July 11, 2012
(Commentator John Killacky is the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. Last month he was invited to judge a beauty pageant and was skeptical, but found the experience enlightening.)
Recently I was a judge for Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont Outstanding Teen. Both programs are part of the Miss America organization. Throughout the process, I often thought about other young women I encounter, comparing and contrasting contestants with the teens in summer musicals around town and those at the stable where I keep my Shetland pony. All are impressively focused and disciplined in their divergent extracurricular activities.
Miss America began in 1921 as a bathing beauty contest to keep tourists in Atlantic City after Labor Day. It was not until 1935 that talent was incorporated. In 1945 a scholarship component was added. Today Miss America is the largest provider of scholarships for women in this country, last year awarding more than $45 million in cash and scholarship assistance.
Vermont has had an ambivalent relationship with Miss America, not even joining until after scholarships were included. We're an open and inclusive state, so any young women can enter without regional or local preliminaries. No Vermonter has ever placed in the national finals, except Ashley Wheeler from the Northeast Kingdom, who won the talent competition in 2009.
There were five judges. Bebe Shopp Waring, Miss America 1948, was our star. There was also Kyle Oldham, a daughter of another crown holder, who had gone on to a successful television career. Rounding out the group was Jim Steiner, a federal strategy consultant from D.C., Sara Byers of Leonardo's Pizza in South Burlington, and me. This was not a weekend of tantrums and tiaras, but a focused spotlight on young women intent upon scholarship, success, service, and style.
Academic achievement was a key criterion for teen contestants. Both the teens and young women were required to have platform issues they could speak to. All answered questions onstage drawn from their concerns and current events. Their dedication to community service was inspiring; one young woman logged 2,500 volunteer hours staffing a crisis phone line during college.
Talent accounted for 35% of the scores. The winning teen, Caroline Jones, a three-time Junior Olympic athlete in fencing from Shelburne, performed a swashbuckling Peter Pan sword fight. The winner of Miss Vermont, Chelsea Ingram, a meteorologist from St. Johnsbury, sang an aria from "Carmen" - beautifully.
And of course, there were fabulous gowns and the lifestyle and fitness category featured the young women in swimsuits and teens in athletic wear. We were told to focus on how physically fit and comfortable the contestants were, but I still found this component awkward to score.
When judges were first introduced to the contestants, our celebrity, Miss America 1948, pulled out her black and white one-piece woolen swimsuit she wore in competition. Styles and body types have most certainly changed since then.
I came away realizing that these bright contestants found the experience to be empowering. Many spoke about it as self-confidence skill building and leadership development, introducing them into a lifelong sisterhood of support and encouragement. All good things, in whatever form they take.
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