Camp and Circumstance

The only currently active beauty contest at the University of Chicago has been going strong for ten years, fills every seat of Mandel Hall, and crowns a male winner.

By Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93 | Photography by Chris Strong

The brothers of Phi Gamma Delta—a mass of basketball and football jerseys at the front of Mandel Hall, in the rows reserved for Greeks—are in the mood to win. Ten minutes before the Mr. University pageant begins, they’re already chanting, “Fi-ji! Fi-ji!”

The houselights flash; the crowd cheers. No profanity or hate speech will be tolerated, says a woman’s calm, reasonable, recorded voice above the din.

This year’s pageant, the tenth at Chicago, is themed “Old Hollywood: Search for the Next Leading Man.” Sponsored by the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta, the annual event raises money for its designated charity, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

The popular pageant is not unique to UChicago, says Jessica Sheft-Ason, ’12, vice president of public relations for Theta. Many Theta chapters hold male pageants as their signature philanthropy event; at Northwestern, for example, the pageant is called Mr. CASAnova. (Other chapters opt for other signature events; at the University of Illinois it’s “Theta Grilled Cheese,” where unlimited amounts of the eponymous food are served.)

The two-hour Mr. U extravaganza begins with a typical pageant promenade, as the ten contestants—Mr. Basketball (representing the varsity team), Mr. Sig Ep, Mr. Sigma Chi, Mr. Fiji, Mr. AEPi, Mr. Phi Delt, Mr. Psi U, Mr. Lambda, Mr. Max P. (from residence hall Max Palvesky), and Mr. PhiNix (from PhiNix Dance Crew, a hip-hop student group)—promenade across the stage, escorted by Theta sisters draped in red feather boas.

The emcees, Kim Siegel, ’13, and Hope Yao, ’14, introduce the judges: Marjorie Thomas, AB’87, founder of the Theta chapter at UChicago; David New, lecturer in the humanities; Yvette Johnson-Hardwick of CASA; and Susan Art, dean of students in the College (“I love you, Dean Art!” a man professes from the audience).

The money raised at the event, Siegel and Yao explain, will go to help some of the 5,500 foster children in Cook County. The audience grows quiet for a moment as that figure—more than five times the number of people in the audience—sinks in.

Then it’s on to Act One: The Swimsuit Competition.


Every year, says Sheft-Ason, “the contestants try to be more extreme,” particularly during the swimsuit section of the pageant. It’s unclear at times whether the contestants are trying to create a spectacle, or are making a spectacle of themselves, or both.

The first contestant, Mr. Basketball (Tommy Sotos, ’12), struts across the stage in an open green kimono and shiny yellow trunks, pausing for a moment to point insouciantly at the judges.

This is easily topped by Mr. Fiji (Zach Evans, AB’11) who strips off white swim trunks to reveal a black Speedo. As four of his brothers hold up Fiji’s flag to shield him—and the audience gasps—off comes the black Speedo. The flag drops to reveal … an even smaller golden Speedo. (“We did a synchronized swim for another sorority fundraiser two years ago,” Evans explains later. “There are multiple golden and silver Speedos in the house.”)

And that’s topped by Mr. Phi Delt (Seth Olsen, ’13). In denim shorts and worker boots, Olsen performs a campy pantomime of a car wash on a plastic kiddie car.

“Originally, I was going to use my friend’s puppy” as a prop, Olsen says later. “Then I found out there were no animals allowed.” One of the Thetas suggested he wash a motorcycle onstage, but he settled for the toy car, borrowed from a Phi Delt alum who has a couple of kids.


Backed by his roommate and three other basketball players, all in loose polyester tracksuits, Mr. Basketball (Sotos) lip-synchs to a medley of Backstreet Boys songs. (Sotos, in elementary school when the songs were released, confesses he is “an unabashed fan of overdone ’90s pop music.”) He was too busy with classes to choreograph the entire act, so his mother, a former pom-pom girl and coach, helped out.

For his talent, Mr. Fiji plays acoustic guitar and sings a folksy song about his fraternity, the University, and the pageant. It’s littered with rhymes that shift just in time to stay clean: “Yes I became a Fiji man, a man who had some class/ We all live together happily, trying to get some … knowledge.”

After that crowd-pleaser, Mr. Lambda (Kenn Miller, AB’11), probably would have been doomed even if he hadn’t begun with a reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Blackberry-picking.” “Go to the Reg!” one heckler shouts.

Mr. PhiNix (Leul Bezane, ’12) goes over much better with a high-energy hip-hop dance that includes a front flip off the stage.

Then comes Mr. Phi Delt, a rapper who has performed under the names MC Knowledge and Mainframe. Sauntering onto the stage in a hoodie with the hood up, he breaks into a Chicago-specific adaptation of Nelly’s “Ride wit Me”: “If you wanna go for a ride with me, we can waste all day on the CTA …”

The audience yells its approval. The Fijis and the Phi Delts yell good-natured abuse at each other across the aisle.


This event involves a lot of carrying. Mr. Sig Ep is carried onto the stage on a litter (that is, a folding table) by four of his brothers. Both Mr. Basketball and Mr. PhiNix carry their Theta escorts offstage; Mr. PhiNix’s escort sits upright on one of his shoulders, and somehow he manages to make this look easy.

The contestants’ suits are all fairly straightforward, except for the peacock of the evening, Mr. Phi Delt, who appears last, wearing a matador costume.

The judges make their first cut. Five competitors make it to the finals: Mr. Phi Delt, Mr. Fiji, Mr. Lambda, Mr. Basketball, and Mr. PhiNix.

Then comes question and answer. In the tradition of beauty pageants, if not the University of Chicago, the talking part is awkward and embarrassing. Asked which leading man he would be and why, Mr. Phi Delt stumbles through an answer about Brad Pitt. Asked to choose a leading lady, Mr. Fiji finally settles on Angelina Jolie. (“I drew a blank. It may have been five seconds, but it felt like five minutes.”)

While the judges deliberate, the emcees award raffle prizes. The gods are smiling upon Mr. Phi Delt, who returns to the stage to collect a pair of White Sox tickets.

And then the winners are announced. Mr. Lambda wins Mr. Congeniality; he accidentally puts his white sash on upside down. As runner-up, Mr. PhiNix is named Best Supporting Man. And the Mr. University title goes to … Mr. Phi Delt.

As his brothers in the audience shout, “Yeah! Yeah!” one of the Fijis, stung by his brother’s loss, strides into the aisle. Seemingly, an intrafraternity slugfest is about to erupt over a male beauty contest.

The PhiDelts become instantly conciliatory: “Dude, hey. It’s cool. Your guy was great—” and the conflict evaporates. There’s no promenade for the winner and no serenade; the two-hour show is just suddenly over.


Mr. Fiji (Evans) was disappointed. Mr. Basketball (Sotos) was dispassionate: “If I can be completely honest, winning a male beauty pageant would probably be more embarrassing for me than losing it.”

And Mr. Phi Delt (Olsen) was triumphant: “I was pretty confident I was going to win.” The Phi Delt candidate the year before had come in second, he says, even though “his talent wasn’t that great, and he had an inappropriate swimsuit—a Borat-type thing. I thought, I can definitely do that.”

Judged by both audience amusement and money raised for foster kids—over $5,000—the Mr. U pageant succeeded. But what else did it achieve? Was it critiquing anything?

“It is a spoof pageant, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” says Sotos. “It definitely pokes fun at the sex-driven world of female beauty pageants.”

“It’s about 90 percent spoof, 10 percent serious,” says Sheft-Ason of Theta. “Maybe even less.”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as a serious pageant,” says Olsen. “What is Miss America seriously doing? Pageants are about display—that’s the point. Pageantry.”