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Phyllis Chickett, who was Klondike Kate in 1996, sang “You Made Me Love You” at Gen Hall’s piano bar in the St. Louis Park VFW in 2001.

Joey McLeister, Star Tribune

C.J.: Film 'star' has many crowning moments

  • Article by: C.J.
  • Star Tribune
  • January 18, 2012 - 7:38 PM

It's going to be a financial hardship, but St. Paul's Phyllis Chickett is determined to walk the red carpet at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and meet the executive producer of "Pretty Old," Sarah Jessica Parker.

I'm calling Chickett, a singer, a "star" of the documentary because she told me that in the rough cut, she's in about 30 of its 90 minutes.

"It's about five senior ladies who like to be in pageants," Chickett told me Tuesday. It was filmed mostly at America's Senior Sweetheart contest in Fall River, Mass., in 2008.

Chickett, a proud graduate of Macalester College, didn't win, but "my good friend Constance Gabriel from Rogers, Minn., is the reigning Ms. Senior Sweetheart. She's my very close friend, and I got her into all this stuff. She's going to Santa Barbara also."

Chickett has won her share of titles, though.

"I have six titles and so many sashes, and I'm 85 years old," she said. "I think I'm all done because I realized I'm just too old, I can't win anymore. It's always been fun. I never realized it before, but I suppose I'm competitive."

In some of the more unpleasant aspects of life, Chickett has been unintentionally ahead of the pack as well: "I've had four heart attacks, two knee replacements."

She's also had other hardships which are aired in the documentary -- notably, her current economical status, which she describes as "destitute," although she stressed to me: "I don't want people to feel sorry for me, because I have had a wonderful life."

Her husband, a musician, suffered health problems in his final years that drained their life savings.

"My late husband, Leonard Chickett, had Alzheimer's. He was in a nursing home for six and a half years at $6,000 a month -- everything we had saved for our old age. I was married to him for 36 and a half years, and the doctor, everybody, said, Divorce him and you won't have to give up your bonds and stocks. I said, 'I can't do that. I married him 'in sickness and in health,' and I loved him too much. Then I finally got him on Medical Assistance, but I had to use up all our CDs, bank accounts. I'm under $3,000 in total assets right now." (And yet, there are people who think Americans don't need national health care.)

During a lengthy, "somber" interview at Chickett's apartment, the documentary-makers got her to talk about Leonard and their hardships. "It [pageant competition] has been a wonderful diversion for me," she said.

When the makers of the documentary were sounding as if they couldn't afford to fly Chickett out for the festival, which begins Jan. 26, she told them, "'If you don't pay my way, I can't come.' They are paying my airfare."

What about her hotel and meals?

"No. And the hotel is the most expensive thing," she said. "I'm just going to do it somehow or another, but I will do it little by little. If I have to pay $20 a month, I'll do it. I've kept my credit rating, 813, all my life."

Although Chickett is "very, very excited" about the film festival, the 2001-02 Aquatennial Senior Queen and 1999 Ms. Minnesota Senior is conflicted about leaving Minnesota this time of year. "I'm a Winter Carnival person, too," she said. "I'm one of the Klondike Kate [1996] alumni."

She sat too close to an audio speaker at last week's Klondike Kate contest. "It was so noisy and my hearing is still affected," said Chickett.

Her hearing will be fine by the time she boards that plane, though.

"This thing with the documentary came up so fast, although it was filmed in '08. They kept telling us, It's almost ready, it's almost ready. Then all of a sudden last week he called and said, It's ready, it's being shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. They are going to have the red carpet, the limo and everything. They hope to sell it to one of the big networks. But they are going to show it at film festivals before that."

Asked if she had met Parker yet, Chickett said, "Not yet," her voice brightening another octave. "But she knows me. She's seen the film. She liked it very much."

Starting too young

Chickett, who started participating in pageants at the age of 36, was reluctant to admit what she thinks of "Toddlers and Tiaras."

"Oh, I hate to say it," commented the mother of twins Tim and Tom French, sons from Chickett's first marriage, which lasted 18 years.

There was a silence of about 15 seconds. I sensed that she'd tell me exactly what she thought if she weren't pressed.

"I think those mothers are using their kids to satisfy their own needs," she finally said with perceptible sadness. "I feel sorry for the little kids, even though the mothers say they enjoy it. I'm sure the little kids do sometimes, but from what I've seen, it also looks like it's very hard on the children."

That kind of honesty deserves support.

Psst, Tim French: Did you know GoFundMe.com has a "Competitions and Pageants" page?

C.J. is at 612.332.TIPS or cj@startribune.com. E-mailers, please state a subject -- "Hello" doesn't count. Attachments are not opened, so don't even try. More of her attitude can be seen on Fox 9 Thursday mornings.

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