You know when you go back to a place you love and it just gives you butterflies? The scent, the sounds, the sights… Maybe it's just the incredibly nostalgic way I'm wired, but this is one of my favorite feelings.
It's also EXACTLY how I felt when I stepped foot back inside the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino, knowing that in a matter of days, we'd be crowning a new Miss America and celebrating the 100th anniversary of this incredible organization.
If you’ve never been to the Mohegan Sun for Miss America, do me a favor and move it to the top of your bucket list. The Mohegan Sun sits in Uncasville, Connecticut, and has plenty of day trip-worthy attractions nearby (New York City is just two and a half hours away)--but there's also SO much in the resort, that you'll find plenty to do without leaving the building. In addition to getting to enjoy the beautiful space, I was filled with constant joy knowing that Miss America was BACK and better than ever. I felt the hope all around me, watching girls take pictures with sashes and families wearing their girl's headshot on a lanyard around their neck, and I for one could not wait for the crowning of our next Miss America.
It was the day of Miss America Finals when Yahoo Entertainment posted a new article, and tweeted it with the caption “Miss America turns 100 this week. Does anybody care?”
Now, first of all, I'm no fool--I know clickbait when I see it. And this is it. This tweet was designed to make people click, and it hats off to Yahoo Entertainment's team, because it worked. Second, all my pageant girls know that this is a pretty common sentiment shared by the general public regarding the whole 'pageant' thing. People don’t always get it—and we’re used to that. Between reality TV, the media, outdated stereotypes, and viral videos of unfortunate onstage questions, we haven’t exactly painted in a positive (or accurate) light.
But the thing is, I still care so deeply with every fiber of my being about Miss America. I get that it’s not for everyone, but it's certainly for me, and I know that I am not alone! And I could give you a million reasons why, but I'll give some highlights.
I care about helping women find their voice, just like I found mine.
When I watched my first pageant at 13 years old, what I noticed about the women competing was not necessarily how externally beautiful they were. It wasn't how expensive their dresses were or how perfectly teased their hair was. It was their grace and poise while addressing the crowd regarding controversial topics, as well as the topics that they were passionate advocates for.
Did you know that approximately 77% of people experience some level of anxiety when it comes to public speaking? In my eight years competing in MAO, I've grown infinitely more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd and have learned how to communicate my opinion clearly and professionally. These speaking skills have proved to be invaluable in interview settings ever since, even landing me jobs that I never thought I would be able to get.
Look… Public speaking is hard. Being an effective advocate for yourself, being able to communicate with people of all ages and backgrounds, and being able to "sell yourself" in a formal interview setting is hard—especially in a world that consistently tells women that they shouldn't be too loud, too confident, too straightforward, too 'much'. Each day, I'm thankful for each interview and onstage question I've had through MAO, and how my experiences have taught me how to love myself and fearlessly speak up for myself and others.
I care about helping young women achieve their educational goals.
I absolutely loved and cherished my four years attending Grand Valley State University. The skills, the knowledge, and the relationships I gained are what set me up for success professionally, and I am hoping to return for graduate school in the future. Goals like these can easily feel so out of reach with rising tuition costs, which is why I care about the world's leading scholarship provider to young women--yep, you guessed it, the Miss America Organization.
In case you missed this fun fact, the incredible Emma Broyles won $100,000 when she was crowned Miss America (just a few hours after the Yahoo Entertainment article was posted). For competing at the national level, each state candidate was awarded a $3,000 scholarship. Our own Miss Michigan, Vivian Zhong returned from Miss America with $24,000, and there's not a doubt in my mind that she'll put that to great use at med school. In a time where it’s absolutely vital that women receive an education, Miss America is making that possible.
I care about young girls having healthy role models.
Don't get me wrong, my brothers are fantastic, but I always wanted a sister--preferably a younger one. I always had a desire to be a role model, much like the many role models that I had growing up. I knew the influence that older girls had on me (fortunately, I had INCREDIBLE role models!), and I always felt passionately called to be that for others.
When I think about the women I look up to now, a large percentage of them are from Miss America. I even get to call them my friends. I get to text them after an awful day, I get excited to hang out with them backstage at local pageants, and I know that they will always call me higher. They are changing the world, and I’m honored just to cheer them on and to be a part of their adventure. And I’m so fortunate that I get to be this person to other girls I've met through MAO as well—and that’s not something that I take lightly. Knowing that I am a role model calls me higher, and brings out the best in me. It holds me accountable. I care for these girls like I am their sister, because as far as I’m concerned, I am.
I care about giving women a platform to amplify what matters to them.
Social Impact Initiatives among MAO candidates include everything from Autism Awareness and Acceptance, to women in STEM, to Big Brothers Big Sisters, to Building Community through Special Olympics, and even my own, Amplify the Arts. You may just see pageant girls as beautiful women (And for the record, we are *wink*), but I think it's worth emphasizing that each girl I've met in this organization has an incredible passion for service and a heart of gold. We're the ones who are ready and doing the work to make the world a better place.
While we're here, I want to say that when we're trying to make the world a better place, there's room for all of us to win. I support my friend’s dreams--yes, the friends that I'm "competing against"--ENDLESSLY. For instance, I'm honored to be a part of my friend Shelby’s dreams every day, serving as Director of Communications for her nonprofit. Shelby inherited Huntington's Disease, and unfortunately lives knowing that she has a shorter life expectancy due to this incurable disease. She has big dreams for Champions for HD, and has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help those struggling with the same disease. As I watch her work tirelessly, I know so deeply in my heart that I would do absolutely anything to help her dreams with Champions for HD come true.
And there’s so much more.
If you look at pageants and still think of brainless beauty queens in bikinis or the objectification of women based on their physical appearance, please hear me when I say that there is So. Much. More. While I know that not everyone will become a fierce lover and advocate for Miss America, and while it is in no way a perfect organization, I certainly am grateful for all it's brought me.
And I would love to talk to you about it! Hit me up over at @sarah_dudinetz and let's chat.