Inside the Orange: The 2016 Hooters Worldwide Wing Eating Championship & International Swimsuit Pageant

July 16, 2016

by Mary Bowers

Las Vegas, Nevada –  it’s the place where fortunes are won and lost in a moment. A roll of the dice or a spin of the wheel and life can change in an instant.

Grief washed over me as Michelle Lesco gently pulled me away from the table, tears rolling down my cheeks. I had been dealt an unexpected hand and the loss was gut-wrenching.

“My grandmother was the most influential woman in my life,” I said as my friend reached for a hug. “Her memorial service was yesterday.”

Michelle nodded with understanding and gestured back to the table. Intuitive to a fault, she knew exactly what would bring me comfort.

“How is your sushi?”, she asked.

If there is anything such as emotional eating, sadness tastes a lot like ahi tuna and wasabi. I glanced at her with curiosity.

“It’s good. How is the salad?”, I asked.

Filled with sadness, sushi, and salad, we caught up with our colleagues Juan “More Bite” Rodriguez, Steve Hendry, and Yasir Salem to speculate on the latest controversies and scandals of the sport that has made us a family. Competitive eaters are a colorful cast of characters.

“I’m going to put all of my feelings into the wings,” Hendry said as he filled the hotel icebucket. The temperature inside the bucket was the same as the tone in his voice. Revenge is a dish best served cold and someone was hungry for just desserts.

With a $17,500 purse on the line, the Hooters Worldwide Wing Eating Championship was less than 24 hours away. With stakes that high, this was emotional eating at its finest. Our friends would follow us into the spotlight two days later for the Miss Hooters International Pageant, as the judges placed their bets on the winner of a $30,000 prize and a contract to become the company’s spokesmodel.

Luck can turn on a dime, but winning doesn’t come easily.

It’s 4:00 am and the phone lights up with the first text message of the day. “Time to hit the gym.” 4:00 is a wonderful time of day because everyone hates everyone. Friends don’t exist before 5:00 in the morning, especially if you are the person who sent the text.

5:00 am and the email messages begin. Today’s To Do List. Tomorrow’s itinerary. Travel reservations. Event confirmations. Can someone please make some coffee?

By 6:00 am, messages have been read and it’s time to take five minutes to pretend to panic. Everything is under control, but why not take a moment for a game of make-believe?

6:05 and panic no longer feels like pretending. The anxiety feels real. Time for an emotional breakfast!

By 7:00 am it’s discovered that no amount of wishing can transform yogurt and fruit into pizza and burgers. It was worth a try.

Showered and out the door by 8:00 am, you’re ready to take on the world. You’ve got this!

It’s 8:45 and you wonder how your head can feel like you smacked it into a cement wall. Maybe it was the mad dash to make it to the interview. Maybe it’s nerves. Maybe it’s jet lag. Whatever it is, you have 15 minutes to shake it off.

9:00 am and you’re on the air. You try to be charming. You try to be natural, but this is the sixteenth time in three months you’ve answered this question. Smile for the camera!

10:00 am and you return to your messages. Today’s To Do List is growing by the second. Please, for the love of G– can someone make more coffee?!

By noon you’re hungry enough to clear out the entire Palms Casino buffet, but you haven’t worked this hard to give up now. Kale yeah, you can do this!

Now, it’s time for another practice run. Just when you think you’re getting it right, you go through the routine again. You missed a step. Your movements are off. Your timing has to improve if you are going to hit your mark. You run through the routine again. And again. And again.

And…

5:00 pm and it’s time to try on your wardrobe for the big show. The top is six sizes too large. You question your body. At least the shorts fit. “Did my butt grow?”, you wonder. Your colleagues assure you it looks great. You can be confident when you step onto that stage.

By 7:00 pm you realize that you forgot about dinner, but you can’t get out of your wardrobe because there are pins in the sides of your clothes. It’s going to take at least a couple of people to help you get out of this. You sigh and wait for help.

It’s 7:30 and you are freed from your fabric prison. You ponder another salad and remember you’ve already eaten enough kale to feed an entire village. 25.5 pounds is enough. No more kale.

8:00 pm and it’s stretch, water, stretch. You have to stay hydrated. You have to be flexible. You have to be strong. Winners don’t quit.

8:15 and it’s back to your messages. Sponsors, media, family, and friends are all checking in and confirming plans for tomorrow. Emailing back will only take a few minutes…

It’s 11:00 pm and your friends are texting you. “Come out and play! It’s Vegas! We won’t be long”. You love a party, but the celebration will have to wait until fates have been sealed and luck shines upon the ready.

It’s time for bed.

Chicken wings loom like six foot wide butterflies in an orange dream world. Your heart is filled with the images of giants as you sleep – the extroverted brother who brings out your introverted character, the faithful friend who drops everything to be at your side, and the training partner who wakes you at 4:00 am even when you hate them. It’s the grandmother who taught you about kindness, gratitude, and strength whose legacy lives on in you.

And above all, it’s your colleagues, your co-competitors, and respected rivals who have been with you in the trenches. Through victory or defeat; they know exactly what will bring comfort in the moments you need it because they have walked in your shoes.

These are the mirror reflections who will share your moment in the spotlight when you awake once more. They’ve called you “an inspiration” and “a role model” without realizing that they were the ones who first  inspired you.

Whether your spotlight is found at the competitive eating table or in a pageant, there is no doubt that it is an act of courage to step into its white hot glow. Few people have the fortitude to do it. But for those who dare to live their dreams, the rewards are priceless.

On July 11, 2016, Joey Chestnut earned another victory with 194 Hooters wings under his belt, further inspiring fans around the world to believe in achieving the “impossible”.

And on July 13th, Major League Eating’s friend from Fort Lauderdale, Sable Jade Robbert, was crowned Miss Hooters International 2016. Some may say it’s a beginning, but for those who have worn the bright orange shorts, they know that the journey began with, “hello, welcome to Hooters”.

As for me, the tables have turned and I am leaving Las Vegas with a new title of my own. “Mary Bowers, Lifestyle and Entertainment Reporter”. The stakes and the emotions have never been higher, but the odds are in my favor. I’m ready to place my bet…

After I stop for some food. If there is anything such as emotional eating, happiness tastes a lot like fried pickles and Daytona style wings.

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