A freshman at the University of Washington, Lily O’Brien has been competing in the pageant circuit since 2018. She competed in pageants such as Miss Seattle’s Outstanding Teen, Miss Washington’s Outstanding Teen, International Junior Miss, and Regal Majesty. A few weeks ago, she competed for the title of Miss Washington Teen USA, which she described as memorable because she got the chance to go in-person and bond with new people.
I wanted to learn more about the process of competing in pageants, so I talked to Lily and asked her about this journey that she’s embarked on for the past three years.
What inspired you to decide to do pageantry?
“My mom did them when she was younger, and she was super adamant that I did not compete in pageants. She was not about it [based on] her experience. She would let me watch Toddlers & Tiaras and I [decided that] I’m doing it and she cannot stop me, so I signed up for one behind her back. She loves them now, but she never did them as young as I did. I think she was scared that I was going to grow up a lot faster. It’s a super competitive environment and it would put a lot of pressure on myself. But the pressure helped me grow more interview skills, and it ended up being a great thing.”
Would you describe it as more of a competitive environment or a supportive environment?
“I think both. There are definitely aspects of competition, but it’s more competition with yourself. You want to do better than the last year; you want to get feedback and improve. I know personally that I never [think] ‘I have to beat that girl’ or anything like that. It’s super supportive on my end. Everyone probably has different experiences, but for me it’s more supportive with personal competition.”
What are some misconceptions about beauty pageants?
“There is this stereotype that [you need to be] tall, super skinny, blonde, tan, but you don’t. There is a lot more emphasis on education and community service platforms than anything else. Another misconception is that a lot of pageant queens are dumb, and they [focus so much on their] beauty that they don’t have a strong sense of academia. Obviously that’s wrong because there are so many accomplished women who have competed in pageants. It’s a way to get an education, and I’m going to be graduating debt free because of it.”
What is your favorite part about competing?
“Competition wise, I really love the interview. But overall, backstage is my favorite because while emotions are super high and nobody has any sleep, there are just some super memorable moments. Something that sticks out to me is [from two years ago], my older sister figure MacKenzie Haarlow was waiting to be called to be first runner up; we just had a moment where we held hands and shakingly prayed, then stuffed our face with pizza, and for some reason that sticks out to me. This is a sisterhood and this is where I’m meant to be.”
Do you think you’re going to continue to compete in pageants?
“I definitely think I’m going to continue. I don’t know for sure if it’s gonna be in Washington, but I definitely intend on competing. I actually am competing in one in November, International Junior Miss Teen.”
Can you talk about your pageant platform Hunger Won’t Wait? Why did you decide to create this organization and why is food insecurity an important issue to you?
“When I was super young, my mom and I escaped a domestic violence situation, which put us without a stable income and moving from hotel to house. And we didn’t have a lot of meals coming in on my mom’s low teaching salary, so we had to rely a lot on food banks. As a kid, it was heartbreaking to watch my mom skip meals so that I can get breakfast. As we got out of that situation and moved to Seattle, I realized that it wasn’t just us who experienced that. There are millions of people, in every congressional district in the state, who are suffering from hunger and food insecurity. As someone who had gone through that situation, I wanted to give back and be able to make a change in that department. [No matter your] socioeconomic status, you should be able to eat. It’s a basic fundamental human right to be able to put food into your body. So I made a 501(c)(3) non-profit to take donations to local food banks and classrooms.”
After having a conversation with Lily over Zoom, not only did I get the chance to learn more about pageantry, but got inspired by the non-profit organization she started. To learn more about Hunger Won’t Wait and how you could donate or get involved, visit their website.