Images by Nikki P. Photography
By Jennifer Kornegay
The Distinguished Young Women program and pageants like Miss Alabama USA are recognizing far more than physical beauty and rewarding their winners with a lot more than a crown.
“There she is. Miss America. There she is, your ideal.”
Hearing these iconic words sung while they wave, smile and cry just seconds after a glittering tiara has been set lightly upon their head has been the dream of millions of girls for decades. But today, Miss America is only one of many pageants out there; the Distinguished Young Women program is another major one (formerly Junior Miss). And the pageant scene has changed dramatically through the years.
Over-emphasis on faces and figures has been on the decline for a while, and in its place is a focus on philanthropy, leadership and academic excellence. A pretty smile and the right talent still matter, but they no longer over shadow the importance of inner beauty. And the prize of many pageants is not the crown itself, or even the prestige: it’s skills learned and honed, people met and friendships forged and scholarship money for college earned.
Poise and Polish
One of the most popular and prestigious pageants in our state is actually no longer called a pageant. But the Distinguished Young Women (DYW) program, formerly Junior Miss, still draws some of Alabama’s best and brightest girls each year. The Local Chairwoman for Lee County, and a past Junior Miss winner, thinks she knows why. “Stepping out of my comfort zone and spending a week away from home with girls I did not know and a host family I did not know really prepared me for going off to college,” said Wynne Wages. “It was my first time in an environment where I didn’t have anyone around that I knew.”
The interview portion of the program was a growing moment too. “At both the state and local levels, that part was so beneficial. It helped me in job interviews later,” she said. “And performing on stage gave me confidence.”
She explained the name change. “We really prefer the word program to pageant,” she said. “The difference is that we don’t do a swim suit competition, and DYW takes grades into account.”
Other pageant programs offer similar opportunities for individual growth. According to Paula Miles, executive director of the Miss Alabama USA and Miss Alabama Teen USA pageants, every participant gains a wide range of intangible, yet valuable, experiences and skills that will help them later in life. “We hear it often from parents, that their daughter’s confidence grew over the course of preparation, and it results in better life choices,” she said. In addition, the pageants require community service and public appearances. “All of this helps to develop their interview and interpersonal skills, necessary parts of the competition but also essential parts of life. They are also working hard to be physically fit and learning a healthy lifestyle that will serve them well in their future,” Miles said.
Lindsey Sexton, Miss Alabama United States 2012, echoed Miles. “The major benefits I have taken away from pageantry are the interview skills that I have achieved. When I have a job interview it’s no biggie for me anymore. Before I started participating in pageants, I was always so nervous about job interviews or even speeches at school,” she said.
After Miss Alabama Heather Whitestone was crowned Miss America in 1994, the first-runner-up in the state pageant, Amie Beth Shaver, took over as Miss Alabama. She describes the experience in two words. “Life changing,” she said. “I can see what I learned still at play in my life today.”
In addition to being a wife and mom, Amie Beth has enjoyed a successful speaking career, all built on the passion for speaking that was sparked while in pageants. “As Miss Alabama, I went everywhere speaking, and that was transformative. I had no idea that speaking and communicating could be so powerful,” she said.
Now, she primarily speaks to women’s groups, sharing her testimony and encouraging others not give up on their dreams and does anti-bullying talks and delivers speeches on reaching your full potential to Fellowship of Christian Athlete groups in schools. She’s also running for office, seeking the House District 43 seat in the Alabama Legislature. “It is different from what I’ve been doing, but it is still about communicating my ideas effectively, something I learned to do in pageants,” she said.
Financial Aid for a Bright Future
Another plus to pageants is the chance to win college scholarships. Most pageants include some scholarship money in their prize packages. In DYW, scholarships are awarded to the overall winner, local winners and category winners. The level of scholarship is dependent on donations from the community, but according to Wynne, these donations have increased greatly in the last few years, and Troy State gives large scholarships to its local participants who have the right grades and a certain ACT score. “I won my local program and several category awards when I competed in DYW and won scholarship money that I used at Auburn. It was great to have,” Wynne said.
Amie Beth agreed. “I actually found that I was a better student because I knew I had worked hard to earn my scholarship,” she said.
“The scholarships are the major perks of pageants,” Lindsey added. “It is so helpful in moving toward your future.”
Paula explained why Miss Alabama USA includes scholarships in its program. “We feel that education is important, and the scholarships so graciously provided are a great way to reward the contestants who want to excel academically,” she said. “We feel privileged to help strengthen the role of females in the state and country.”
She also summed up the true value of pageants and programs like DYW. “The competition encourages young women to practice poise under pressure, form life-long friendships, and it reinforces the idea that dedication and determination are at the root of success,” she said.
“Miss America is the largest provider of scholarships to young women. Last year, the program awarded over $50 million in scholarships, and in our state, we generally have over $100,000 given to Miss Alabama in in-kind scholarships from colleges.”
- Amie Beth Shaver, Miss Alabama 1994
Celebs like Debra Messing, Diane Sawyer and Deborah Norville were all Junior Miss winners. Sarah Palin placed third in the Miss Alaska pageant. Halle Berry was Miss Ohio, and Delta Burke was Miss Florida.
Things don’t always go as planned in pageants,
but sometimes the bloopers make really fun memories.
“I fell and ripped my dress right before I walked on stage. I already had a slit in my dress, but when I stood up from falling I realized the slit was definitely a bit higher than before! Somehow, I still made it on stage and pulled it off, but I definitely was in a panic.” – Lindsey Sexton, Miss Alabama United States, 2012
Dear Moms & Daughters
If you are considering DYW or a pageant, consider these thoughts from those who’ve been there.
“If competing has ever even crossed your mind, do it! You never know what you may gain, or what you may learn about yourself.” - Paula Miles, Executive Director Miss Alabama USA and Miss Teen Alabama USA
“I can say, without a doubt, competing in Miss Alabama is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It grows strong women, develops leaders, you make amazing friends and can get scholarship money. I still have some of my best friends from my pageant days.” - Amie Beth Shaver, Miss Alabama 1994
“Overall, I think pageants and scholarship programs are an excellent opportunity to build confidence and gain valuable experience with interviews and the ability to ‘think on your feet.’ There are several reputable programs that celebrate academic achievement, leadership, poise and personal health: all qualities we should strive to have!” - Kate Bartlett, AUM Scholarship Manager, past pageant participant and DYW scholarship judge.
Distinguished Young Women is a national program, but it is actually homegrown. It was founded in Mobile in 1951, where its headquarters still reside. It is the largest and oldest national scholarship program for high school girls and throughout its history has provided more than $93 million in cash scholarships at the local, state and national levels. In addition to cash scholarships, Distinguished Young Women participants are eligible for college-granted scholarships from almost 200 colleges and universities, totaling more than $108 million last year. The Alabama competition is held in Montgomery in January each year, with 52 girls competing.
“We don’t want to make it about the one night on stage,” Wynne Wages, the Lee County Chairwoman said. “We make it about a self-improvement experience for the girls.” This includes events focused on health and wellness, interview workshops and more. “We really want to give them skills they can use in life, so if they walk off stage and didn’t win a single award, ‘they can still say they have learned and grown.” Learn more at ajm.org.