Gaining New Respect for 'Beauty Queens'
When I was called on to interview two young women from Moore County who were to participate in this year's Miss North Carolina pageant, I was both intrigued and somewhat wary.
To be honest, the only prior conception I had of pageants at the time was the YouTube video of Miss Teen South Carolina in the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant that went viral on the Web several years ago.
When asked during her interview why a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map, she responded haltingly, "I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh, people out there in our nation don't have maps and, uh ... I believe that they should, our education over HERE in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our children."
I wasn't sure what to expect when Miss Moore County, Summer Hennings, and Miss Greater Sandhills, Kensley Leonard, came into The Pilot office that Thursday afternoon in early June.
It turned out all three of us were about the same age, all college students at large in-state universities. We had a mutual understanding of 400-person lecture halls, of long walks to class, of all-night marathons in the library. I breathed a small sigh of relief. The pageant girls were just like me.
As we sat down, it became not so much an interview as a girl-to-girl conversation.
"A lot of people have a misconception of pageants, of what it entails to be Miss North Carolina," Kensley said to me.
Yep, guilty as charged. But after half an hour or so with the two Elite Miss contestants, I had received a wake-up call.
They related to me stories of their 12-hour workdays, their daily gym stints, their hours of coaching sessions and rushing to meetings in between. Not to mention the time spent practicing and rehearsing for the highlight of each contestant's pageant performance - their talent.
Although both girls wore smiles, they admitted that they'd been running on less than six hours of sleep a night and were exhausted beyond belief.
All for this one week, this one chance to vie for one crown against about 30 others with equally impressive credentials.
If that wasn't enough, the title occupation itself comes with many more demands.
"I've been missing out on school events, on sorority life, on fun with friends (for this past year)," Kensley said. "But as Miss North Carolina, you give up an entire year of school. In the grand scheme of things, you have to see over the sacrifices and look toward the bigger picture."
"The Miss North Carolina job is seven days a week, and you don't get a sick day or a break," Summer agreed. "It's part of the job. It's what's expected of you."
The dedication and passion Kensley and Summer had for this pageant and for the Miss North Carolina title - that was shocking to me. I had to check out this pageant scene for myself.
Fellow intern Kirsten Ballard and I arranged to make the trip to Raleigh on Monday, June 18, the pageant's opening night.
Not to say the program didn't have a few cringeworthy moments here and there.
There were 5-year-olds dancing to a song about going out in a club. One girl rang out in a snooty tone, "Won't Daddy be so proud to see his little girl on SportsCenter? That's where I'm gonna be."
Another proclaimed confidently during her interview that she was going to marry teen pop singer and heartthrob Justin Bieber because "he's just so cute and, I mean, I just love him so much!" Kirsten and I, in a back row of the auditorium, exchanged a chuckle or two.
But I have a new respect for what these girls - some as young as 13 - have endured over the past few months.
The contestants have been hitting fitness centers several days a week, doing sets of strengthening and toning exercises for an hour or more per visit. Even the Outstanding Teen girls. When I was 13, I can safely say I'd never before used an ab machine or any weight-lifting equipment in my life.
As representatives of their counties and areas, each teen and young woman has also had to keep up with a demanding schedule of speeches and appearances at schools, fundraisers and social events to raise awareness of their community service platforms.
Hours of laborious effort culminate in a 15-second fitness solo, a runway walk in a swimsuit, a two-question interview on the main stage, and a talent performance - barely two minutes to show the judges what you can do, to set yourself apart from 34 others performing an identical routine.
Many of the contestants were nothing short of impressive. Watching the swimsuit portion and watching these girls with their nearly-flawless bikini bodies waltz across the stage had both me and Kirsten feel like crying over a bowl of ice cream with whipped cream and hot fudge on top.
The Talent competition was even more telling. Technical lyrical dances, complex tap numbers, and singing performances that often soared into the highest vocal ranges made for quite the demonstration of gifted individuals. Half of the contestants could have merited a win in that preliminary round.
The thousands in scholarship money makes for a generous reward. But the race to obtain that elusive crown is no walk in the park.
The hilariously awful video of Miss Teen South Carolina still comes to mind. But I won't be stereotyping these pageant girls quite so quickly again.
Sarah Brown, a graduate of The O'Neal School, is a rising sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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