Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Beauty and Brains: Empowerment through the Unconventional

In light of the current controversy swirling around the Miss USA competition on Sunday night, and Miss Utah’s unfortunate answer to her final question, I would like to offer a few thoughts.

As background, I competed and won the Miss America competition (a different organization than Miss USA) in 2008. Just for clarity’s sake, the two organizations are completely different in form and function. Miss America is a scholarship program that is the world’s largest provider of scholarships to women in the world, making available $45 million each year to contestants. I was able to complete my B.A. in Political Science at Emory University this past May, largely due to the over $60,000 in scholarships that I won competing in the program. Miss America also has a talent competition and contestants must choose and develop a “personal platform,” or issue that they advocate for during their year of service. The Miss USA pageant is part of the Miss Universe Organization, owned by Donald Trump, and has only a swim and eveningwear competition, as well as informal interviews prior to the competition. Great women have competed in both programs, and I am not writing to impugn or defend either organization.

However, the media has once again latched on to a recent pageant “gaffe” that occurred during the oft-feared final question portion of the Miss USA Pageant on Sunday. The contestant representing the state of Utah gave an embarrassingly stilted and uncomfortable “answer” (if it could be called that) to a question regarding the gender income gap and “what that says about society.” You can Google the clip on YouTube, I will not repeat her answer here.

In the young woman’s defense, I am sure she was probably incredibly nervous. I have been there, in the final stages of competition, and it is, in many ways, more nerve-wracking than walking onstage in a swimsuit. Being forced to think quickly on your feet is no easy task, especially when asked to solve issues or offer insight on problems that our own Congress cannot agree on, much less solve. But this whole issue of pageant gaffes has once again raised the question: Are pageants relevant?

I had the honor of speaking on a panel on a segment on HuffPost Live this morning with Abby Huntsman, several former Miss America contestants and a former Miss USA on this very issue: 

I have thought carefully about this and have decided, despite some negative aspects of pageantry (the swimsuit competition, some overt sexuality), the competitions themselves can a valuable avenue for pursuing success for young women, and continue to be incredibly relevant today.  The Miss America contest began as a bathing beauty competition in Atlantic City, NJ in 1921, and has remained popular until the present day precisely because it has evolved with the times. It has added the talent competition, the eveningwear competition, then the personal platform and interview competition, and now incorporates elements of reality television in an effort to showcase the contestants as actual people rather than Barbie dolls.

I have found too, from my own experience, that the program is relevant because of the rising costs of education. College tuition, even at public universities, is sky-rocketing. Options in higher education are dwindling due to the rising costs of school, books, room and board, and the burden of crushing student loan debt years after graduation is very real. Young women need the scholarships the Miss America Organization offers now, more than ever. And you don’t need to win the pageant in order to earn scholarships – almost every contestant that competes, at every level, usually receives some amount of scholarship for her education.

Above the evolution of the competition and the awarding of scholarships, there are the qualities that competing in pageants instill in young women. I know many girls personally that competed in local and state pageants knowing they may not win, but wanted to push themselves outside their comfort zone. They did, and earned an incredible amount of confidence, even though they never wore a crown. Competing in a pageant is a way for a young woman to build an advocacy platform around an issue she cares about. It forces her into public speaking situations, where she must use her voice, develop her opinions and defend them. It places her in a position of leadership, and as a role model, so she learns that her decisions affect not just herself, but others as well. It helps her to develop a thick skin against criticism early, so that later in life, in any career path, she will have learned to be strong in her convictions. Pageants are certainly not the only way to build up these skills, but they are an excellent choice should a young woman decide to pursue success in this avenue. The goal of pageants is to honor and lift up well-rounded young women, not perfect women. They seek to reward beauty AND brains. They help women, at a vulnerable and impressionable age, to develop a sense of self and a confidence that their own, unique voice, really matters.

Pageants are a means, not an end. They help to teach young women the confidence and discipline to go after what they want, and provide them the speaking, networking, and social opportunities to build a foundation of a great career in whatever path they choose. Many see pageants as setting women back – I believe, for I have experienced, that they help empower women forward. Currently, two former Miss Americas, Ericka Harold and Heather French Henry, are seriously considering launching campaigns for seats in the U.S. Congress. We have former contestants in top positions in every field – law, medicine, business, philanthropy, entertainment, news, and motherhood. That, to me, says that pageants are a vehicle for success, not an obstacle. It is my goal to continue to encourage young women to use every avenue they can, including pageants, to help them discover their own talents and abilities, and develop their own drive to succeed. The Miss America Organization helped to instill those things in me, and paid for my education. For these things, I am incredibly grateful.

Are pageants for every young woman? No. Do I love and support the swimsuit competition as relevant to the job of a Miss America or Miss USA? No. But I believe overwhelmingly that the good outweighs the bad in competing in pageants, and one contestant’s unfortunate gaffe does not negate the truth that the large majority of women who compete go on to be fabulously successful in whatever they choose to do. And that, is a message worth some publicity.


  1. Kirsten,
    I wanted to say that your response is perhaps the most intelligent one I've read in regards to the relevancy of pageantry. The confidence garnered by those who compete, the lessons learned in the journey of competition, and the rewards are what is important. The Miss America Pageant does this as you stated, providing millions of dollars in college scholarships. With the high cost of an education that alone makes this and other pageants relevant.

  2. Hi:
    This is Dorie Kong, designer, owner of L'Mode Bridal, award winning design creations for pageant gowns. I agreed with all you had said. Miss Utah was stumbled with the question, probably she was nervous. On the spot, most people would not be able to gather all the thoughts and the impressive adjustives to impress the audience. However, it does not mean she is stupid. Some girls are good communicator, articulate, when comes to the creativity, she may be zero. I am a fashion designer, I can be creative in putting all the elements together to create a new design, but I may not be an articulate person. I express in art but not so fluent express verbally. Does it mean, I am dump. No. I am creative, capable, successful, smart person as my clients and peers always said. I refuse to accept I am not good. I cannot articulate on the spot, but give me sometime to write on paper, I can express more effectively. That is why I like to communicate with my clients via emails most of the time besides phone coversation to reenforce my thoughts farther. As a fashion design specializes pagant gowns and wedding gowns, if my clients were to choose my communication skills, I don't have 100% to offer them, but for my designing skills, you can count on me with 110%. A humble girl from a poor family of 8 brothers and 2 sisters and make up of 11 children. My parents did not have much to offer me financially, emotionally. I had to be very independent. I am so thankful to God's gifted talent of designing fashions and I can contribute to mankinds to make a difference. Do not judge me by my tiny body, my English skills, I am a great asset to your pageant, wedding gowns, any fashion needs and any wardrobe styling needs to make you lbs and lbs lighter and look flattering. No imperfect body but imperfect gowns, outfits. Find me online. Dorie Kong, L'Mode Bridal, Dorie Bridal. I would love to make friends with you.

    Dorie Kong

  3. I am even willing to defend the swimsuit segment to a point. I know that I personally had no clue, no strategy, no tools for managing my own nutrition and fitness until I was forced to comfront it in pursuit of a pageant title. To this day I'm thankful... K. Perry-Madden, Miss Pennsylvania 2008

  4. "Pageants are certainly not the only way to build up these skills, but they are an excellent choice should a young woman decide to pursue success in this avenue. The goal of pageants is to honor and lift up well-rounded young women, not perfect women."

    Couldn't agree more! We've had the pleasure of working with Marissa as a client throughout her journey to Miss USA. She's a strong woman who has turned a lot of negative press in to a positive opportunity...all with a smile. We're proud of our Miss Utah!