Most reactions by those who find out I competed in pageants is usually that of surprise. "You... were a pageant girl?" they say. And while I don't blame them for their gapped mouths and raised eyebrows (I don't exactly broadcast it these days) it totally happened.
I competed in the Miss Michigan (Miss America) circuit for 3 years, each year making it to state after winning a local, qualifying title: Miss Kalamazoo 2009, Miss Shoreline 2010, and Miss Pride of the Peninsulas 2011. During those 3 years I gathered various awards including highest scores in interview, Miss Congeniality, and in 2010 I even won the Miss Michigan Non-Finalist Talent Award for my vocal performance of "Yesterday" by the Beatles. It was 3 full years of beauty, grace, and most certainly above all else, learning.
'Why' I decided to get into pageants is a story for another time, but lets just say I wasn't exactly 'schooled' about pageants in the beginning. After I won Miss Kalamazoo (my first pageant ever) there was a huge learning curve that I'm not sure I ever completely caught up with. That first year competing at state I was going up against girls who'd been in pageants for years. This was not their first rodeo and it showed.
But for me, learning was part of the fun. And now, 3 years after handing down my last title, I can see how those lessons apply to real life. Here is a list of the top 10 things pageants taught me that I still use today:
1. INTERVIEW SKILLS
I will never in my life be nervous about a job interview. Why? Because there's no chance in this right world that it gets more challenging than a Miss America interview. In a job interview, your interviewee is limited. They can ask you about your work history. They can bring up your listed skills, maybe ask about your hobbies. They can even ask you about your preference in leadership styles or ability to prioritize and work with a team. But you know what they can't ask you? About your stance on abortion, education reform, the military, or if you were a flower what kind would you be and why... all questions I fielded in my day. And what is more, during a Miss America pageant you're also charged with answering an on-stage question - at the state level, that's a crowd of a few thousand people. What if part of a corporate job interview also included an 'on-stage-question' where you had to answer, "What is your definition of success?" in front of the entire company? Unless you want to be Miss America, it's never going to happen.
2. HOW TO STAND
There's something in pageants called 'pretty feet' which means standing with one foot behind the other in a 'T' shape. The intention behind pretty feet is that it stacks your legs one in front of the other creating a slimmer shape on your bottom half and sometimes even more of a curve depending on how crazy you get with pointing your front toe. Why? Because it makes you look 'better.' There's a reason you like the way you look in certain photos and it's probably because of the angle of which you were standing when the photograph was captured. With social media these days, images last forever and pretty feet often comes in handy around those friends who are constantly snapping photos on their iPhone and posting seconds later. It's a trick I pull out of my back pocket every once in a while.
3. THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF AWARENESS
During Miss Michigan week (yes, it's an entire week long) you spend more time off the stage than you do on. And even though your technical scores come from your performance on stage, you're being watched at all times. There are area directors, state board members, judges... and all their eyes are on you. A situation like this makes you pretty self aware. You notice the way you sit, the way you stand, how you cross your legs, how you clap, how you speak, what you wear - all of it. In life, I'm constantly reminding myself that I never know who's watching. As humans we naturally draw conclusions and form first impressions. In life, it just makes sense to put your best foot forward.
Lets talk briefly about how pageants have a portion of competition that involves a skimpy two piece bathing suit, high heels, and up beat music where you are judged on your physical appearance in front of a large crowd. In short, if a young woman in our society can do this, she can do anything. My husband told me once that he was immediately attracted to my confidence and I'm confident (see what I did there?) that I developed a good portion of this during my experience in pageants.
Grace was the name of my Great-Grandmother. She was 102 when she passed and sharp as a tack. But that's neither here nor there. In life, I believe there are two kinds of grace: 1. grace in poise and 2. grace in posture. It was the second that I learned from pageants. I grew up with all boys who lived on my street. I played sports and I played them hard. I did have a good 7-year run at figure skating but quit when I was in high school for other sports like basketball and volleyball. I'm sure a good foundation was laid during my time on the ice, but it was my time on the stage that really refined my ability to hold my posture properly. A woman with grace enters a room and all heads turn. She is the one all women aspire to be and the one all men aspire to be with. This is what you are taught and practice in the Miss America program.
6. HOW TO WALK DOWN A FLIGHT OF STAIRS... IN HEELS... BLINDFOLDED
Okay okay, not blindfolded, but before competing in pageants I looked down when I walked down stairs in heels. Smart right? Who wants to trip down stairs, most likely in a dress if you've got heels on? No one, that's who. Three years competing on the Miss Michigan stage and all three years there were stairs in all of the productions. Judges want to see your face when you walk down stairs, not the top of your head. So the method goes a little something like this: Scope out the stairs: How many steps are there? How large of steps are they? Is there a railing to balance yourself on - ideal but not likely on a stage. In real life... yes. After you're one glance down at the start of your descent (during a pageant you would have likely had a few practice runs of this during rehearsals) the rest is a follows: step over the lip of the step and bring your heel back towards the horizontal part of the step as to assure yourself you are in fact on the step. Place your foot, shift your weight and repeat. Personally, I'd glance down one last time (counting the number of steps as I went) at the end of my descent to confirm I was at the end of the steps. It's also fine to take a pause (if the producers allow you to) to stabilize yourself. I may never have to walk down stairs quite so noticed, but just in case, I'm prepared.
7. DEALING WITH PURE PRESSURE
Because I wasn't a 'lifer' in the pageant world there were a lot of things I learned from the other girls along the way. But with that also came pure pressure. In pageants you are often faced with, "so-and-so is doing this, and she is doing that." One example specifically that I remember was right before swimwear at state. All the contestants were standing around back stage waiting to do their walk. Off in the corner was a handful of girls who were doing crunches and push ups against the wall. I asked what they were doing and one responded, "Doing quick exercises right before going on stage gives you more definition." I immediately thought, "Well then that's what I should be doing," even though I had worked hard many months before to make sure my abs were already defined without last minute workouts. In short, there will always be someone else doing something that you're not. But that doesn't mean that you should too. I've learned to go at life with my own reasons and methods with the confidence that I made that decision for a reason.
8. POLITICS EXIST IN ALL CIRCLES
My dad used to joke each year after Miss Michigan that I didn't win because the competition was rigged. I know he was kidding, but in all seriousness, no matter the crown holder at the end of the week there were always rumors as to why that girl won beyond the explanation that the judges chose her because she was the best. These reasons varied anywhere from, "that local title holder never makes it into the top 10 because the state director doesn't like the local director," to "judges were selected this year with the premise that so-and-so was going to win." As great as pageants are, they can sometimes turn very hostile - as shown on some of the state and national online conversation boards. But such is life. No matter what social network you run in (work, personal, family, or otherwise) nothing's perfect. Humans will be humans and politics, as annoying as they are, happen.
9. VOLUNTEERING MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD
Perhaps this is something I learned even before competing in pageants, but as a title holder you are asked to participate in and volunteer for a good number of things. And I did quite a bit of that over my 3 years with a crown and you know what? It was fun. I worked at Children's Hospitals and volunteered at fundraisers. I threw out first pitches and waved in parades. I sent care packages over seas to soldiers and ran in races to raise funds for vets. And while those volunteer opportunities will always remain more picturesque than the ones I do today (something about a sparkly crown) it will always feel good to give my time and resources.
10. WHAT REAL FRIENDS ARE
A funny thing happens when a girl is crowned at any level. Immediately after her name is announced she becomes the most popular person in the room. She gets a whole bunch of new friend requests on Facebook and even receives letters in the mail welcoming her to the 'sisterhood' of the 'class of whatever year she's in.' But just as fast as you enter the circle, you also exit. Girls don't make it to the top 10. They don't make it to the top 5. And they age out of the system altogether. It's when the dust settles that you see who your true friends are. They are the ones that remain even after the excitement of the pageant is over. In life, I know I'll go through more 'pageants' and I will remind myself that the true friends are the ones still standing when the sparkle is over.