If you know me well, or you've been reading my blog, you know that I have a lot of varied interests and passions. But one interest you might not be aware of is pageants. No, not Toddlers and Tiaras or kiddie pageants. I am a gigantic fan of the Miss America, Miss USA, Universe and Teen USA Pageants, and in fact, I've been a volunteer in the Miss America system for the last six years.
I can't honestly say where my interest came from. I remember watching my first Miss America Pageant in 1982 and getting hooked from that moment on (several friends count as very salient memories watching the pageant with me over the years, so at least they can attest that I didn't model a pretend crown or foam at the mouth). A girl I went to high school with was Miss New Jersey Teen USA 1986, and she made the top 10 at that year's national pageant, so I remember watching that one on the phone with friends.
And then the savant in me kicked in, and I started memorizing (don't ask why) the names of all of the winners, finalists, semi-finalists and contestants of the pageants from 1983 on. As I've joked more than once, this knowledge isn't very useful in the outside worldsadly, no one has asked me for the name of Miss California 1988 (Marlise Ricardos) or who the 1st runner-up to Miss Teen USA 2004 was (Sonya Balmores, Miss Hawaii).
Finally, after years of watching from afar and participating on a Miss America Organization-sponsored message board, I started volunteering. And in the last six years, I've had the opportunity to judge pageants in Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. I've also had the opportunity to help a large number of contestants strengthen their interviews before their state competitions and even before Miss America. And in the process, I've made some terrific friendships and I've gotten to meet contestants I actually watched and rooted for on television.
I've been asked why pageants appeal to me. I don't want to be Miss America. I guess it's incredible watching someone's dreams come true. When a contestant wins a local pageant, she's one step closer to competing at Miss America, and when she wins her state pageant, she really does get the chance to compete for the Miss America title. While only one each year is deemed "the best," that doesn't lessen the amazing contributions that the other state contestants and local contestants make in their communities.
For those not familiar with the pageant world, to hear me say that contestants have blown me away with their talent, their passion, their humility, their desire to see change happen may seem strange to you. But when I look at these women, I truly am blown away. This year, a good friend of mine, Lindsay Staniszewski, will compete for Miss America as Miss Maryland. I had the opportunity to judge Kayla Martell, Miss Delaware, in the very first local in which she competed in 2005, and I also judged Lauren Werhan, Miss Kansas, in the very first local in which she competed in 2008. And this weekend, when judging the Miss Omaha/Douglas County pageants, I met Teresa Scanlan, the reigning Miss Nebraska, who at only 17(!) years old is a force to be reckoned with.
So the next time you see that Miss America is on television and you wonder "who watches this stuff anyway?," now you know.