Episode 24: Visiting with Michelle Vought and her story, “No More Miss Priss”
ANNOUNCER: Raising women’s voices—one story at a time. Welcome to The She Said Project Podcast.
MUSIC: intro music plays
JENETTE: Welcome back to another episode of The She Said Project Podcast. Thanks so much for joining us. I’m your host, Jenette Jurczyk, National Director of The She Said Project.
KERRY: And I’m Kerry Rossow, the Founder. I like to just sit here and watch Jenette and then sometimes I’m like, oh wait, she’s waiting for me.
JENETTE: Yeah, tough luck, Kerry. Sometimes it’s your turn. (laughter) No, I’m so glad to have you with me. One of the sheer joys of working at The She Said Project is you have your life and I have my life, but we come together (chuckle) to reconnect to talk about the show and get ready for each upcoming show and it’s just one of the highlights of my life.
KERRY: Awww.. Thank you. I love you, Schmoopie Bear.
JENETTE: So, Kerry, you are one of the founders of The She Said Project which really started with a series of live events and guess what happened in 2020?
KERRY: Yeah—no, I don’t want to talk about that. I wanted to say like, look, Look what we did. We’re going to pretend that didn’t happen. **raspberry** And we’re going to say—You know what? We were like, oh, I’m sorry—am I allowed to say bad words? Can I say, “like bitch, please…” Like a pandemic is not going to keep women down. We’re like, we’re going to keep telling our stories. We might be behind a computer screen. We might be virtual but we’re going to keep on keeping on.
JENETTE: That’s right, when 2020 hit we made a decision to produce not just one but a series of virtual shows which let us do something really cool. It allowed us to find and connect with women in different communities that created the same bond, the same sisterhood, in a virtual setting. And we weren’t sure if it was going to have the same impact as our live shows, but I’m really excited to introduce today speaker because she’s going to be a testament to the fact that we did it we found some really great women and we were able to continue our mission of sharing women’s stories—so, from our very first virtual show which aired in August of 2020, please welcome our guest, Michelle Vought. Hello, my darling, Michelle!
MICHELLE: Such a joy to be here. Thank you for having me, ladies.
JENETTE: I’m so glad to see your face on the Zoom. This is our fancy Zoom Studio. It’s so fun that we can reconnect and get together again here on The She Said Project Podcast. Let’s talk about your story. You appeared in a virtual show. Was that a new experience for you?
MICHELLE: Yes, at first I had no idea how it was going to work and you know if it would be successful, but boy, was it ever! It was a I don’t know a total blast to convene with these ladies across the globe. That was what was so cool that there were women from all over our country on the our first virtual show, and I feel that I, I made some nice acquaintanceships then we’ve been trying to forge some friendships, so it’s been a plus plus plus and in ways I don’t think of real live in-person show may have been.
JENETTE: Well you never would have graced the stage with someone from Torrance, California or New Jersey the way that came together in the virtual show. So, thank you for taking a chance on us.
MICHELLE: Yeah! It was really cool. I loved it.
KERRY: And I’ve never met you in person. And you do have this ‘something’ about you. I think you’re clearly meant to be on stage and a performer, but you have this thing—like you just make people feel like, you know, I just want to let get my coffee and sit down and like, “Now what are we going to talk about?” (laughs) You’re just are an exciting person. And it was just so fun to watch that play out.
MICHELLE: Wow! That means so much. Thanks so much for that compliment cuz, you know, you want to be that person. I always think, you know, when I see someone out there, “Oh, I’d love to go on a road trip with that person.” So you’re talking about getting that… I know exactly what you mean, Kerry. Yes.
KERRY: I’ll be at your house in an hour, get the coffee pot.
JENETTE: Get the coffee. Get the RV. We’re taking a show on the road. Well, one day we hope to—but for now we will settle for our Zoom Land. Let’s get right to it and share Michelle’s performance from that show that we’re reminiscing about. We’re going to play the recording of Michelle’s performance from The She Said Story Sharing Showcase in August of 2020.
Here is Michelle Vought with her story, “No More Miss Priss.”
There I was in my radiant blue gown trying to look composed, with sticky underpants and sweat dripping from my nose—as I took my turn strolling down the runway at the 1976 Junior Miss Beauty Pageant. It was the hottest day in August and we were having a beauty pageant in a high school auditorium with NO air conditioning—perfect conditions for armpit stains and mascara dripping down our cheeks.
I was still trying to recover from the horrific embarrassment of my talent performance… I stood on stage for what seemed like an eternity, posed in my pink gingham dress and my huge pink bow waiting for the opening strains of “Tea for Two,” so I could dazzle the audience with my perfectly choreographed (and overly rehearsed) tap number. I waited. And waited. The audience and I stared awkwardly at each other and I started to panic because I knew it looked like I didn’t know what I was doing.
Suddenly, my dance music screamed through the auditorium at top volume not at the beginning of my dance, mind you, but in the MIDDLE of the song!! Are you kidding me? I caught on and kept going, but I was totally mortified.
So, as I glued on my fake smile and promenaded down the runway feeling disgusting and shiny from sweat, I started thinking to myself, “This is total BULLSHIT!” The only reason I prayed to hear them call out my name as the Junior Miss of Lancaster County was to make my mother proud. Entering the local pageants was her idea, not mine.
Mother was the preacher’s wife in a small town in Pennsylvania, and she was consumed with the image our family portrayed. To her, presentation was everything, as were other people’s opinions of us.
My mother always “made her entrance” down the church aisle each Sunday dressed to the nines for all to see as she paraded to her seat in the front row.
Every Christmas, she’d say, “OK, Shelly, what shall we do for your Christmas dress this year?” We’d choose a pattern and material and then have the seamstress down the street make me a one of a kind frock so that I could “be seen” next to Mom in her Christmas finery.
I was the obedient ”Miss Priss” as my mother called me. Little Miss Shelly Vought who never spoke up or made a fuss, but believed that my worth was based on how “beautiful” and “proper” other people thought I was.
Little did I realize as a teenager how damaging, self- abandoning and futile that quest was. But that week at the Junior Miss Pageant, I started noticing a voice in my head. That voice started questioning why I was standing there, trying to prove that I was better than every other sixteen year old on that stage. We were all just growing and changing, riddled with self-doubt and each with our own talent. Yet only one of us would be publicly told “she was enough” when the MC called her name. They never did crown “Shelly Vought” as Junior Miss for Lancaster County, and I slunk outta there vowing never to enter another stupid pageant again.
From then on, I tried to ignore that voice that popped in my head from time to time. That tiny voice of dissent that would seep out at other moments when I didn’t agree with mother’s decisions. Like that time she forced me to go to the dermatologist to get pills for a “pretty face.” I argued with my mother for the first time, telling her that I was fine with how I looked and no one cared if I had acne. But Mom won that battle and I had to hush that voice again.
That voice was dormant for a long time, but it reappeared some years later when I realized my boyfriend, Larry, had cheated on me.
I was so used to keeping her quiet, afraid of what people might think if I ever spoke what I was thinking out loud. But I was older now and my mother wasn’t there to censor me. My feelings were so hurt, I was so tired of his lies, I couldn’t keep my thoughts to myself anymore and I just exploded. This woman’s voice that I barely recognized raged out of me. “I am done being your doormat. This is OVER!” and I stormed out fuming and shaking. Who was that woman who had emerged from my insides and told Larry to shove it?
I completely scared myself. I was a thirty-two year old woman who had always hoped for a husband and children. If I so wanted a relationship and family, then why did I allow this assertive persona of mine to ruin it? What the hell was I doing?
It took me several more years to come to terms with this woman who was dying to get out. I was struggling to hold onto little Shelly, remain obedient and stay on track for the life I was “supposed to” be living. But this new woman emerged more and more… let’s call her “Michelle.” This strange part of myself that I didn’t recognize, this woman of extraordinary self-possession sporadically and randomly continued to appear throughout my life.
Years later, I was engaged to Marc, an actor who ghosted me one summer while he was studying theatre in upstate New York. I was devastated, but followed our plan and travelled to North Carolina to perform opera all the while waiting for a letter from Marc—which never came. Though I was heartbroken at his radio silence, I debated whether I could accept an offer for a full ride scholarship to a Master’s program in vocal performance in South Carolina. While little Shelly thought it would be inappropriate to make this move without Marc, I
heard “Michelle” shouting “YES!” and accepting the offer. It was “Michelle” that took control, dumped Marc, and headed to South Carolina a few weeks later. It felt great!
The more I got away from being the people pleaser “Shelly” and embraced the independent “Michelle” the more I found myself living a full, rich life, guided by my own heart. I was able to divorce my husband for his unfaithful and disrespectful choices and have maintained my position as voice professor at a university where he still teaches right down the hall. I threw caution to the wind and started dating women, which felt natural and beautiful to me. I was even married to a woman for several years.
“Michelle” kept showing up and guiding me in new, exciting directions. I guess she had been hiding out in my closet all along. Finally, the preacher’s daughter Shelly lost all power to hold the door shut and “Michelle” busted down that closet door, unable to hold back. From then on, “Michelle” became the leading lady in all of my life.
In my late forties, I created a one woman show called Madame Monsieur. It is no coincidence that this show parallels my own evolution of Shelly into Michelle.
I start the show dressed as opera diva in gown, baubles, and bangles, performing soprano favorites drawn from opera and musical theatre only to return after intermission in dapper, dashing drag to perform the guy songs. Let me tell you, the way Michelle puts out the show is way different than little Miss Priss Shelly.
In my show, I embrace all parts of who I am. This strong, self-assured warrior of a woman, Michelle, has led me through my life showing up just when I needed her on my adventures.
I’ve been the Cincinnati Pickle Lady, owned my own singing telegram business, performed, lectured and recorded around the world, survived sarcoma and breast cancer, made it through two tough divorces to be a single mom to my remarkable gay son, Nic, who performs as a drag queen. I am so proud that he can be true to himself and doesn’t have to shush the voices in his head, worried what his mother might think.
The night my show opened, there were only six people in the audience. The second night zero. Now, fourteen years later, I perform to full houses nightly and I now end the show wearing a Wonder Woman costume, as I use musical theatre and comedy to open minds and empower others.
I found my superpower of independence—which was always there once I left my scared, self-doubting, people-pleasing self behind. It took me a long time to figure out how to do things MY WAY, and that’s how I plan to do things from now on.
JENETTE: Bravo, bravo.
MICHELLE: Thank you.
JENETTE: So Michelle, you talked alot about finding your superpower—and we talked a lot about that in the process when you were developing your story and that was really your theme. You talked about all these things that you went through in your life where you had, you know, moments of discovery and the next moment of discovery and next moment discovery and you found yourself, and that is so refreshing to hear and inspiring for women out there who are still searching a little bit. So, thank you for boldly sharing that piece of your heart.
MICHELLE: Yes, you’re most welcome. And I think, you know, as young women, we don’t even think we have the power within us. We’re always looking outside of ourselves and, you know, as women we’re told how we’re supposed to look, how we’re supposed to dress, how we’re supposed to behave, what we’re supposed to do, you know, it’s just so much pressure on women to be this package that we think we’re supposed to be and it’s all out there and it never feels like we’re enough. We never feel like we’re enough. And so it took so many years of, oh, I don’t… trial-and-error and tears and therapists and just—good boyfriends, bad boyfriends, you know, and finally it’s just… it seems frustrating to me a little bit that it took me so long (laughs) to get to the point where I like, I am enough! Oh my gosh, I have it. I’ve had it this whole time—but I didn’t know it and so… I have a feeling though this is a very common journey for many women. So if you with your wonderful That’s What She Said Project can empower women and help them to embrace themselves and find out super power within themselves at an earlier time in their lives than being forty-two or whatever then go for it because you are doing the noble, admirable work. It’s, it’s terrific.
KERRY: Thank you for saying that. But I think that we are just the road map and you all are the ones driving the the truck because when people, other women who are going through similar things hear those words and there’s so much to be said for the, oh my gosh me too, I’m not the only one—I’m not crazy or here’s somebody and here’s what they did, and I can try it too or just the camaraderie of, oh! to hear somebody else name it and that someone else is going through it is so powerful to others.
MICHELLE: You are welcome. Thank you
KERRY: No, thank you!
JENETTE: I don’t think.. I’ve given this a lot of thought and I do wonder if we could take every eighteen year old girl out there and impart this knowledge on them at a younger age, would they have a different trajectory? Would they have a different journey? But I think we have to go through some of it if. We have to have some of that self-discovery to have those big, you know, epiphanies in our thirties and forties, to own who we are. I don’t know if it’s as delicious or, you know, if it’s as satisfying, if you, if you don’t go through it yourself. Obviously, you could make better choices if you have that self assurance and confidence, but I think there’s value in us going through these experiences and then talking about them and sharing and connecting and saying, oh my God, me too, so that we can own who we are at whatever age we have that, that discovery.
MICHELLE: Yeah. That’s a very good point. Because then there is something to be said for feeling the connectedness, like Kerry was talking about. When we were doing our virtual TWSS showcase that August evening, I remember feeling like, Yeah. Yeah. I get you. I feel you. Oh my gosh, I felt that way too. And that’s the whole gist of it. Right? We’re all feeling the connectedness and that is such a gift.
JENETTE: You find those nuggets in the other stories that are in your show and then those women find the nuggets in your story and it’s just this beautiful web. Mmhmm.
MICHELLE: Right. So true.
KERRY: Well, and one of the things we always are very aware of, when we’re putting together this show here, is I remember saying, you know, we wanted diversity—not just in the way we looked—but we wanted it in age and we wanted… every year, I would try to find someone that sort of like, rubbed me a little wrong, rubbed like… I just didn’t—but I knew had a story—because I knew by the end of the show, I would love them, and I thought it would be a good lesson for me when it’s easy to be like, oh, they’re a ... you know, a fill-in-the-blank and it’s easy to put them in a box and then to have someone in the show that didn’t think like I did and that had a different experience, because it’s, it’s very difficult to be a they, they, they—when it’s, when you think of somebody you love and that has been a beautiful thing of this show—it’s not just connecting to the people that I agree with but really hearing from people that I strongly disagree with, but love at the same time.
MICHELLE: That’s powerful.
KERRY: It’s always funny because whenever I say that, past speakers will always send me a text and be like, “It was me, right? I’m the one that you didn’t like…” (laughs)
MICHELLE: That’s fun. (laughing continues)
KERRY: No, it was totally Jenette. It’s always Jenette. I’m kidding! I’m kidding!
JENETTE: But what’s so great about Michelle’s journey is that we get a little peek into her life as a child with her mother and her mother did the best she could with where she was at in life and its will she have been given, and therefore that’s what got passed down to you and we can look back now and go it wasn’t perfect and you had to overcome—but, the beauty of it is because you overcame and because you took a step back and learned from it, you have now changed your parenting style and you’ve allowed your son a whole different experience where he’s not trying to fit himself into a box of what he should be and you are giving him that gift and I have no doubt that it was because of what you went through.
MICHELLE: Thank you, you know, that’s just making me tear up a little bit cuz it’s so true. You know. I don’t think… I don’t know if my mother would have been accepting of me when I was in a lesbian relationship, but, by hook or by crook, I’m going to be accepting of my son, no matter who he is, and that’s why we love to go shopping together because we both shop in the women’s department and we find things for each other! (laughing) So it’s been a xxxx having a drag queen as a son—and I buy him women’s clothes all the time, which is super fun for me.
JENETTE: I always joke that if we had sons that he’d better be gay because I wouldn’t know what to do with a boy who plays sports or I would need a gay son who I could go shopping with.
MICHELLE: Well you can borrow Nic anytime.
JENETTE: Well, thank you. I might.(laughing)
I’m so grateful that you took a chance of joining us in the virtual show because 2020 was upside down for everybody and everyone had to pivot—we wanted to keep moving our mission forward and so, because of you and the brave women in your show, we were able to do that. So *mwah mwah* (blows kisses)
MICHELLE: Well, thanks, ladies..
JENETTE: Thanks to you…
MICHELLE: You know - I was thinking of one other thing, a little point since we were chatting here—I feel that there have been times in our, I’m sure we all experienced this, in our culture, where women look at other women as competition, and boy oh boy, was this great—because it just, it wipes it all away. It is impossible to be competitive when you’re feeling “The Sisterhood.” And so thank you for that as well. Because, you know, I’m going to stand with you. I’m not going to stand against you, you know, it’s just a great feeling of, of camaraderie and, and “The Sisterhood.”
JENETTE: Kerry is the most competitive and combative person I know and now you’ve given me such perspective as to why she needs this in her life.
KERRY: I am very competitive and I always say that part of why I created this She Said Show was because I’d always been in sports. I had always had this sisterhood of teammates and then you grow up and you don’t have that anymore and so if organized sports was your jam and then you go out into the world and you don’t have those butt slaps and high-fives and those people that, because they’re your team-mates you aren’t competing with them, you are competing against yourself—and, and pushing each other forward, and if I do well, you do well, it benefits all of us. And my favorite thing is the saying, “The rising tide lifts all boats.” The old quote—and when we started this my girls were little and I did not want—I kept seeing these images of catty women and women competing with each other, and I wanted them to know that there’s a time and a place to be competitive, but not with each other. We are on the same team and that has been great—to over and over again see these groups of women form these.. teams, basically. Jenette’s not a team sports person but this, it is— but she might not admit it, but she IS a team player.
JENETTE: Kerry has brought butt slaps into my life (laughing) both in person and virtual. So, on that…
KERRY: You can tell the difference between girls who played sports and the theatre girls—because the first time I unleash a fanny slap, Jenette and, they’re like, “That’s inappropriate!”
JENETTE: Um, I’m bringing jazz hands, not butt slaps.
KERRY: Yes, she does jazz hands! She’s all about jazz hands and I’m over there beating her on the rear end! (laughing)
JENETTE: Again, Michelle, it was awesome to have you join us in the virtual show. We have learned, in so many different ways, that when you create a safe space for women to brave the microphone and to share touching, personal stories, you do empower them to connect, inspire and change the world and we want to thank you for, for being part of that mission and that Sisterhood and we want to thank our friends and our fans who supported us along the way and you continue to join us each and every week here on The She Said Project Podcast.
ANNOUNCER: Thank you for listening to The She Said Project Podcast, in partnership with Illinois Public Media.
All materials contained in the podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That’s What She Said, LLC. For more information on our live shows go to shesaidproject (dot) com.
This podcast was made possible with support from Carle and Health Alliance and presented by Sterling Wealth Management. Empowering women to live their best lives.
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Our hosts Kerry and Jenette meet up with Michelle Vought to remember her funny, yet empowering story "No More Miss Priss," shared in one of our virtual She Said Story Sharing Showcases. Quiet and obedient while growing up, Shelly learned to embrace her inner superhero and blossom into Michelle, the self-assured woman who figures out how to do things her way from now on.
The She Said Project Podcast is recorded in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in this podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That's What She Said, LLC. Learn more at shesaidproject.com.