Confession: I Was a Reluctant Debutante

by Joanna Pearson

There’s only one lie I tell. I tell it only when the subject of “The South” comes up. Scoffing, my friends (hip, educated, non-Southern) envision zany Baptist ladies in big hats, porches with crooked screen doors, monster truck rallies and demolition derbies, wisteria and magnolia bloom, fiercely guarded barbecue sauce recipes, inbred banjo pickers, truckers missing their upper teeth, country club ladies in capri pants teaching vacation Bible school, greasy pots of grits, Waffle Houses filled with loud-talking big ol’ Meemaws and Pawpaws… and an aristocratic, antebellum mystery known as the debutante ball. “Does it still exist?” they ask. “I mean, people really still do that??” I always laugh because it’s obvious that I would have no idea.

But I have a secret, and it’s known as the North Carolina Terpsichorean Ball, a statewide debutante ball held every year in Raleigh, North Carolina. Most little girls dream they will one-day walk before a crowd of people in a beautiful white dress. Many little Southern girls actually dream of this happening twice. For those who take their coming-of-age rituals with froth, this is a crème de la crème event—venti, extra foam, extra whip.

I never wanted to be a debutante. Particularly at the age of eighteen or nineteen, things I would have chosen over being a debutante would have included tattooing my entire body with pentagrams and/or becoming a rattlesnake wrestler. To me, people who had their “coming out” at a deb ball always fell into a similarly alien category as those who participated in beauty pageants; pageants with names like the Little Wee Miss Petite Western North Carolina All-Star Princess or the National All-Teen Junior Miss Myrtle Beach. Those in both categories enjoyed hairspray, mascara, and spectacle. The only real difference I could see between them was that girls in beauty pageants tended to have names like Misti Krystal Truelove, whereas those in debutante balls were more likely christened Hayden Margaret Pleasants Carruthers. Misti would marry Chuck “Magic 8-Ball” Stripple by age nineteen and already have her own daughter in the running for Miss Itty Petite Lovely Infant, whereas eventually Dr. and Mrs. Raymond Samuel Pettiworth Carruthers III would proudly announce in The Charlotte Observer the engagement of their daughter to a corporate consultant from Atlanta. In other words, these were two distinct, all-white worlds but essentially the same big dress-up parties.

In a small town, you tend to fall into some category, so odds are you’re going to find yourself at some point smiling, be-makeupped, and in a position of great embarrassment. Having grown up as an awkward stick insect of a child with a predilection for books and quizbowl competitions, I successfully avoided the world of beauty pageants. I would have been a brutal failure; I know this because of the Ballet Performing Team Epoch that I survived, circa the fourth grade. Anyone with eyes could see the ones dance competitions really belonged to—beautiful, buoyant jazz girls with stiffly curled side-ponytails; the preternaturally flirtatious ten-year-old tappers with a starlet’s stage presence and red lip-sticked smiles; or even the boisterous cloggers with their French braids and grins and whooping, hair-stylist mothers. The ones dance competitions didn’t belong to were skinny, myopic ballet girls carrying around Tolkien books. They didn’t belong to me.

By the time I was a senior in high school, the idea of such frippery filled me with scornful gloating and outrage. (Only during late adolescence can one distill the sour grapes of self-consciousness into such sweet, unadulterated scorn.) Beauty pageants and dance competitions seemed pathetic and laughable. They called to mind a chunky, bleached-blonde classmate whose mother owned a tanning salon and who came to school wearing a t-shirt that said, “I’m a John Cassablanca Model!” Debutante Balls seemed likewise ridiculous, prime examples of the cliquey, country-clubbish world that I was primed to criticize. Deb Balls were a pithy summation of why I wanted to flee my hometown. My closest friends, Mary and Chris, and I thought ourselves to be beyond such things, particularly as we watched subtitled movies in basements and listened to Superchunk on mix-tapes stolen from Chris’s older brother. On the school trip to New York, we told people N.C. stood for northern California—because we were certain this made us cooler. We wanted to start zines and write stories, philosophize in parking lots and loiter around other vaguely disgruntled kids who pretended to be in bands but really just smoked a lot.

Nonetheless, I was able to make several unofficial observations as to the nature of the contemporary debutante world in my hometown. Debutante Balls traditionally represent a marriageable girl’s introduction to society. Nowadays, it’s more just a big party:

  1. If you were a deb, your family had dispensable income: at least enough to pay the several hundred dollars required as deb ball fee and then again to buy an appropriate dress.
  2. Your last name was probably not something like Pietrapaoli or Schwartzmutterperlenstein. Your family probably had local ties for several generations. It would certainly not hurt if you shared the last name of the famous local barbecue establishment or, better yet, the last name of the man after whom the high school football stadium was named. Or had a mother or aunt among the league women planning the ball.
  3. You were certainly white. You would be going to a four-year college in the fall. You did not have out-of-wedlock children, nor did you have a police history that involved the local recreational drug market, unless of course you could provide exemption as specified in the latter part of #2.
  4. You were prepared to participate in a series of parties that would take place throughout the summer preceding the actual ball. These parties would have cutesy rhyming invitations and baby picture collages of you and your fellow debs. Themes might include “Wild Wild West,” “Las Vegas Casino,” or “Alice in Wonderland Tea Party,” and you would be expected to dress accordingly. Like a big dork.
  5. You needed one pair of white gloves, one corsage, one date, and one father. The latter would formally present you to society as a debutante, while the date would save you from the embarrassment of being stranded alone with your sticky gloves, drooping corsage, and an entire evening of songs like “Up On the Roof,” and “You’re More than a Number in My Little Red Book.”

Without much of a struggle, my parents agreed that if I didn’t want to do the deb ball, I didn’t have to do the deb ball. Thus, Mary, Chris, and I had plenty of extra time post-graduation to be eighteen years old, philosophical and wiser than all our elders. My mom did caution with a faint wistful look (which I now re-interpret as foreboding) before I tore the invitation up and threw it in the trash, “Are you sure you won’t look back and regret not doing this?”

After starting college, I figured I was safe. I had successfully avoided the Cleveland County Deb Ball and gone on to bigger and better things. Even though I was still technically within the state of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was another world entirely. It was a world that made me feel occasionally embarrassed for my lack of sophistication, but it also felt right. Then, between my freshman and sophomore years of college while I was working in Boston for the summer, an invitation came to my house from the Terpsichorean Society. With great wonder, my mother opened it.

To this day, the actual events that followed are still contentiously debated. My mom and I both agree there was a bitter phone conversation, during which time my mom expressed wonder and faint curiosity at such an invitation. I laid sweeping charges of racism, sexism, and elitism fueled by my new university-fueled self-righteousness directly on my mother for even considering such a thing. It was a rough conversation, and any conclusions reached were probably made murky by shouting. I flatly refused to participate in such throwback event, telling my mom I’d sooner go to Daughters of the Confederacy tea parties and re-enact the Civil War on weekends. My mom allegedly recalls pointing out the self-centeredness of my objections, how it was just a nice party, how such an event might be “wonderful bonding time for the family all to be together, a way to establish your roots” and “interesting, just to see what it’s like.” I tried to remind myself mentally that this might have to do mostly with assuaging my mom’s own insecurities—growing up in a poor, single-parent family in the mountainous western part of the state in the 1950’s, envious of everything that smacked of tradition and order, acutely aware of the sweet-voiced girls with cameo bracelets who got invited to the big parties. Maybe she sensed some of this in my voice, because to this day, my mom insists that she heard at least some quaver of relenting. Whatever the case, I wasn’t at home all summer, so my mom sent back the card with the box checked “yes.”

I was filled with dread when I realized what she’d done. Beyond my professed moral opposition, wearing a big white gown in front of people might also be called my personal vision of hell. To understand this, one must realize that my confidence levels in formal appearance and comportment have never been staggeringly high. One must also realize the Pearson physical type— long, angular, and awkward; forced to clown our way through organized dance steps or else flee to bathrooms. True to familial phenotype, I was blessed with the spindly arms of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and the long, strange legs and feet of a frog. I was not made for the princess effect, and I could already envision myself in that big white gown like some cross between and ogre and an ostrich amidst a crowd of pretty doves and pigeons.

I also realized that the only other person that I really knew who was “debbing” was a charmingly sophisticated girl, “Sally,” who also went to school at Chapel Hill. I actually genuinely liked Sally, but I knew I couldn’t hold any social turf with her. At UNC, I had somehow been stuck in an all-female dorm commonly referred to as The Convent—a residence hall full of dowdy elementary education majors who wore Winnie the Pooh sweatshirts and had books like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and “Lady in Waiting to the Lord” on their shelves. My social life was a struggle. She, on the other hand, was painfully pretty and comfortable in conversation, particularly when it came to small talk. Even then, I could imagine her several years into the future— at a cocktail party hosted by the dean of a top-tier law school where she’d surely end up. She was a pearls-and-Ann-Taylor type, always unruffled and business-casual, and everyone liked her. She made good grades, was involved on campus, and said intelligent things in the classes we had together. Unlike me, she had professional polish and poise. What was worse, though, was that I knew she would be the least of the evils. At the North Carolina Deb Ball, we would practically be kindred spirits when compared with hosts of tanned, dyed, and primped Tri-Delts, the Raleigh princesses, and the SUV-driving Greensboro girls. After buying a dress that looked beautiful (according to my mom and the elderly lady at the dress shop hungry for commission), I cried the whole way back home, and I cried every time I looked at it.

The terrifying part was that someone, a cool person, might find out that I was actually participating in a debutante ball. This would be a brutal blow to the hip-intellectual cred I was trying desperately to achieve, even amongst the hyper-Christian future-first-grade-teachers with “Jesus Rocks! Christian Youth Concert 1999!” posters on their walls. I hid the dress deep in my closet as a precaution. I refused to call the deb ball by name, instead using careful pronouns or veiled references to “our upcoming visit to Raleigh.” I treated the whole thing with the furtiveness of a C.I.A. operative. When the time came for my weekend disappearance, my roommate was by then under the impression that I had some embarrassing, undisclosed disease or else was involved in illegal narcotics trafficking.

My overall debutante experience can be summed up in the charm that my Nana bought for me as a memento of the event. (I don’t wear a charm bracelet, but it was a thoughtful gesture—after all, a NC state deb would wear one.) She gave me a little silver plaque that was supposed to read “NC Deb 1999,” only due to an error at the engraver’s, it said “Ded.” The Ded Ball. At the actual event, when her name was called, a girl walked out from backstage onto a stage set meant to resemble a big, white columned Southern mansion with actual Spanish moss, as if to say, “Here she is, belle of Papa’s plantation!” Once we all had emerged from the fake big-house, we held a ribbon and rose while doing Maypole-type dance, vaguely reminiscent of some pagan ritual before the virgin sacrifice, or perhaps of the ‘70’s horror B-movie, The Wicker Man. The real highlight of the experience was when my father happened to encounter Jesse Helms just outside the men’s bathroom. Mr. Helms said to my father, “Well, sir, you’re looking mighty handsome this evening,” or something to that effect, which my brothers and I have since enjoyed twisting into a statement dripping with homosexual innuendo.

I spent the rest of the evening sulking around the hotel and peering into the various after-parties like a kid sulking in the time-out corner. The loud, beautiful girls were getting drunk in hotel rooms with their boyfriends. My date was my own brother who, after fulfilling his duties as escort, parked himself in front of the hotel t.v. Nothing is more humiliating than stalking the lonely halls of a Raleigh hotel filled with giggling girls who all seem to know each other and appear to be having too much fun when you yourself have a copy of Blood Meridian in your hand instead of a bottle of beer. I was miserable, and yet I still felt as if returning to the hotel room to watch America’s Most Wanted with my parents and siblings would somehow feel even more like a defeat.

In the end, it was the Ded ball, just as I expected. Several months later, we received an album that my mother had ordered of photos taken by the professional photographer. In the photos, it looks like my whole family has gathered, smiling joyously, to watch me, in my big white dress with my bouquet of flowers, get married to my brother. There was something too depressing about this. Every time that I went home, I snatched this album up off the coffee table and hid it somewhere, behind a couch or inside the piano, until my mom would find it and, annoyed because she had paid good money, put it out again.

I rarely admit this dark mark against my long-sought hipster-intellectual street cred, although I find myself more and more sympathetic to my mom—wouldn’t I, after close to fifty years living in the South, possibly feel a little curious about the Cinderella-style magic on which I’d missed out as a girl? Perhaps feel the slightest longing for a bit of the frilly girlhood rite of passage? Aren’t the sweetest things those about which we’ve heard described and yet never been able to taste? Wouldn’t I wonder about the world of debutante balls too?

Then again, I still think probably not. If anyone asks, my inner adolescent self will still adamantly deny it all and claim a childhood in northern California. But surely somewhere out in Cleveland County is a girl picking at mosquito bites on her ankle still dreaming of the creamy tulle and flounce of that transforming dress she’ll one day put on, a dress that will transform her, swan-from-duckling, into something superior and special. And somewhere else in Cleveland County lies a missing photo album— expensive and bound in white leather, filled with pictures of a frowning girl holding flowers— being slowly covered by creeping kudzu….(just don’t tell my mom.)

Joanna Pearson’s writing has appeared in Best New Poets, Mississippi Review, JAMA, The Raleigh News & Observer, The 2River View, The Journal of Medical Humanities, Yemassee, and others. She now lives in Baltimore, MD.