Armed with her camera and an interest in gender roles, Eisner-Kleyle set out to photograph former beauty queens to explore their post-reign lives and the other, perhaps less obvious, ways they express femininity.
The series of photographs became Nutria Queens, an exhibition that’s on display through July 30 at the Steenbock Gallery. Recently, Eisner-Kleyle took some time to explain how the project came about—and what’s it’s meant to her.
How did you get the idea for Nutria Queens?
The Lake Charles American Press published an article in 1996 about a girl who was queen of the Cameron Fur and Wildlife Festival and was also a nutria skinner from a long line of skinners. Right after the parade she was in the skinning contest, and they wrote in the article about how she had to run and change out of her gown into her jeans to make it from the parade to the contest. The men in her family were the skinners, and were so proud of her, and so impressed with her talent. During my graduate studies in Wisconsin, and in my own research into gender and society, I found myself thinking more and more about that woman—wondering what she was doing these days and how she’d balanced such an extreme feminine activity as pageantry with something so decidedly un-feminine as nutria skinning. We see portraits of these queens in the paper when they’re crowned, in festival histories and Mardi Gras museums, and it’s always the same shot—a sparkly gown, huge crown, scepter and satin sash. I became more and more interested in the reality of these women.
What interested you in these former pageant contestants?
Every woman in this series, with the exception of the original queen from the article, was brought to me through friends and family; in fact, some of them are friends and family. The project had been in me for so long that when I started moving forward on it I sent emails to friends and family back home telling them what I was wanting to do and asking if they knew any former queens. I wanted to test the waters and see if there was anything there. As it turns out, everyone knows a queen! My mom worked with several queens, and my husband’s parents were part of a Mardi Gras Krewe and opened up their directory and mailed letters about my project to every queen they knew. One of my bridesmaids had worked with one of the queens at The Gap years before, and still knew how to get in touch with her and passed it on. My sister in-law’s twin is one of the queens, and her daughter is another.
Every queen that participated heard about the project secondhand and contacted me with her interest. The only queen I actively pursued was the queen from the 1996 article. I would have moved ahead with the series without her, but I don’t know how happy I would have been about it. Luckily I didn’t have to find out!
What was it like photographing these women?
In every way this phrase can be turned, it felt like going home. Of course, I got to stay with my family and use my dad’s truck to drive around and meet these queens for sessions. But to walk in to the home of a complete stranger and be welcomed, entertained, sometimes fed (though ALWAYS hugged) is something that I’ve never found outside of southwest Louisiana, and something that I miss. That sense of welcoming familiarity was all encompassing, even in the women who had sort of missed the fact that I was originally from there and would introduce me as “the lady from Wisconsin.”
These were talkative and easygoing photo sessions. Some women met me after work and school with just their kids around, and others had houses full of family and friends curious about the project and about me. Some would sit with me for quite some time, showing me scrapbooks, driving me around their town and talking about their time as queen, before we started. Others would give me a tour of their home and we’d start shooting right away while we talked. Some made a day of it, and those shoots included airboat rides, alligator hatching, driving out to oil rigs or visiting with neighbors at the dock to see what they’d caught that day; I would shoot the entire time. I pushed each sitter to design her own session and allow me to follow behind, documenting what she would have been doing anyway, and I think that’s a big part of making each sitter comfortable and each portrait something more than those sterile queen portraits I’d seen my entire life.
What surprised you most about meeting the pageant queens and seeing what their lives were like?
I guess there’s a fine line between being surprised by something for the first time, and being reminded of something you’ve always known.
How easy these women were in front of a camera, talking to a total stranger about their life and their work, their history and their plans for the future was a constant shock, though that may be something I’ve forgotten by being out of the South. While some were decked out and completely made up for the camera, others wore jeans and T-shirts and just rolled with it. That casual attitude surprised me, especially coming from women who were, essentially, in this project based on their ability to plan and prep.
The funniest thing was that when I picked up a camera, regardless of if she’d reigned one or twenty years before, these women still knew how to turn it on for a camera. It was a constant struggle to get them to ignore me!
Did being involved in pageants still have an impact on the women?
There were some who knew each other, not personally, but from being in the pageant world. Several were curious about the other queens and wanted to know what I did for the shoots with other subjects. Sometimes they were a little critical about what I’d done with other queens; is that quickness to rate and judge left over from pageants? I don’t know.
One woman, when she spoke to me about her time as queen, consistently said “bride” instead of “queen.” She’d gotten married decades before in a suit at City Hall, so her dress for the Krewe was the most formal dress she’d ever owned and was, in fact, a redesigned and dyed wedding dress. Her portrait from her 1980s crowning still hung above the mantel in her living room, so I’d say she was impacted daily by her time as queen. Keep in mind, though, that for each queen who kept her regalia at arm’s length, there was another who had delivered 10,000 babies in her career, had a hospital wing named after her and couldn’t have cared less about her time as queen.
The one trait that each queen shared with the next was her gracious manner, her ability to talk about her life and open herself up to a stranger and, like I mentioned earlier, to be completely at ease in front of a camera, or at least look like she was. I have to think that grace under pressure is a great side effect of pageant life.
How significant is it that these women are from Louisiana? In what ways does the setting shape this project?
In the trajectory that the project has taken, it’s vital. This project would never have been seeded had I not read that article. Louisiana is a strange and fascinating place, and the rules that govern our behavior are bizarre, so without that upbringing would I have been so attuned to the oddities of societal norms once I left? Seven years after leaving, I still qualify some of my behaviors by telling a story about how we do it down home.
Once the project was going, would I have found a population so quick to spread the project by word of mouth, so eager to let me back in, and so proud of their lives that they could stand unflinchingly in front of a camera and tell that story? I can’t say no definitely, but I doubt it. My Midwestern portrait projects often found me trying to calm wary and anxious women who were suspicious of what I was doing with these portraits, and I encourage that—I would never let a stranger photograph my children or me without subjecting them to extensive interviews and background checks!! But every one of these queens opened their doors to me and shrugged me off as I told them about my release forms. They trusted me from the get go and that encouraged the project every step of the way.
Every background tells a story. The coastal landscape is identifiable to anyone who’s ever walked a shoreline made of broken concrete. The sky during that rainy week was perfect, not only for lighting photographs but for setting a scene, and the color of grass or water or sky in Louisiana is a huge part of what visually defines that place. That color and density is something that I’ve missed in my years in the Midwestern prairie. Even the interior shots tell stories, and every woman gave me a tour of her new rooms that had been rebuilt after [Hurricane] Rita.
How did your interest in fairy tales come into play in working on this series of photographs? My interest in fairy tales came from the stories I was told in Louisiana. That eventually formed my interest in gender roles as taught through childhood literature. While I didn’t start this series to be based equally on portraits and interviews, like I have in some of my other portrait series, I definitely interviewed these women during the process. Our fairy tales were passed down orally by women who knew that those stories would teach values to the next generations and were eventually collected and written down by men who knew that their culture would be fortified by these tales. Those stories of the people were entrusted with the continuation of a culture. When you have to rebuild so often, your stories and your culture become your home, and the place you can return to. When your heirlooms are carried away by wind, you replace those objects with stories. When the home you grew up in washes away, you hold your history tighter. As we all migrate from home and start our own families, we find ourselves grounded and refreshed by our personal mythologies. The culture of Louisiana is rooted in migration, rebuilding and finding home wherever you can. I’ve learned that in this series, the viewer appreciates the imagery, but WANTS the stories. Though I didn’t at the time of the shoots, I absolutely see a correlation between reinforcing the values of your past while protecting your future in the stories you pass down, and I see it in both current day Louisiana and seventeenth-century Germany.
What questions do you hope this exhibition raises in viewers’ minds? What do you hope they get from seeing your work?
Of course, I want there to be a constant concern for the Gulf Coast and its residents as we become increasingly careless with our planet. I want you to look at these images, at the people that thrive there and connect your own life with those in Louisiana. Then write to your politicians, and protect what’s precious.
But this wasn’t intended to be a public service announcement, nor was it intended to raise pity for the people of my home. This work was made in celebration, not of the beauty of these women or of how lovely they look in an evening gown, but of their strength, and of how smart and resilient they are. Every single one of them is an expert at something that may surprise you. Each of these women is, yes, a former beauty queen, but that was one year of her life. Every day in and outside of that year she is a mother, a daughter, a sister, a doctor, a teacher, an advocate, a rodeo champion, a builder, a hunter, an entrepreneur and, of course, an extremely fast nutria skinner. Her time as queen was a major life event, but it didn’t define her life.
I want people, from seeing any of my work, to question the way society has taught them to react to gender. Is there something you do just because it’s expected of your gender? Some way that you behave? Some value you place on yourself based on nothing more than your gender? What about in how you look at the people around you?
Coincidentally, one of the queens moved to France last week. She had emailed, during a prior visit, that she loved France because she didn’t have to wear makeup every day. I reminded her that there was no American law that required a woman to wear makeup and she should absolutely do what made her happy, especially with her face! We’re limited by ourselves and by what we think we’re supposed to do, but I do think we’d be a lot happier if we more often did what felt right, and not always what society and our gender tell us we have to.
Nutria Queens runs through July 30 at Steenbock Gallery, 1922 University Ave. For more information, visit wisconsinacademy.org.
Photos courtesy of Jessie Eisner-Kleyle.
An associate editor at Madison Magazine, I'm also an unabashed arts enthusiast. Paintings, plays, music, movies—I'm intrigued by all forms of creative expression. I enjoy talking with artists and sharing their insights, challenges and inspirations.