Not Just A Pretty Face: An Outsider’s Unexpected Experience in the Pageant System

A beautiful woman uses her lips for TRUTH, her voice for KINDNESS, her ears for COMPASSION, her hands for CHARITY, and her heart for LOVE!
- Kim Nicewonder, Executive Director of Miss Virginia USA

There are a lot of misconceptions out there in the world - biases we inherit from friends, family, and the world around us that have been pushed on us. Whether or not you consider yourself a highly evolved or modern person, we are carrying the vestiges of ancient thought - invalid thought. 500 years ago, people came and said the world is not flat, the Earth is not the center of the universe. These people were forced to recant. To say the Earth was not the center of the universe was the challenge the thoughts of the day - whether they are religious or institutional thoughts. This mentality is not dead, you and I have been taught to see everything in black and white. Since their inception, pageant systems (ie: Miss America, Miss USA, etc) have come under attack for being disempowering because they deny the full humanity of women and they reinforce the idea that woman's purpose is to look attractive.

I recently had an unexpected journey into the depths of the pageant system, something I knew little about - what I learned from the experience shattered my misconceptions about what these competitions were all about. The last time I can remember catching a glimpse of a pageant was on TV one night when my family was on vacation when I was 11 years old. Over the years, I've seen pageants and their contestants mocked and parodied - the common theme that has been crammed down our throats is that: 1) these events only showcase a bunch of dumb, hot girls; 2) these events lead to self-esteem issues and eating disorders; 3) these events are sexist, misogynistic, disempowering and objectify women - these stereotypes have become the dominant ethos of the day, and go virtually unquestioned.

Working in an accounting firm, I was recently asked to audit the 2016 Miss Virginia USA pageant in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was approached by the executive director of the organization, Kim Nicewonder and the task she needed me to do was to tabulate the winners of the event based on the judges scoring, and to make sure all rules were followed. I spent the last weekend on a beyond-backstage-pass view of the event and the organization that runs it.

Having known several theatre directors, I was immediately struck by the similarities. A pageant is run just like any live theatrical production. There are costumes, makeup, blocking, lighting, audio/video, stage managers, writers, directors, choreographers, accountants, and countless dedicated staff - the only difference is that in this production the fourth wall is broken, and the actors are presenting themselves to the audience and judges. Many people can't look past the make-up and gowns - but these are normal parts of any theatrical production, whether TV, film or live theatre. We've all heard stories of toddlers in tiaras and pretty-faced bimbos fumbling on simple questions; but these stereotypes are simply not accurate in my experience.

The truth is, these competitions are not simply beauty pageants. At the state-wide level where all the women involved are extremely beautiful, what exactly are they being judged on? At this level, a pageant is like a mix between a sports competition, and a theatre production - the contestants must prepare long in advance in all areas of their life: education, career, civic involvement, charity work, elite physical fitness, personal connection/charisma, grace, and stage presence/confidence. Similar to college-level and minor league baseball leagues - what I witnessed was a farm system for a silent nobility of some of the most accomplished women in the country, coupled with incredible humility. When I say humility, I'm referring specifically to inward humility, also known as humility in action. The same kind of humility that would make Kobe Bryant shoot an extra 800 successful shots after each long day at practice; or make Sam Walton get arrested in San Paulo, Brazil for crawling around grocery stores measuring the space between aisles, seeing if these people knew something that he did not - ever though he was a billionaire at the time with the #1 retail company in the world. Everybody wants the good life (ie: financial security, six-pack abs, loving relationship), but everyone is not willing to be humble enough to put in all the effort it takes to get all those things.

Most of these girls train physically like elite top-level athletes - several of them went All-American in their sports. Nearly every girl there was pursuing degrees in higher-education, and were working full-time and were extremely involved in charity and aid work. Every contestant involved with a contest has a specific charity they raise money for. But having access to view the interviews, I saw that several of the women worked with multiple non-profits on their own, and others had very impactful experiences doing aid work abroad. The hardline truth is that these women were dedicating hours and hours of personal time to stay on top of their game in all fields - health, wealth, and love. They wake up early, work more hours than most, and do so day after day in a balanced way. We've all heard stories of wealthy misers who have given up everything in the pursuit of riches --for what is it to have 2 billion dollars, but without the physical strength to get out of bed in the morning, or the love of family and friends. Balanced success is what these women exemplify. All the contestants genuinely loved and supported each other - they were like sisters. Each woman had family and friends there cheering them on.

My father came to this country with $484 in his pocket in 1973 - he told me, "Your life is going to be determined by one thing, whether you're worth a damn. This society is full of outward trappings - physical beauty, college degrees, fancy cars, big mansions, etc. But if you're using these thing as an outward symbol, you've missed the point. Being worth a damn comes from the inside out, not the outside in." At the state-level, the judges of the competition were looking for those intangible things besides looks and degrees. Similar to what is seen in some actors and musicians - some people have really developed an ability to connect to the audience, steal the spotlight, and command awe and respect. Charlie Munger (a self-made billionaire) once said "People who are amazing are so rare that it boggles the mind, so scarce that they jump out at you. It's astonishing to me how many people sleepwalk through life, but then there are others who jump out at you and do extraordinary things." Another intangible quality that pageants provide are momentum - these women are seeking mentors and constantly taking action. Aside from maintaining their education, careers, charity work, physiques, the rigor of the pageant circuit, many of these women are also getting rare modeling and other opportunities in sports, media, business, and fashion. Aside from people who are top-level athletes, or silently becoming millionaires and billionaires - the level of action-taking and momentum-building exemplified by these girls is rare to see in our population.

There will always be the naysayers out there who condemn the women in these competitions -- writing them off as pretty faces, dolled up in make-up, wearing expensive gowns, with little intelligence. I think a lot of this social stigma stems from traumas that occur early in life when we humbly ask others for help, and get rejected. These are pains that hurt us deep. Traumas when we're younger can often cause us so much pain that we over-do it, in order to mask things by being cocky or casting judgments - never wanting to admit "Oops, I messed up!" or "Hey, I really don't know this." But these women, these individuals that stand out from the crowd and are able to overcome that pain, and without trying to cover it over with cockiness, overcome their fears and guess what they get? They get all the rewards that come from real humility. In the case of the Miss Virginia USA pageant, shaking off fears of inadequacy and replacing it with confidence earned through hard work and action. Whatever it is that you want is going to have to come from overcoming this great fear that you and I have - without working past this fear, we often times are blocking ourselves from the living good life we deserve.

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