The number of times I have told people I compete in pageants and their response was “oh, so like ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’?” cannot be counted. It is easy to think that the glitz and glamour of pageantry, as shown in reality TV shows, is all the competition revolves around. I get it, especially for someone off the pageant stage who sees the winner sporting a sparkly rhinestone crown and a beautiful banner. Whether you are an avid Miss America or Miss USA fan, detest the whole idea of pageants or even have a crown or two in your closet, pageants aren’t what you think.
When others refer to my former competitions as a “beauty contest,” I honestly cringe. In fact, The Miss America Organization has removed its swimsuit competition and replaced it with a TED Talk-like competition where contestants can promote its community service initiative. The trajectory is, of course, changing with modern times and the #MeToo movement. These advancements do not erase the fact that pageants come with smokey eyeshadow looks, hair extensions and, for some, spray tans and other forms of beauty-fying. The couture culture of pageants is often centralized but this omits a whole other realm of what competing actually looks like.
The empowerment felt as your fitness routine (which you have been working on for months) pays off as you confidently model on stage.
The hard work of all of your talent performances being showcased while dancing or singing for an audience.
The poise and confidence you present to a panel of judges in a private interview room (and in front of a crowd for an on-stage question).
Pageants are hard work. I started competing when I was 14-years-old and the experience has taught me much about discipline, improvement and valuing diverse perspectives. I competed for a Miss New Jersey pageant and had the time of my life. I started feeling more comfortable with each talent performance and each private interview as competitions progressed. Answering current event questions on the spot and dancing across a stage with only a spotlight on you (and sometimes, that stage was very slippery) is not an easy feat.
Everyone’s experience in pageants is not exact. For some, crying backstage like Toddlers & Tiaras is their unfortunate reality. For others, not placing as a runner-up or winning the crown at the end of the night is disappointing because they felt this pageant was one in which they gave their all. Competing in pageants is certainly not sunshine and rainbows, but it has shaped me into someone who is persevering, strong-willed and forward-thinking. I had one pageant where my foot slipped out of my shoe during a modeling competition. Another pageant, the fishnet stockings of my talent costume ripped two minutes before I had to dance on stage (thank goodness someone had a pair of their own!). At one of my first pageants, I had a judge ask me what my views on global warming were. And no, I did not freeze up — but as someone who was not even old enough to drive a car, I answered the question the best way I could at the time: “Although this is a major issue in the media right now, I, unfortunately, do not know enough about it. But, I definitely want to learn more.” There is a huge misconception in the media that pageant contestants need to solve our country’s most pressing political issues in 20 seconds or less, but these questions are more to scope out your presence communicating whatever views you may have to other people.
A component of the Miss America Organization’s competition is a platform. This platform is a community service initiative or cause that you feel passionate about. Many titleholders who I have competed with promoted safe driving, literacy in schools and healthy living, among others. Mine was Kick It Cancer (www.kickitcancer.org), a nonprofit organization that promoted cancer awareness, leadership and confidence to all ages. I visited my former elementary school to present to children in grades K-5 about being the best version of themselves and after, we hosted our own Relay for Life walk around the playground. So yes, society may call this organization a “beauty contest,” but the only beauty that shined was that of hundreds of children who had a smile on their face after their leadership and self-esteem activity. This made the hard work of competition worth every minute.
Pageants aren’t what you think. Sure, it was so much fun to play dress-up in my older years, ditching my five-year-old Cinderella dress for a light blue, mermaid-style evening gown. However, competing in pageants is unlike anything I had ever done before and probably, unlike anything I will ever experience from this point forward. Pageants provide a platform to give back to your community, advance your education through scholarship and network with so many creative and driven individuals. Although I no longer compete to focus on my college studies, it continues to be an incredible platform for women to showcase their strength, intelligence, and world-changing attitude. After all, these women are representing their county, state or country (or even the universe!).
What I have learned from my time in the spotlight, as cheesy as it sounds, is that the only way you will shine is if you are authentically yourself. The pageant I ended up winning was the pageant I sneezed in my interview, laughed with the judges and continued to dance when the opening number song stopped playing during the live performance. Through my years in the pageant scene, I have always left the stage — crown or not — with the biggest smile on my face. Yes, you may not be the girl with a full face of makeup and whipping out all of the clever getting ready-tips backstage, but none of that matters at the end of the day. Your confidence, poise, and ambition will always make you a winner, crown or not.