Pretty With a Purpose

As a journalist, I’ve been offered the opportunity to do a lot of bizarre things in pursuit of a story. The scariest thing I’ve ever done was jump out of an airplane; the weirdest thing I was ever asked to do (which I declined) was to participate in a celebrity cow-milking contest; and the best was when I was took a press trip to the lovely Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

One of my most enlightening opportunities came when I was asked to participate in the judging of a mock interview for beauty pageant contestants in 2005.

Although I expected superficial answers, I thought the chance to interview beauty queens about their aspirations and beliefs would be fun, so I accepted.

Beautiful, smiling young women in evening gowns sauntered past the panel of judges, their titles proudly displayed across their chests: Miss Pennsylvania, Miss Indiana, Miss West Virginia and their Miss Teen counterparts.

The television anchorwoman on my left had a critical eye for style and confided that she had done pageants herself, while the male hairdresser to my right critiqued the way contestants wore their hair. But all I saw were gorgeous girls headed towards a bright future — even if they don’t win the Miss USA™ or Miss Teen USA™ title.

I had to really dig to find something critical to say to them about the way they looked, because to my untrained eye, they all looked amazing.

My expertise is in the words. So, I listened to them smoothly answer questions on everything from the war in Iraq to what they thought about stay-at-home moms, and I was impressed; not just with the answers they gave and the strong beliefs they held, but with the way the girls presented themselves while the judges fired loaded questions at them — poised, conversational, and competitive.

And they were human. Miss Indiana talked about her plans to become a veterinarian, and Miss West Virginia, who began her career as the youngest licensed insurance agent in West Virginia when she was 18, spoke of her belief that women can be good moms while pursuing their professional goals.

“I want people to know that I am not just another pretty face,” stated Miss Pennsylvania, Brenda Brabham of Philadelphia, who was 24 years old at the time of this interview. She added, “The two primary contributions that pageants make for today’s women are the encouragement of confidence and strength. One must be confident in themselves, both physically and mentally, in order to compete in front of a panel of judges. It takes a strong woman who truly believes in herself to continue on despite others’ perceptions of her.”

“The assumption is that these are leggy, long-haired women with no desire to do anything but be a trophy piece, and it’s nothing like that,” said Linda Andreassi, former Miss Pennsylvania USA™ 1994. “These girls are more three-dimensional than anyone would expect.”

Linda said she disapproves of child pageants, but she credits her participation in high school pageantry with having helped land her current position as the public relations director of Seneca Valley School District in Butler, PA. “Seventy people applied for that job, and being in pageants definitely gave me an edge. Because if you can stand there and take those questions being fired at you [during a pageant], you can do a job interview after college with no problem,” she explained.

“I interviewed in front of nine board members and the superintendent, and I was like bring it on. It’s easier for me to handle than the average person.”

Linda has been involved in all phases of pageantry — from judging to coordinating — and co-owns a consulting company called Pageant Management with her sister, Tina Veon. The company gives girls a competitive edge by helping them hone their skills with mock interviews like the one I participated in.

“I was very shy and introverted, and pageants bring you out of that,” says Linda, noting that it also teaches girls to be a gracious losers.

“I tell people that if you can wear a swimsuit and heels on-stage, you can do anything.”

© Jill Cueni-Cohen

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