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It's never too late to be fabulous at the Ms. Senior Florida Pageant

By Tia Brueggeman, CNN
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
Contestants participate in the opening number of the 2014 Ms. Senior Florida Pageant. The event leads up to the Ms. Senior America Pageant, which has been around for 35 years. Contestants are judged on an interview, their philosophy of life, talent and gown presentation. Contestants participate in the opening number of the 2014 Ms. Senior Florida Pageant. The event leads up to the Ms. Senior America Pageant, which has been around for 35 years. Contestants are judged on an interview, their philosophy of life, talent and gown presentation.
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Ms. Senior Florida Pageant 2014
Ms. Senior Florida Pageant 2014
Ms. Senior Florida Pageant 2014
Ms. Senior Florida Pageant 2014
Ms. Senior Florida Pageant 2014
Ms. Senior Florida Pageant 2014
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Ms. Senior Florida Pageant was held March 29 in Vero Beach, Florida
  • Contest is open to women 60 and older; the winner goes to the Ms. Senior America pageant
  • Contestants are judged on an interview, their life philosophy, and evening gown presentation
  • Winner Julianne Talley described medical battles and her desire to inspire

Editor's note: Tia Brueggeman is a coordinator with CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper." Her grandmother was a contestant in the Ms. Senior Florida 2014 pageant.

(CNN) -- To look at Julianne Talley, a statuesque 61-year-old beauty, one would never know she has conquered both obesity and cancer.

The Ms. Senior Florida contestant glided through the Vero Beach High School Performing Arts Center with the humility of someone who underestimates her beauty. Little did she know, she was about to be crowned Ms. Senior Florida 2014.

Talley's platform is one of self-acceptance and self-improvement: "It's a message to the woman in the audience who thinks 'I'm always going to be heavy' or 'I can't dance'... yes you can," she said during dress rehearsal.

While we're accustomed to beauty pageants featuring women in their 20s strutting in bikinis, the Ms. Senior America pageant seeks women with "dignity, maturity and inner beauty," who are older than 60. There's no upper age limit and no bikinis are required. The oldest contestant in Florida this year was 86.

Pageant organizers Hedi Headley and Helen McKnight worked for months gathering contestants from around the state of Florida. The 15 women who were selected rehearsed almost every week between January and March. The ladies were judged on their interview, philosophy of life, talent and gown presentation during the March 29 competition.

The Ms. Senior America Pageant has been around for 35 years, but the state level competitions vary in their founding year. Headly and McKnight originally founded the Ms. Senior Arizona Pageant in 1990, when they weren't even 50 yet themselves.

"We saw a need to encourage the older adult and especially women that feel they become invisible as they age," said Headly. Semi-retired in Florida, Headly and McKnight took over running the Ms. Senior Florida Pageant last year.

The contestants evolved before Headly's eyes.

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"Most of the ladies have never even talked into a microphone before rehearsals," she said.

The granny of yesteryear, sitting in a rocking chair knitting, is a thing of the past if the pageant is any indication. Today, women over 60 are rocking it on stage: singing, dancing, sharing their inventions and even belly dancing at senior beauty pageants around the country.

The Ms. Senior pageants give contestants a chance to do something many of them never dreamed of doing in their 20s, 30s or even 50s -- take the spotlight and share their wisdom and talent with hundreds of people.

In addition to the crown, Talley won "Best Talent" for singing and playing "Sentimental Journey" on the piano. Talley faced a long journey to get where she is today. Overweight most of her life, 10 years ago, she lost 100 pounds and kept it off.

"I decided to enter the competition after a lot of thought and prayer, when I realized that it was an opportunity to reach my dream to touch women across the country, to inspire them to take better care of themselves, and to set goals, dream dreams, and do what it takes to reach those goals," said Talley

She wants to encourage other women to become physically fit even as seniors, which is a message she will take to the Ms. Senior America Pageant this October at the Resorts Hotel Casino in Atlantic City.

"It has been my dream to reach women across the country to encourage them that we 'ain't dead yet'!" said Talley.

The second runner-up was Ann Palle, a 60-year-old baton twirler who leads a 105-person senior citizen baton twirling team that performs in about 55 shows a year. The oldest twirler is 95.

"It's nice to get together with these ladies because we all bring something very different, but this pageant brings us together," Palle said.

Each of these women has a distinct philosophy, and if laughter is the key to longevity, Lauren Luccini "Miss Congeniality," will live forever.

"When I used to date, men used to open the car door for you," she told the audience in her standup comedy routine during the talent competition. "Now, I'm glad if they even stop the car."

Then there was, Julie Dohan, who at 81 went from modeling to art dealing to inventing, but believes "the best is yet to come."

Lucille DiBartolo, 79, and granddaughter Tia Brueggeman\n
Lucille DiBartolo, 79, and granddaughter Tia Brueggeman

Raven-haired contestant Lucille DiBartolo is a 79-year-old Mediterranean beauty who still gets carded for proof of her senior citizenship. (Full disclosure: This lovely lady is my grandmother, and I attended the pageant to support her.) Encouraging young women to be more confident, she added that, "it's not who you are but who you perceive yourself to be."

Last year's winner, Betsy Horn, stopped by to encourage the women. An ovarian cancer survivor, Horn wrote a book, "A Little Touch of Cancer and How it Made Me Well," and encourages women to share their inspirational stories, which can come from hardship.

"You can't get through life without having some event that happens that challenges one deeply and emotionally," she said. "As you get to know the ladies, you realize that everyone does have a story and that they were survivors."

Horn had high praise for 2014's Ms. Senior Florida contestants: "I came away this year thinking these women all have a lot to offer, so they should all get out there and do something!"

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