One of my original goals in starting this blog was to document my own pageant experiences. This has multiple purposes: First, to give me an opportunity for reflection, which I don't often intentionally make time for. Second, so I don't forget my favorite moments in life (I'm becoming more and more forgetful with each passing day). And third, so other people can get a glimpse into the weird and wonderful life of a 'pageant girl'.
So, why not kick things off with a pretty special day... The day I was crowned Miss West Michigan 2022!
For those of you who are newer here, I've been competing in the Miss America Organization since 2013. Since then I've held three titles (well... four now). My most recent title was in 2019. Since then, I've dealt with a lot--covid, for starters, setting the backdrop on a brutally low point in my pageant career.
Oh, and also what I call "first runner up syndrome", which is kind of like 'always a bridesmaid, never a bride'. It's when you're constantly first runner up at a pageant, but no matter what you do, you can't seem to win one. This continued to happen to me for, like... two years.
This led to many feelings, of course. I felt jaded and discouraged by the very thing I had started out loving. If pageant burnout is a thing, I had it, and instead of feeling full of joy and fulfillment on local pageant weekends, I felt more full of bitterness and resentment towards the Lord, wondering why He was taking me on a journey that seemed to be going nowhere.
I had felt this way for a looooooooong time. But when Miss Shoreline rolled around, all the disappointments began to turn into a renewed motivation. It's like losing wasn't even an option. I remember telling my mom about two months before the pageant that in my mind, I had already won Miss Shoreline, now I just needed to do the work to make it happen (this was, of course, before I knew that a Miss West Michigan title would be offered, which is what I ended up winning).
The week leading up to the pageant was a busy one--turns out when you work full time and compete in pageants and still *attempt* to have a social life, they're all busy. Who would have thought--complete with a late-night work event and dinner on Thursday, packing, spray tan, sticky nails, followed by more work on Friday, before booking it to Spring Lake, Michigan for our first rehearsal.
We had a four hour rehearsal, and honestly, by the end of it I was more than excited to grab some chicken nuggets and retire to my hotel room (Weird Sarah thing: I love hotel rooms. I don't know why, but getting to spend the night in one by myself was weirdly exciting and probably one of the highlights of the weekend). I tried to get as much rest as I could, but as most pageant girls know, the night before a competition usually isn't prime sleep.
Because that Saturday morning 6:25 am alarm met me BRIGHT and early, let me tell you. I managed to chug my energy drink and come to life, gathering all the things I'd need for the day. I picked up some snacks from a nearby grocery store (cheese sticks and almonds, always) and headed to the school.
We started the morning with a dress rehearsal (I do have to say, this was one of the most well-rehearsed pageants I've ever been in, which did make me feel very prepared for the day). I was candidate 18 out of 18 misses, so I had lots of time to hang out, nap, and prepare for my interview (to be precise, I had about 8 hours). I did in fact nap, under a table.
In this time (when I wasn't napping), I mentally had a face-to-face intervention with myself. The jaded, burned out, bitter mindset wasn't going to work--I needed something to change. I wanted to enjoy pageants again for two reasons: One, because being miserable is... miserable, and because I knew that I would perform better if I was having fun.
And just before walking into my interview, my soon-to-be director and longtime friend, Kelli, had to smack some sense into me as well. Kelli is no stranger to the pageant game, or to me, and could absolutely sense that I was getting in my head and psyching myself out, which she did not hesitate to tell me just moments before I walked into my interview. And you know what? She was right. And I needed to hear it, and I am grateful she said it.
So I walked into my interview in a royal blue dress that made me feel GORGEOUS. And I talked about my favorite broadway shows, and my uneven earlobes, and my proudest moments. I was bolder and more up front than normal in showing them that I wanted this job, that I was the person for this job. Why? Because I was actually EXCITED ABOUT IT. This was probably the first time ever that I didn't think about my interview as a series of questions that I had to answer with as few 'like's, 'uhm's or 'but's as possible, but rather as a series of opportunities to show them how perfect I would be as a Miss West Michigan or Miss Shoreline.
I walked out of my interview with a bubbly, cloud-nine energy that didn't leave the rest of the day. My mindset had officially switched from 'trying to get through the day' to being truly, genuinely excited, and soaking in every moment--like making Tik Toks, or cutting out pictures of opossums to hand out as valentine's to each girl (not sure why I decided this was a cute idea, because in hindsight, walking up to teen candidates you barely know and saying 'Happy Valentine's Day weekend, here's a picture of an opossum' is a little... weird).
When it was time to take the stage, I was ready. My roommates had surprised me by showing up when they had told me they couldn't make it, my parents were here, I felt like I looked great and my interview was strong. Plus, I was loving pageants again. So now was the time to soak it in.
This change in mindset even allowed me to laugh off one of those not-great, but not-horrible onstage questions. My question was: "If you could be on the cover of any magazine, which would you pick and why?". My first thought was: who even reads magazines anymore? (My dad even jokingly texted me right after: 'what's a magazine?'). But I connected it to what I knew, which was working in luxury fashion at A.K. Rikk's. I said that my appreciation and knowledge in luxury fashion has grown so much since becoming their full-time social media specialist, and because of that, it would be awesome to be on the cover of Vogue.
Could I have beat myself up backstage about how I didn't connect it to the job of a Miss West Michigan/Shoreline, or being a role model, or my social impact initiative? Yeah. Did I? No. Because I was too busy being proud of myself for answering an onstage question at a Miss America local pageant, something that I was absolutely petrified to do only a few years ago.
Next came my talent. It's always my goal to mentally transport people from a pageant auditorium to a broadway theater. In order to do that, I have to get out of Sarah's head and just have fun. I won't ever be on Broadway (maybe *wink*) but I get to do this, right? And so I made the most of each second, each note, and each bit of choreography. Talent has been, and will continue to be, my favorite phase of competition for this reason. (Also, yes, this is an actual photo of a face I actually made during my talent. I guess you could say this is what 'making the most of it' looks like.)
The red carpet/evening gown portion of competition is funny because you're really just walking. Everyone knows how to do that, right? But yet, add some heels, a fancy dress, and an auditorium full of faces watching YOU (including five judges who are, well, judging you), and things get a bit more complicated.
I can't tell you the last time I didn't overanalyze a crowd reaction during my evening gown walk. Things like 'They clapped for the girl before me when she walked on AND when she posed, but they only clapped for me when I walked on.' or 'I definitely just did a weird thing with my smile. Do you think judges noticed? Does it look like they noticed?' flow constantly through my head as I keep my shoulders back and head high.
This time around, I certainly wasn't immune to that thought process. But once I looked toward the back of the auditorium and saw my best friends and family smiling (and holding what we lovingly call 'Big Head Sarah'), none of that seemed to matter anymore.
Once I walk off stage for evening gown, it's all said and done. I've done what I can do, and I always force myself to take a deep breath. It's out of my hands. There is nothing I can change, which means that getting stressed is useless.
One of the most wholesome moments of the night was all of us miss candidates huddling around backstage to catch a glimpse of the crowning of our two teen titleholders-- Abbi Kalin, Miss Shoreline's Outstanding Teen, and Reese Johnson, my soon-to-be sister and Miss West Michigan's Outstanding Teen, get crowned. To see the excitement that all the misses had for the teens filled my heart with so much joy. Right there in front of my eyes, I was seeing what this whole pageant thing is really about.
And before long, it was our turn to take the stage. I was honored to receive, for the first time ever, the Miss Congeniality award, which is voted on by all of the candidates. I credit this to my possum valentines, which has become an inside joke that still lives on. Rumor has it some girls may even show up to Miss Michigan wearing possum t-shirts to cheer me on. How incredible would that be?
When pageant girls say those final seconds are a blur... we're not joking. I don't remember much, other than nearly having my legs fall out from under me when I heard the words: "Our new Miss West Michigan, and the winner of a $300 scholarship and her ticket punched to Miss Michigan in June is... Candidate 18, Sarah Dudinetz."
I know (only from this video, not my memory) that I almost literally fell onto my fellow candidate (and soon to be Miss Shoreline) Vanessa, who stood next to me. Among the feelings of joy, of disbelief, of adrenaline and excitement, there was also a weird sense of relief. I had proved it to myself--I knew that I could do it. The work had been worth it, and my moment had come.
They don't make words to describe that kind of feeling--when you've visualized having the sash placed on your shoulder and crown on your head as the crowd and girls behind you cheer and cheer and cheer, and then that moment finally happens. It was an overwhelming and un-processable kind of joy that filled me to the brim with absolute gratitude.
The hours that followed included meeting my new teen, Reese, who is the kind of person that you just instantly fall in love with. As I type this, I actually just wrapped up recording an episode of Amplify the Arts with her, and getting to learn a little more about her experience as a singer-songwriter as well as her social impact initiative, PRISM, left me blown away at how talented and she is. (Here's a photo of us, Miss Burger King and Miss Burger King's Outstanding Teen, the obvious A-team, ready to tackle Miss Michigan and MMOT.)
One thing I knew after having to work for this title for almost two years was that I didn't want to waste a second. I've gotten straight to it over on my West Michigan instagram, I've already raised over $1,200 to fund creativity kits for Michigan homeless shelters, and I've had the opportunity to visit five classrooms during March for reading month, and I am so, so excited to make the most of each moment this year.
And I cannot wait to see what the rest of the year has in store.
Sincerely, your Miss West Michigan 2022. 💗✨