How Much of ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ Is Based on the Screenwriter’s Real Life?

The 1999 film Drop Dead Gorgeous is about a Minnesotan girl named Amber Atkins (played by Kirsten Dunst), who enters the wacky world of small-town beauty pageants. While there are a lot of characters and storylines in the movie heavily exaggerated for comedy, the core story is based on the screenwriter’s real-life experiences.

‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’, the cult classic move chock-full of memorable quotes, is based on the writer’s real-life experience

Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, and Kirsten Dunst in the 1999 film Drop Dead Gorgeous | Getty Images

Lona Williams was the writer who penned the script to Drop Dead Gorgeous. Speaking to BuzzFeed in 2014 (for the 15th anniversary of the movie), she explained that she pulled extensively from her own early life in Rosemount, Minnesota. Drop Dead Gorgeous‘s setting, Mount Rose, is an obvious play on the real-life small town.

The crux of the film’s plotline — the pageant — also stemmed from Williams’ own experience.

“She participated in beauty pageants throughout her youth, culminating in being crowned Minnesota’s Junior Miss in high school,” BuzzFeed reported. It was a huge deal for Rosemount teens. Williams shared:

There was a pageant that everybody did as a junior in high school. It literally was that everybody does it — except for a few fry girls didn’t do it. When you look back on it, it was wacky. There [were] crazy talents that everybody did. But you didn’t really think much of it.

The screenwriter (who, before Drop Dead Gorgeous, wrote and produced The Drew Carey Show and Bless This House) even made it to the national pageant and scored runner-up.

How screenwriter Lona Williams found humor in the competitive pageant world

However, Amber’s motives for participating in the pageant in the movie are a bit different from William’s real life dreams.

“… winning wasn’t everything: To Williams, pageants were an escape. She didn’t want to be the next Diane Sawyer, Amber’s primary motivation — she just wanted to get out of Rosemount,” BuzzFeed explained.

“It was a way out,” she added. “I used my scholarship to go to the University of Minnesota, and that was great.”

Winning may not have been everything to Williams, but for many of her peers, the pageant was a huge deal. Those memories also informed much of the comedy that ended up in the script.

“It was hilarious to me how competitive it was,” the writer remembered. “It was taken very seriously, and I was not taking it very seriously. That was shocking, so I think that was kind of an exaggeration of what I saw there.”

Many of the small details in ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ are pulled from real life — like making the cast dance with ladders

Even though Williams didn’t see the pageant as a dream fulfilled, the experience left a lasting impact — considering she wrote a whole movie about it.

“I guess it had a bigger imprint on me than I thought,” the Drop Dead Gorgeous scribe told BuzzFeed.

Drop Dead Gorgeous
Amy Adams, Brittany Murphy, Denise Richards, and Kirsten Dunst competing in pageant in a scene from the movie Drop Dead Gorgeous | New Line Cinema/Getty Images

“There’s 1,000 little pieces,” Williams told BuzzFeed — small details that made it into the movie that really happened to her.

“Even the absurd stepladder dance that the Mount Rose American Teen Princess contestants perform was grounded in reality,” the publication noted.

“We used little ladders in our dance [at nationals], which is just a f*cking nightmare,” Williams recalled. That’s the worst thing to ever use on stage to haul around and dance with.”

Obviously, one major difference between the movie and Williams’ real-life pageant experience was the shockingly violent ending. That simply came out of Williams’ admittedly mega-dark sense of humor.

“It was really dark. I kind of forgot,” she told BuzzFeed. “That’s what’s funny.” Still, she acknowledged of the 1999 movie: “It’s not for everyone.”