As a young girl, Mona desires to win a beauty pageant. She works odd jobs to earn money to pay the entrance fees. Her mother is absolutely against it. The man who lives with her mother doesn't like Mona, and her family cares nothing for her. She's entering these pageants for recognition and love. She doesn't win anything and she occasionally will sabotage another contestant. Part of the reason she thinks she's losing is that her costuming isn't good enough.
In school, she meets Ruby who is a very good seamstress. They become friends and Ruby starts making her costumes. The first prize that Mona ever wins is for her costume.
The movie then jumps ahead several years, Mona is now played by Minnie Driver, and Ruby is played by Joey Lauren Adams.
Mona is still entering Beauty contests and still hasn't won and Ruby is still making her costumes. In one contest, one of the women entered is doing the exact same routing as Mona. The routine involves twirling a flaming baton. Mona sabotages the other girl's routine by putting super glue on the baton. When the girl starts going up in flames, Mona comes to the rescue spraying the baton and the girl with a fire extinguisher.
It turns out that Mona is now pregnant.
The film jumps ahead another 7 years with Mona and Ruby living together and Ruby pretending to be the daughters mother. Mona could never win a pageant if she had a child.
Mona is entered in the statewide Miss American miss pageant and Ruby is a nurse at a local nursing home. Mona wins the state pageant and is going to the national. One of the elderly people at the nursing home has been hoarding sleeping pills and commits suicide for which Ruby is blamed. Ruby is arrested for murder.
Mona has to take care of Vanessa who still believes that Ruby is her mother. Mona and the girl can't stand each other, which is mainly Mona's fault because she is so self centered. Eventually she ends up taking Vanessa to the National pageant but she continues to pretend to everyone that Vanessa is her niece.
One of the reporters at the Pageant is the girl whose hand was glued to the baton and wants to dig up dirt on Mona to disqualify her. As the contest continues, everyone starts wondering who this little girl really is since they look so much alike. Vanessa even asks Mona if she is her Mom. Mona doesn't want to tell her the truth, as it would disqualify her. Mona's mother refused to come to the pageant so she asks Vanessa to sit in the seats reserved for family.
The contest comes down to three finalists. Mona, Miss Tennessee and Miss Texas.
The very last part of the contest involves asking each girl a question while the others are in a sound proof booth.
Mona is the last contestant and while she's been waiting for her turn, she has been looking at her daughter and thinking seriously about their relationship. The question they ask her is
What do you like about yourself?
"I don't like myself" and acknowledges Vanessa as her daughter.
The girl trying to disqualify her had already figured this out and was waiting for the right moment to announce it but now it was ruined.
Mona tries to leave the stage but the theater is sealed until the winner is announced. The winner is determined by a panel of judges plus people calling in votes. The place is flooded with calls supporting Mona since she made a stand supporting the New American Miss. A winner with a child.
Allowing her to win would be against the rules but the judges decide it's time to take a new perspective on the pageant.
They put a crown on her head and she walks down the runway with her little girl in her arms.
Ruby has been watching this from jail and is thrilled with the outcome. Mona's mom has been watching from home and actually stands up to her boyfriend telling him to shut up.
The scene switches from the pageant to a shot of Ruby leaving jail. Mona and Vanessa are waiting for her in a brand new car that the pageant had given her. Ruby has been cleared and they drive off
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