I'm Farish and I'm a pre-law Political Communications sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin. I also happen to have competed in — and thoroughly enjoyed! — two Texas pageants last year. I want to immediately set the record straight by highlighting that pageants are grossly misconceived and misunderstood.
Today, we might claim that Steve Harvey's Miss Universe faux pas and answering every question with "world peace" define pageants in a nutshell, but I'm here to tell you that pageantry is quite different than what you might think. Put aside the heuristics and jump on my bandwagon.
I would have never thought of competing before meeting a friend in college who also happened to be the Miss Teen Texas International 2014 titleholder. She told me about the opportunities pageant systems provide as scholarship competitions and networking outlets (not to mention the cosmetics and clothes that come with the perks of being a titleholder). I initially applied to compete with Texas International because I sought scholarship funds.
Few people realize that several systems offer scholarships as the main prize. The Miss America Organization (MAO) and some state branches of the Miss USA system offer thousands of dollars to aid contestants who are working towards several levels of secondary education. Some scholarships are university-specific — Miss Texas USA offers $20,000-$36,000 scholarships to semi-finalists, finalists, and the titleholder to Lindenwood University in Missouri. The prize package at Miss Collegiate America is specifically aimed at educational advancement.
My parents' divorce drove me to find a creative way to make money to pursue both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Public universities offer fewer scholarships than private universities, and my undergraduate degree alone will cost about $40,000 in the end (that total excludes room, board, textbooks, and lifestyle basics like health insurance and automotive maintenance.) In terms of post-grad costs, the average 2012 tuition rates were reported to be $40,634, whereas public universities clocked in at $23,214 for in-state law students and $36,202 for out-of-state law students. In other words, any kind of scholarship I could earn through pageantry would be well worth it.
Other pageant systems are service-based. In the International Pageant System, every contestant is required to adopt a platform aimed at a charity or cause on which she must speak at the pageant. Contestants must also prove connection to the volunteer effort by making appearances and establishing partnership with organizations linked to their respective platform. The winner of a pageant has the ability to publicize her cause through spreading awareness about her platform at both state and national levels. Miss Texas International 2014 Rachael Burns reveals that "pageants helped me work through my personal issues with child abuse and hearing loss. I don't have struggles or the embarrassment that I used to and instead became a champion and advocate for those causes."
Many contestants I met at the Texas pageant are cancer and domestic violence survivors. Mrs. San Antonio International 2015 Angela Lee shares that "as a survivor of a childhood cancer, we didn't live in the Information age nor have the resources to deal with the psychosocial aspects of cancer...It was hard to fit in with my peers being home-schooled during treatments and almost entirely bald. Fast forward a few decades and pageantry helped me learn to share my story confidently and comfortably, but most importantly, it allowed me to heal and focus on helping others during their cancer journeys at all ages."
Lee is now a legislative advocate with the American Cancer Society and also works at a local nonprofit that serves women undergoing treatment. "Basically," she says, "pageantry helped me realize what my personal purpose in life is all about!"
My platform, called Hunger in Homeroom, addressed the hunger many public school children face at night, on the weekends, and during breaks from school without federally funded free lunch and breakfast programs. I spoke to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas about how I could help raise awareness about their cause through my platform. I also met with representatives from the University of Texas Division of Diversity and Community Engagement who oversee operations in the UT charter school, where similar hunger initiatives have been implemented.
The secondary reason for my involvement in pageantry is far less practical: I loved the pageantry that comes with pageantry. I danced for eight years, including two and a half years on my high school dance team, so I was no stranger to costumes and stage makeup. I missed performing, and it was a feeling I had taken for granted until I settled into college. Pageants were foreign to me, but I knew I wanted to do something different. Plus, it did feel awfully good to look amazing while promoting a noble service cause.
The pageant competitors I participated with have normal bodies and normal insecurities. I was probably the, let's say, "least fit," competitor in my age division, but I attribute that to how I admittedly loathe exercise and maintain my love affair with all things chocolate. At Texas International, we were judged on fitness so it was important that the system attracted girls who were not sickly thin. We walked onstage in sports bras, white tennis shoes, and athletic spandex to show a healthy, strong figure. Toned arms and a strong core are valued much more highly than a waifish frame. These ladies aim to promote a healthy body image and embrace the flaws in their bodies and certain traits make us who we are. Mrs. Fort Worth International 2015 and radio show host Erin Wilde wrote online post-pageant, "No, I didn't cover my tats. I understand it's not a pageant thing, but I am me and that's all I can be!"
The Texas Galaxy Pageant, my second pageant last May, did not include a swimsuit competition in preliminary state pageants, but swimsuit is required at the national level for the Teen, Miss, Ms., and Mrs. divisions. Texas Galaxy director Jennifer Ruiz-Longoria, who earned the title of Miss Galaxy in 2009, says she feels "honored to be a part of a pageant system that honors and promotes positive and healthy body images." She remarks that the swimsuit category also promotes self-love and "being proud of ourselves regardless of weight, height, shape, color, size, measurements, or form." She calls the category an opportunity "for our girls to show how fabulous they are and how proud they are to promote realistic body images in society today. The key to a high swimsuit score in the Galaxy Pageant is confidence and fierceness!"
Pageants are about substance, not just appearance. In fact, I competed with several distinguished academics and entrepreneurs last spring. Miss Texas International 2015 Elise Banks, now Miss International 2015, showed me how the low-intelligence stigma associated with pageant girls is deeply false. Elise attended Baylor University for her undergraduate degree and University of Houston at Clear Lake for her master's degree in 2014. Now, she works as a therapist and school counselor with many more impressive accolades to her name beyond the psychological discipline.
Miss Fort Worth International 2015 Vivian Ta reflects, "Life as an academic is centered around effectively communicating your research. Through my many years of pageant experience, I've not only learned how to eloquently articulate the message to my audience, but I've also learned how to effectively answer tough questions at a moment's notice- the ones that tend to catch you off guard and mess you up. I truly credit my pageant preparation and experiences for these communication skills." There is no doubt in my mind that these communication skills have served her well, considering she holds an undergraduate degree in psychology, a master's in experimental psychology, and is currently a University of Texas at Arlington doctoral candidate in experimental psychology.
The girls I stood beside on the stage were well-spoken, informed, educated, and expressed themselves with poise. Miss South Texas International 2015 Avery Greene demonstrated entrepreneurial skills that set her apart from the crowd. She founded and manages Airbrush By Avery on top of pursuing a degree in Mass Communications from Sam Houston State University, and outside the classroom she is an extremely talented equestrian with scads of rodeo trophies and titles to add to her resume. Contestant to contestant and director to contestant relationships are vital. Lifetime friends are made through this practice, and I am grateful for the ties I made with the other contestants at both Texas International and Texas Galaxy. I still keep in touch with these ladies and what they're up to; we maintain our Facebook message group and often plan to meet up, especially when one of us competes in another system.
The director to contestant relationship is equally important. Pageant directors facilitate entrance to the competition when girls hear about the system, oversee the pageant weekend schedule to make all runs smoothly, collect ads for the program, and serve as a guide and mentor for participants. I connected with both my pageant directors and view them as honorary older sisters. Texas Galaxy Director Jennifer Ruiz-Longoria says, "The world is competitive, and I hope as a pageant director and mentor, I am able to help young ladies develop communication skills, interview skills, good sportsmanship, community involvement, and volunteerism so that they can personally be better equipped to tackle life and its many challenges."
If I have to name the hardest part about pageants, it's probably schlepping all the expensive gear from place to place. Gowns, never to be worn again, cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and travel expenses add another cost on top of that. It's been difficult to sell my pageant wear, some of which is still brand new, but I certainly think the money was still worth it. I never placed past semifinalist, but I won the Miss Congeniality Award at both pageants I competed in, as well as one called the Golden Spirit Award that is specific to Texas Galaxy.
The positive experiences I took away from the competition led me to compete in Miss Texas Galaxy in south Texas in May after the semester ended. I have since retired my crown and sashes, but I might enter a higher age division when the time comes. You never know!
The best part of pageantry for me was when I realized that we all possess the ability to cure the world's ills, even if those efforts begin just in our communities. Current Texas International Director and Mrs. Texas International 2012 Rachel Hedstrom says it best: "As a pageant competitor and then as a director, what strikes me most about this endeavor is that it is an opportunity for women to stand up for something they believe in. The light that comes on when women realize that they have a voice and can make a difference is a brilliant thing to see. They sparkle from within."
Hedstrom goes on to say, "You know the crown stops being about a piece of metal or a title when you see the power it enables us to make change. If you don't believe it, watch a queen hold the hand of a veteran dying of cancer, or a small child on chemo. Then you truly know the power that the crown holds is not in the headwear, but in the girl herself. We are all queens."