BIDDEFORD — In all of her 92 years, Yvonne Gallucci had never thought of entering a pageant.

But when her son called up and asked the grandmother of 13 to appear in the first-ever Miss La Kermesse pageant, Gallucci couldn’t turn him down.

“I have nothing going on,” she told him.

And that’s how Gallucci, dressed in a floral navy and white dress with a delicate pearl necklace around her neck, found herself backstage Saturday night in the main tent at the La Kermesse Franco-Americaine festival, waiting for her runway debut.

“I’m not used to a dress,” she said with a smile as other contestants began arriving, garment bags and makeup cases in tow.

Gallucci, of Biddeford, always comes to the festival, an annual celebration of Franco-American heritage that has, over 37 years, become a part of the city’s cultural tradition. For years, families from Biddeford and Quebec have met on the festival field, sharing memories and music and conversations in French.

“The cultural piece is something we’re trying to hold onto. That is getting a little lost as Biddeford changes,” said Jessica Quattrone, the festival president and Gallucci’s granddaughter. “We’re trying to do our part to keep the symbolism going.”

The festival is a little smaller than it used to be, but it still includes a Friday night parade that marches through the city, carnival rides and games, and lots of French music and food. When new board member Lisa Ottman asked if there was interest in a Miss La Kermesse pageant, the other directors were intrigued. When the idea of a mémère (French for grandmother) division was brought up, they couldn’t resist.

And Quattrone couldn’t resist the idea of seeing her own mémère – the one she describes as a “mini Queen Elizabeth” – appear in the pageant.

“Everyone knows my mémère. Everyone thought she’d be perfect,” Quattrone said. “She’s quite a little lady.”

‘A FABULOUS GRANDMOTHER’

Don’t let Gallucci’s Italian name fool you: That came from her second husband, the one who treated her like a queen. She was born Yvonne Chretien, one of six children in a family with ancestral roots in Quebec and long ties to Biddeford. She grew up speaking French at home, only learning English once she started school.

At St. Joseph’s High School, the nuns would ask her what she wanted to do after graduation.

“My answer was I wanted to be a mother and have six children,” she said. “They almost fainted.”

After marrying her first husband, who ran a television repair shop on Elm Street, Gallucci started the family she always wanted. She had six children in 10 years, just like she planned, and raised them speaking both French and English at home.

Over the decades, her family continued to grow and now totals 61, including a new baby on the way. Gallucci has 22 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

“She’s a fabulous grandmother, ask any of her grandkids,” said her son Joey LeBlond, the festival’s production manager.

Gallucci, hands crossed neatly on the pocketbook on her lap, sat backstage in a folding chair, watching as her son fashioned a podium out of a stepladder, tablecloth and piece of wood left over from an old festival phone booth.

Some of the other contestants were getting outfit changes in order and touching up their makeup, but Gallucci was already ready for the stage. She would have worn her evening gown, she said, but when she pulled it out of the closet she found it didn’t fit.

“I shrunk 4 inches,” the petite mémère laughed.

OTHER CONTESTANTS

With an hour to go before the pageant, most of the contestants waited in the backstage area of the main tent. Sylvain’s Acadian Aces was on stage, performing a toe-tapping set for the growing crowd. Gallucci slipped out into the main tent to listen to the show with her daughter. They watched as a couple spun around the dance floor.

Aime Giles, 17, right, and Mayra Gillis, 10, get help putting on their dresses for the evening gown portion of the pageant at the 37th annual La Kermesse Festival in Biddeford on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jessica Gillis and her 10-year-old twins, Mayra and Jacob, had never been to La Kermesse before Saturday. All three came to Biddeford from Nashua, New Hampshire, to compete in the pageant, a hobby they share and that will bring them next month to Florida for Mayra’s first international pageant.

Gillis started competing in pageants in college, then put Mayra in her first pageant at 18 months. Jacob, who has autism and is non-verbal, started pageants at 2 and loves music and being on stage. Mayra, who has cerebral palsy, recently had bilateral hip surgery and is still using a walker, but hoped to put it aside when she walked on stage at this pageant.

“He’s a little ham and she just loves being up on stage performing,” Gillis said.

The pace of the music on stage picked up, notes from the fiddle and accordion carrying out of the tent and across the main field. The youngest pageant contestant, 3-year-old Ida Dwinal, danced around backstage, swinging a stuffed dog on a leash behind her.

Brittany Chassé, the emcee for the pageant and a University of New England graduate, hovered over a table near the side of the stage, neatly laying out the sashes and crowns. With only one entrant per division, each of the nine contestants would be crowned. A medal with the image of this year’s festival button would be hung around their necks during the crowning ceremony.

When the music stopped and the audience’s attention turned to food and conversation, Chassé led the contestants to the dance floor to practice the walking pattern: center stage, big circle, right corner, left corner, exit.

It was there, in the middle of the dance floor, that Gallucci found out she’d be the only mémère competing that evening. With all the mémères in town, she thought there’d be five or six.

“They’re all sitting out there in the front row,” she said.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

After a short downpour the sent people scrambling for cover, the activity on St. Louis Field picked up. The tilt-a-whirl spun riders who threw their hands up and yelled, and the Ferris wheel lit up red and blue against the cloudy sky. The smell of poutine and pork pie and grilled burgers filled the air.

Near the main tent, the stands were full for a wrestling match, the other new event at the festival. A trio of white-haired women chatted in French as they watched, breaking into giggles when the wrestler in the ring flipped her opponent onto her shoulders and slammed him to the mat.

Brittany Chassé, USA National Miss New Hampshire 2018, holds the microphone so Yvonne Gallucci, 92, can introduce herself at the 37th annual La Kermesse Festival in Biddeford on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

With twilight approaching, it was finally time for mémère to take the spotlight.

The pageant contestants filed onto stage, Gallucci at the rear, escorted by her son. They each stepped forward to the microphone to introduce themselves.

“I’m Yvonne LeBlond Gallucci,” she said. “I’m pleased you’re all here to watch the show.”

There was a flurry of activity backstage as contestants changed into their formal wear and made their way back to the stage. Gallucci, wearing the dress she originally bought for a grandchild’s wedding, walked confidently back into the spotlight and waved to the crowd.

“I didn’t die, huh?” she said when she got backstage, still smiling.

The next half-hour flew by as the younger contestants took the stage in fitness wear and casual wear. Mayra, in a coral pink ballgown, crossed the stage without her walker to cheers from the crowd.

And then it was all over but the crowning.

Chassé announced the winners in talent, fitness and causal wear. The Miss Spirit award went to Mayra and the people’s choice to Gallucci. She watched as the other contestants were crowned and given bouquets of flowers.

“For her years of dedication to La Kermesse and her family and all she’s done for her community, we’re proud to crown our first mémère,” Chassé said.

Gallucci laughed as the judges slipped the Miss La Kermesse Mémère sash over her shoulder and pinned a sparkling crown – the biggest one of the night – to her white hair. The crowd cheered and the crown slipped off.

Her family rushed to her, calling her the “Queen of Biddeford” and asking for photos with the festival’s’ favorite mémère.

“I feel like a celebrity,” she said, turning back to her family and the cameras.

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