Musical Musings: More than Miss Congeniality

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Musical Musings: More than Miss Congeniality

Ilena Peng

I know when you were little girls you dreamt of being in my world

I’m a “pageant girl.” Pageants have a glamorous reputation, with those crowns and gowns that so many little girls want. Yet it’s not something I tell people about. But the more I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t have a good reason for keeping it a secret from my friends. The only reason I could think of was the stereotypes; particularly the stereotype that all pageant girls have no brains and only care about looks. And standing in their heels, I can tell you firsthand that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

During my three years with the Miss Santa Clara Organization, I’ve walked away with two best interview awards, one talent award and the title of Miss Congeniality (nope, not the Sandra Bullock movie.) And most recently, I was the first runner up to Miss Santa Clara’s Outstanding Teen 2016.

Fairly decent, I suppose, but not all that glitters is gold.

Don’t forget it, respect that

Although Miss America and Miss Universe are eloquent, intelligent public figures with glamorous lives, people forget that beauty is always more than skin deep. Media views pageantry as no more than glittering evening gowns, sky-high platform heels, and bikinis. But although us pageant girls do think that everything is better with rhinestones, there’s more to pageants than what the public sees on television.

The notion that pageantry is all about swimsuits and having the perfect body is a lie. Some pageants, like the one I was in, don’t even have a swimsuit portion. And for those that do include one, it’s not about being thin; it’s to see whether they’re fit, whether they can display and accept their flaws, masking them with a huge smile.

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Illustration by Ilena Peng

But what pageants do have is 30 pages of paperwork, 15 years of life accomplishments in an one page resume, an 8 minute job interview with 6 judges, one minute and thirty seconds performing a talent of your choice. And 5 seconds in which you find out who won the crown.

A pageant is judged on more than beauty. It’s confidence and quick thinking.

I took some time to live my life but don’t think I’m just this little wise

You know that familiar feeling of dread you get when teachers call out a student to answer a question?
Imagine answering that question in front of 400 people, or better yet, several million people on television. A video of an unfortunate Miss Teen USA contestant stuttering and calling our citizens “U.S. Americans” has nearly 65 million views. What if I got an impossible question like the one my friend received last year on gun control?

I paced backstage listening to the beat of the music, desperately trying to stop the images of everything that could go wrong from running through my head.

Over a year of preparation and full days in the theater all vanish when the two-hour show goes by in what feels like five minutes. Then I’m left standing backstage waiting to go onstage and hear the results, hopeless, knowing that nothing I do from this moment on will make a difference.

I can’t remember if I slouched while walking, if I smiled during the opening number, whether I had made eye contact with the judges during the onstage question. What if I messed everything up and received nothing at all, left to stand on stage feeling like a failure? All of this and more was running through my head as I stood on stage, failing to hear my name called for the third runner-up or the second.

When I heard my name called for first runner-up, I sighed in relief. Like all the girls there that day, I wanted to go home with a crown; I’m not going to lie. But I was able to perform for myself and enjoy the experience. The first two years I competed, I felt like it was for my parents, or my teacher. This year, I told my parents not to come watch the show. No one was there to watch me. Lonely, I know — but in that way I realized that enjoying myself onstage was far more important to me than a crown will ever be.

Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted

Three years ago, I was an awkward thirteen year old playing dress-up in my heels and gown.

Now that pageant image is a part of me. Regardless of all the labels that come with being a pageant girl, I’m proud to call myself one. Pageant girls are dancers, rappers, singers, musicians and educators. The media has already twisted pageantry’s image; don’t get it twisted more.

Originally published in the Feb. 2016 print issue of El Estoque