By: Jackie Schiffer
Like many pageant girls, my pageant career began watching Miss America from my family room couch. It was the intelligence of Erika Harold, the talent of Erika Dunlap and the grace of Katie Stam that sparked my interest in the Miss America Organization. While my dream of being crowned Miss America only lasted a year when I was crowned Miss Champaign-Urbana 2011, living by the virtues of scholarship, service, style and success fostered a life-long love of pageantry.
This September, I was granted an amazing gift to “sparkle from the inside” (in the words of former Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev) and experience the glamour, excitement and energy of the Miss America pageant through new eyes.
My day began bright and early in New York City when I traveled to Atlantic City, NJ with my friend, mentor, and Beauty Its Everywhere founder, Rene Bionat.
Atlantic City is where the Miss America pageant has been held since its founding in 1921 (with the exception of 2006-2013 when it was held in Las Vegas). With a vibe unlike any other, it has a mix of old and new– eclectic Coney Island Boardwalk meets Miami Beach meets Las Vegas. Shopping malls, high-end restaurants, iconic stores and old-fashioned hotels line the boardwalk.
As Rene and I approached Boardwalk Hall, history came alive. On the boardwalk was a sign recognizing this site as the official home of the Miss America pageant as well as a statue of Miss America 2013 Mallory Hytes Hagan which marks the return of the Miss America pageant to Atlantic City. Little girls with aspirations to one day become Miss America stood in line for their crowning moment with Mallory… of course I did too.
The security entering Boardwalk Hall was rigorous. After clearing our security check, it was time to find the press room which turned into another adventure. While I wish I could say it was unfortunate that it took us so long to locate the press room, we got to see backstage in a way I would have never imagined. There was an anticipatory buzz backstage as rooms were labelled as titleholder waiting/viewing areas and the piano was tuned. As we entered the press room, Rene and I were handed our official MAO badges, information about the red carpet, an official MAO program guide and tickets… main floor. I felt like we had struck gold!
Shortly thereafter, we found some dinner and began to strategize on what questions I should ask on the red carpet. As it still wasn’t time to prep for the red carpet, we wandered around the Playground, a luxury shopping mall with ocean views. Finally, it was time e for the red carpet. As we made our way back to Boardwalk Hall and awaited the start of the red carpet, we entered the arena. It was incredible to see how different the stage looks from viewing on television!
A sparkling tiara was suspended and glistening from the ceiling. Signs cheering on various contestants lined the walls of the arena. I learned that seating is based upon the various state organizations. We snapped a few stunning photos and then it was time to step into my role as a reporter.
There is nothing quite like your first red carpet… As I stood behind the velvet rope, it hit me– This was real. I may have never competed on the Miss America stage, but here I was about to interview former Miss Americas and celebrities. My fellow reporters on each side greeted me and before we knew it, the red carpet became full of familiar faces. Some of the most memorable guests I was able to speak with included Kira Kazantsev, Gabby Douglas, Mark Cuban, Ciara, Vonda Kay Van Dyke, Lee Meriwether, BeBe Shopp, and many others. I heard stories about Atlantic City before the casinos, the days when talent numbers could be changed before finals and the annual retreat for former Miss Americas. I was struck by the time and attention each interviewee paid to the questions I asked them, the thoughtfulness behind their answers and their willingness to share.
Once it was finally time for the competition to begin, Rene and I were eager to find our seats and finally meet the 52 contestants. On our way, we were able to speak with Miss Georgia, Miss Mississippi and Miss Michigan’s Outstanding Teens. They all expressed excitement to see their Misses compete and spend time with the teen contestants shortly after their competition in Orlando. Lucky for me and Rene, we were seated directly behind the teens and got to share in their excitement for the evening.
The pre-show launched with a tribute to the mothers of fallen soldiers, the Gold Star Moms. As a viewer, I was unaware that every year, an honorary Miss America is crowned. The incredibly touching tribute highlighted the lives of fallen soldiers and honored their mothers on stage. Seeing service in action as a part of a titleholder’s life even as a former was amazing to witness.
It was finally pageant time! The excitement was palpable as a producer prepared the audience for the live broadcast. Hosts Chris Harrison and Sage Steele welcomed 52 contestants to the stage. The contestants were quickly narrowed to a top 15… but not without some commercial breaks for dramatic appeal. If you think it’s awful waiting at home for the next contestants to be announced, imagine what these ladies are feeling onstage. The top 15 competed in swimsuit and were narrowed down to a top 12. Miss Tennessee took a risk in a fuchsia gown with a beaded cape. The runway also welcomed lots of white and red variations this year.
Following the evening gown portion of the night, was a tribute to the 15th anniversary of September 11th. Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell sang a stunning rendition of “Rise” as part of the tribute.
Then in one of the most painful eliminations of the evening, 10 contestants were invited to perform their talents. All 12 get dressed and prepared for talent not knowing whether or not they will get the chance to perform their selection.. Talk about pressure! The talent portion of the evening welcome five dancers, four singers, and a baton twirler. Two standouts of the evening were Miss New York singing “Sway” and Miss Washington tap dancing to “Let’s Get Loud.”
And as if performing for an audience of 24.5 million wasn’t enough, seven contestants continued on to answer their onstage question. This year’s topics were not at all platform focused but instead focused heavily on the upcoming election. As BeBe Shopp Waring, Former Miss America stated before the competition, “It’s not an easy year to be Miss America.”
Finally, it was time for Miss America to be crowned. As the contestants were narrowed down to a top 3, Miss Arkansas Savvy Shields was announced as the new Miss America. Through the flurry of cameras and flashes, Rene and I rushed to the press conference where we eagerly awaited meeting the new Miss America. And “there she is… Miss America”
After a whirlwind of a day, it was finally time to head back to NYC. I found myself exhausted, inspired and challenged to dream just a little bigger. As Kira told me, “Have crazy dreams and don’t be scared of following them because more often than not they will come true. If you work hard and you really believe in yourself. You’ve got one life so you better go out and live it.”