I was like last year," Diane says.

"I remember," Eva says. "You just kept talking and talking last year."

"As long as you don't faint," says Diane.

"My mother was like, 'Take another nap before we leave,'" someone says. 'Just don't fall asleep onstage.'"

"My mom's so excited," says Diane. "'I can't believe you're running for Miss Polonaise!' Because she's so Polish--Polish, Polish, Polish! She used to dress me up in Krakow costumes and march in all the Polish parades."

"Me too!"

"And me!"

"Did you wear those ribbons in your hair?"

"Yeah. You did too?"

"I still have my costume."

"Me too!"

"I have a stack of those costumes. You grow out of one, then go back to Poland to get another."

"What if they ask us to do some talent?"

"You could speak Polish. Sing some old Polish songs."

"Last year this guy from Phantom of the Opera sang," says Diane. "He had this strong Polish voice. He was good. He was singing, 'You're so beautiful!'"

"How old are you?" someone asks someone.

"I'm 18. How about you?"

"I'm 17."

"19."

"Oh my God! I feel so old!" wails Barbara Augustynski, colorful in a floral sundress and blond bouffant hairdo. "I'm 21! I didn't even know about this contest. My mother wanted me to enter--and she just learned about it last week."

"We're looking for women who are serious about their community and their profession, and who are also articulate and attractive--a multifaceted personality," Aurelia Pucinski tells me shortly after she walks into the dressing room. She's here with her father, Roman Pucinski, who will emcee the contest along with WLS TV anchor Alan Krashesky. "This is a contest designed to find women who will be future leaders in the Polish community. Me? I was always too old to enter. I'm already 44."

Conversation between the contestants has fallen to a whisper.

"Our winner has to be radiant," her father adds. "You don't have to be beautiful to be radiant, but you have to be radiant to be beautiful. So most of these ladies are radiant, and that's what we're looking for."

Pucinski says he's been running this contest and festival for 40 years. The festival used to be held in the picnic grove at Wozniak's Casino on the south side; later it was moved to old Riverview Park and then to the lakefront. "Until Poland became free, we chose the Freedom Queen--Miss Freedom," he says. "But then Poland became free. We changed it in about--whenever Poland got her freedom. Then the title became Miss Polonaise. That's French for Poland. The closest my daughter ever came to this was being wine-crushing queen at Marchetti's restaurant."

"I was the Cherry Blossom Queen when I was 15 in Washington, D.C.," Aurelia interjects. "Events like this encourage young women to become active in our Polish organizations. They're still at an age where they can be encouraged."

A judge sticks his head through the doorway and addresses the contestants. "Alan Krashesky is here, so you have to be on your best behavior. Smile, keep smiling." All nine contestants stretch their faces into broad, stiff smiles--they're silent and breathless.

A moment later Aurelia breaks the silence. "OK, girls!" she orders. "Get it together!"

The nine contestants are on their feet, chattering, giggling, jostling good-manneredly for space in front of the two mirrors, adjusting their slips, powdering their faces with big makeup brushes, applying lipstick, combing their hair, fluffing their hair, spraying their hair.

"Oh! This stuff really holds!" Sajdak says about a black can of hair spray Sokolowska has let her use. "This stuff is awesome!"

The air grows dense with hair spray as everyone demands a hit from the black can. Outside, music onstage grows louder in anticipation of their arrival. Sokolowska starts practicing her runway walk along an imaginary line down the center of the room, gliding back and forth. "This is the best relaxation exercise," she announces, stretching her arms far above her head, then falling forward from her waist, hands dangling just above the floor as her fellow contestants begin to filter out.

As the last of them exits, a young woman wearing a black-and-white mini-dress and red sash enters: Dorotha Wojcik, last year's Miss Polonaise. "I have many titles," she says, standing in front of a mirror spraying her hair. "Yes, I will be crowning the winner--the next lucky person to get a five-pound ham."

The nine contestants are lined up onstage in a row of folding chairs in front of a standing-room-only audience of friends, family, and festivalgoers. Alan Krashesky briefly introduces each of them.

"Monika Job graduated from Addison Trail High School--that's correct? She also attended the Maksymilian Kolbe Polish School, the grades from kindergarten all the way up through 12th grade as well--so you got a good education, didn't you? She does speak fluent Polish and also understands Spanish quite well. She has a 4.0 grade-point average at the University of Illinois so far. Isn't that terrific? Give her a big hand!"

When Krashesky concludes his intros, Aurelia Pucinski grabs the mike. "Let's give all of these women a big hand. And while we're at it, let's give their parents a hand for contributing such beautiful women to the Polish community."

Krashesky then announces the five semifinalists: Monica Magdziak, Monika Job, Barbara Augustynski, Elizabeth Ilowski, and Diane Sajdak. The five stand and come forward. The remaining four turn pale and slink back to their chairs.

Each of the semifinalists is then asked a single question.

"Barbara Augustynski," Virginia Price says, "your question is: What does your Polish heritage mean to you?"

"My Polish heritage means a great deal to me," she answers. "Especially because my parents are immigrants from Poland from Krakow."

The city's name sparks spontaneous applause from a small group in the audience.

"Hey!" Augustynski laughs and waves her hand. "My grandfather was born here in Detroit. He fought in Pearl Harbor. We just found out he's buried in Hawaii, and I think that brought the family closer. Because that's what Polish heritage is about--having a very close family, being very supportive of each other, and always being there for your family. And that's what it's all about."

"Monika Job, what do you consider the most important elements of family life today?"

"I feel that the most important element of family life today is sticking close together, being a close-knit family, and showing support to each family member, not disqualifying someone because they made you mad one day. Giving support to everybody, not just your immediate family but your aunts, uncles, and relatives across the ocean in Poland and here, everywhere."

"Monica Magdziak, if Miss Polonaise is to serve as a role model for girls and young women, what role behavior should she exhibit?"

"I feel that Miss Polonaise should be a positive spokesperson for the Polish people of today's generation and to carry out traditions that her family has taught her."

"Diane Sajdak, what should be done to help young Polish Americans develop an increased understanding and appreciation of their Polish heritage?"

"Well, I think that the family is the basis of the Polish tradition. And everyone should celebrate all the traditions, get together at Christmas and all the other holidays. I also think that the family and the children should be involved in the Polish community, such as the Polish parades every May 3 and the Polish festivals. You're Polish, and you should be proud of it!"

"Elizabeth Ilowski, what qualities do you consider most important in your success in your chosen job or career field?"

"The qualities that I think that would lead me to success are basically a positive outlook, much motivation, and also being part of the Polish community. Because that's who I am and it gives me a feeling of great pride and it also helps give me a positive outlook."

"Thank you very much," Price concludes. "It's going to be a very difficult decision, because as you can see they're all beautiful, talented, and personable. The judges will decide. In the meantime we are going to have a little entertainment."

Price introduces an opera star from Poland, mezzo-soprano Legia Lalewicz, and her accompanist, Leszek Fraszczynski. Lalewicz, a stocky woman with upswept blond hair, begins belting out "Operetta Lizystrata" in Polish.

At stage left the judges are in a frenzied huddle. "She has a 4.0 average!" "But she won the science fair." "I gave her a seven." "I give her a nine."

"One more! One more!" Price begs Lalewicz when she completes her song.

Lalewicz launches into "Wiosna w Neapola," again in Polish, again very loud.

When she finishes, Krashesky steps back to center stage. "As you can see from the commotion at the judges' table, this has been a very tough decision. There is a tie for the finalists. I'll be announcing them from the bottom to the top."

Job and Magdziak have tied for third place. Sajdak and Ilowski have tied for second.

"And that of course means that the winner of Miss Polonaise 1991 is Barbara Augustynski!" Krashesky proclaims.

She steps forward. Dorotha Wojcik runs forward, hands her a bouquet of roses, plops a silver and crystal crown on her head, and hugs and kisses her.

Roman Pucinski appears at the mike. "This is the best part. It's nice to be president of the Polish American Congress, because I have the pleasure of placing the crown on the winner."

He looks up at Augustynski, who's a good foot taller than he is in her high heels, and notices that the crown is already in place.

While he stands there looking embarrassed, Augustynski leans over his microphone and says, "I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to become Miss Polonaise 1991--and I hope to make all of you proud."

The crowd cheers.

Pucinski reclaims his mike. "The audience would like to hear the winner speak Polish."

Augustynski repeats her thanks in Polish, faltering on a word or two, but going on, smiling and radiant.

"Bravo!" Pucinski shouts when she's finished. The audience applauds.

Augustynski assumes a dramatic pose at center stage for press photos.

The other contestants are hurrying toward the backstage stairs. "We want to get out of here," Monika Sokolowska mutters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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