Changing Lives: Modern-Day Pageants

  • By:  Emily Baine
Photo by Jeff Holladay • www.jeffholladay.net Photo by Jeff Holladay • www.jeffholladay.net

When Rosemary Willis began making plans to attend William and Mary in 2009, she was taken aback by the high cost of education. The active petite with striking blue eyes began looking around for ways to help her parents pay for school. What she found was the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women, the Miss America program. The Miss America organization today is a far cry from where the pageant began over ninety years ago. It’s evolved from being just about boardwalk beauties to embracing intelligent, articulate, ambitious women. Yet most people today still believe pageants do little more than promote a superficial definition of beauty. Glitz pageant shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” are doing nothing to help, attracting viewers like a highway wreck lures rubberneckers.

The Miss America pageant and the women who compete in it are working to change public opinion through their own stories and voices and by emphasizing style, service, scholarship, and success. Today’s pageants are changing lives by providing personal and professional opportunities for young women to express their talents and viewpoints to the world.

Pageants have existed for well over a century and now number in the thousands, with an estimated 2.5 million women participating each year in the U.S. alone. Contestants receive over $45 million dollars in cash and scholarships each year and in turn volunteer more than 500,000 hours of community service annually.

This year the Hampton Roads region is in the pageant spotlight through the presence and voices of two remarkable women. In June, Rosemary was crowned Miss Virginia and Andolyn Medina was crowned Miss Virginia Outstanding Teen. Both women are Chesapeake natives with powerful stories. They are also working hard to change the public’s perception of pageants and emphasize how these contests can change lives for the better.

BOARDWALK BEAUTIES  

The Miss America Pageant started on the boardwalk of Atlantic City in 1921 as an elaborate marketing idea by the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City to extend the summer tourist season. The first event was part popularity contest, part beauty contest. The winner was sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman, who was awarded the title of “Golden Mermaid.” She returned a year later to defend her title draped in an American flag and was called “Miss America.”

The swimsuit beauty competition continued to be the main event in the early years of the Miss America pageant. Contestants were expected to embrace conservative values and have limited ambitions. However, the first hint of change was in 1945 when the organization offered its first scholarship.

Repeatedly the highest-rated program on American television, the Miss America pageant peaked in the 1960s. The rise of feminism and the ensuing protests served as a catalyst for change. The 1970s ushered in a shift towards encouraging a new type of professional woman, one with intelligence and ambition.

This movement came further to fruition in the 1980s with the platform concept, which requires contestants at all levels of the competition to embrace their own significant social platform to promote their voices and ideas.   

“They don’t just pick an issue out of a hat and work it. They pick an issue that’s important to them,” explains Mark Schreier, director of marketing, production, and fundraising for Miss Virginia.

With the evolution of the pageant, the judging has also changed. Today, the swimsuit portion of the pageant, now referred to as “Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit,” only accounts for 15 percent of the contestant’s overall score compared with 35 percent in the Talent Category, for example. Other categories include Evening Wear, Private Interview, and On-Stage Question.

“As the modern woman has changed and developed, so has the organization to become more current and relevant,” Rosemary points out.

SPORTS AND SCHOLARSHIP

Rosemary, 21, grew up participating in sports and theater. This background would come in handy when she began cultivating the poise, talent, intelligence, and physical fitness required of a pageant winner. With long blond hair and a warm, genuine smile, she has a classic beauty that’s evident whether she’s in an elegant evening gown or a casual t-shirt and shorts. Like the grandmother that she’s named for, Rosemary is passionate about community involvement. The more you learn about her, the more you know Rosemary has what it takes.

On June 30, 2012, the judges agreed.

That victory opened the door to a year of hard work, including preparing to be our state representative at the Miss America pageant this month in Las Vegas. Fulfilling the role of Miss Virginia has required a deep personal commitment and has changed Rosemary’s life forever.    

In order to fulfill her duties, Rosemary took a year off from school and moved to Roanoke, where the Miss Virginia organization is based. She travels an average of three thousand miles a month, up to four days per week as she fulfills the duties of Miss Virginia—a full-time job with pay.

Despite how significantly the Miss America pageant system has changed, many people still believe it’s nothing more than a glitzy, beauty-focused contest. “I have to combat that when I’m at appearances,” Rosemary says. “Because when I do first show up, sometimes I’m not very well received…people judge me right away.”

“[When] I have the opportunity to speak to them and share my platform, show them I’m an intelligent, well-spoken, ambitious woman, I eventually gain their respect,” Rosemary says. “They understand, ‘Oh wow, this isn’t some last-minute plan. This is something furthering your career goals, something that’s equipping you and training you for the real world.’”

Rosemary’s goals include a master’s degree in exercise and working with a non-profit to promote wellness and fitness. Her drive for getting people up and exercising stems from not just years of sports, but from a life-changing accident during high school where she sustained a brain injury. This kept her from running for a year, forcing Rosemary to face the negative consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. This included struggling with weight and poor self-esteem. To combat this, she learned more about the benefits of exercise and realized the positive impact it had on her physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Rosemary’s personal experience and passion manifested into her platform, “Get Moving Today for a Healthier Tomorrow.” She wants people to understand that it’s more important to exercise to become strong and healthy, rather than focusing on your appearance. As Miss Virginia, Rosemary is an inspirational speaker and role model, sharing her platform and the Miss Virginia program with schools, civic organizations, and businesses. She is committed to serving her community.

“I’ve always loved community service and I thought, well, a crown and a sash opens a lot of doors for me to be able to reach and serve more people,” Rosemary says. “So that’s really what I love about it and why I got involved—for the chance to share my message and my talent and be a role model for young girls.”

Rosemary’s dedication to being a role model and mentor includes helping the younger girls in the Miss America program, including Miss Virginia Outstanding Teen, Andolyn Medina.

SHYNESS TRANSFORMED

Sixteen-year-old Andolyn Medina carries herself with a comfortable, graceful poise that reflects her years of pageant experience. What is not readily apparent is what drove a young, wide-eyed girl to compete in the Miss America program.

Andolyn was an adorable four-year-old who loved to sing and play piano, according to her mother. She was also painfully shy, something her mother worked hard to help her overcome. The solution they found was the pageant world, where Andolyn could practice her talents, grow confidence, and gain experience interacting with people. Andolyn enjoyed competing and was eager to continue. Her parents agreed that they would keep going as long as Andolyn wanted to. The moment she said, “No,” they would stop.

Twelve years later Andolyn is currently serving as Miss Virginia Outstanding Teen, a title she received this past June. The changes that have manifested in the girl who once hardly spoke and was diagnosed with a speech impediment are striking.

“I’m doing college applications and essays. I told my mom that I’d rather just have an interview with these people,” Andolyn says and laughs.

Like her older “sisters” in the Miss America pageant program, Miss America Outstanding Teen is required to have a platform. Andolyn chose PEACE—Peer Empowerment and Community Engagement—for her cause and is passionate about helping her generation understand the importance of volunteerism and the positive impact it can have on your life and the lives of others.     

Andolyn’s commitment to her platform is clear. She’s received numerous awards, including the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award for over 4,000 community service hours. She’s a motivational speaker, often joining Rosemary at events, where she shares her message of volunteerism as well as the importance of embracing who you really are.

Last year, while speaking at a Boys and Girls club, Andolyn truly embraced who she is by revealing for the first time something that has had a significant impact on her life. “I realized I wasn’t being completely honest with them because I didn’t tell them everything about who I was as a person,” she recalls.

In 2010, Andolyn was diagnosed with scoliosis, a condition requiring her to wear a back brace for a majority of the day. Sharing her story had an unexpected and profound effect. When Andolyn asked the children at the Boys and Girls club if they knew what scoliosis was, a young girl in the audience raised her hand and announced that she also had it. The teachers later told Andolyn and her mother that the little girl had never told anyone this.

Andolyn continues living each day as role model, student, and committed volunteer by following her own advice: “…doing my personal best, setting my own goals and standards, and not letting anyone shake them.”

THE ROAD AHEAD

This month both Rosemary and Andolyn will join representatives from across the country in Las Vegas, the current home of the Miss America pageant. Rosemary will represent Virginia in the competition, something she began preparing for in earnest this summer. Members of the Miss Virginia organization are optimistic about her chances. As Mark Schreier points out, “Virginia has a strong history of success.” Since the start of the pageant, Virginia has had three Miss Americas (1979, 1999, 2010).

Andolyn has already competed in the Miss America Outstanding Teen pageant, which is held every August in Orlando. Although she did not win, she was a semifinalist and knows “…it’s really not about winning; it’s so much more than that.” However, Andolyn is not out of the national pageant spotlight yet. She’ll be in Las Vegas not only to support Rosemary, who has become a good friend, but also to perform. Andolyn is one of three Outstanding Teens chosen from across the country to perform the national anthem each of the three nights of the preliminary competition.

Regardless of whether or not they win national titles, both Rosemary and Andolyn say their lives will forever be shaped by their pageant experiences as they continue to serve their communities and pursue their goals. Through their words and actions, they will inspire others and, in the process, dispel the notion that Miss America is just a boardwalk beauty contest. It’s truly so much more.

Be sure to watch the 2013 Miss America Competition Jan. 12, 2013 at 9 p.m. on ABC. Visit missamerica.org for more information.

To learn more about Rosemary, Andolyn, and the Miss Virginia organization, visit www.missva.com

Emily Baine is a freelance writer and Sr. Contact Strategist & communication specialist with BCF Advertising in Va. Beach. Reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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