I didn't grow up dreaming about being Miss America. I didn't start competing in pageants when I was five years old. Up until a year ago, I couldn't even name a Miss America before 2013. For a long time, I thought the whole spectacle was antiquated, irrelevant and superficial. Being involved with the Miss America Organization taught me that I wasn't entirely wrong, but my opinion has certainly evolved.
The seed was planted while I was working at a small music store. A woman came in to sign up her daughter for vocal lessons. I remember this woman having a bit of an attitude problem, as she was the wife of some local politician (who was later impeached for extortion or something like that). In this small city, that made her a big deal. Somewhere in between talking about how great her husband was and how great her daughter was, she asked me if I was a local pageant contestant. I assured her I was not. Assuming pageantry was predominantly a southern entity, I didn't even realize that population existed in southeastern Massachusetts.
The guys at the music shop and I had a few laughs over the whole encounter, but I was curious. I went home and did some internet research, watched some horrible talent videos on Youtube and learned about the current Miss Massachusetts. Ultimately, I reached the conclusion, "I can totally do this".
But why? Anyone that competes within the Miss America Organization is going to spit out the same rhetoric: scholarship & service. But let's be honest here---you don't need a crown and sash to volunteer in your community and quite frankly, I've won more scholarships writing essays in my pajamas than in a swimsuit and six-inch heels. So, why? Why would an outspoken, sharp-tongued tomboy working at a piano bar want to be Miss Massachusetts?
1)To Boost my Music Career
I knew plenty of celebrities had gotten their start in pageants: Halle Berry, Eva Longoria, Oprah and even big-time performers like Brittany Spears, Demi Lovato and Katy Perry. However, I didn't really understand the difference in pageant systems or that different titles typically came along with different opportunities. In my mind, being Miss Massachusetts was my next big music-marketing campaign. It came along with the potential to perform on national television, appearances, and a title (I figured) people cared about.
I started competing in piano competitions when I was 4 years old and throughout high school, stayed busy with varsity tennis, mock trial tournaments and of course talent and music contests. After graduating, I maintained a tedious performance schedule, but had fewer benchmarks to track my progress. With nothing new on the radar, I was becoming discouraged. The only things I did involved 1) school or 2) work. I had no short-term goals to work towards and no real hobbies. Pageants perfectly filled that void.
3) Networking opportunities.
I knew that holding the title of "Miss Massachusetts" would open some doors: both personally and professionally. Between appearance and press opportunities, I have certainly been exposed to thousands of people who would otherwise have no idea who I am. I will admit that most of these people recognize me as "Miss Massachusetts" rather than "Alissa" or really anything that I stand for, but I have been able to meet with politicians, celebrities, artists and other public figures and speak with large audiences about my personal platform and journey. The crown is certainly a megaphone; although I've always had a big mouth, my voice has gotten louder.
4)To Boost my Résumé
What a cool thing to talk about at a job interview or cocktail party; "In 2016, I was Miss Massachusetts". Even when I pass on the crown, I'll hold that title for the rest of my life and I know it is something that will set me apart from a sea of applicants, especially in the entertainment industry. Miss America and the Miss America Organization is one of the oldest pop culture icons in this country. Being a titleholder within the organization is recognized and respected across generations.
My experience as Miss Massachusetts has been very different than I originally anticipated (I'm pretty sure every state titleholder will tell you the same thing.) In addition to my initial motives, there were also a few notable (and unintended) side effects of competing in pageants.
1) An expensive hobby
I really enjoyed competing, but consider this your fair warning: pageants are expensive and in order to be competitive, you need to spend money. I relied on second-time-around shops, bargains and borrowed items my first year, but still managed to dish out over $1400. I promise, that is really cheap. In other, more competitive states, you can expect to spend much more. Plus, I had to take off a week of work to compete and when you're a musician, "paid time off" isn't exactly a thing. In 2016, I spent much more, but to be fair, I had some financial support as a local titleholder in The Miss Boston Organization. It is easy for expenses to add up year after year and all of these costs don't immediately present themselves when you start competing. Ultimately, I ended up winning back all the money I spent, but I won relatively quickly and carefully considered all the costs before competing. I didn't mind spending the money because it was genuinely fun for me, but you need to be able to analyze the costs and appropriately budget before investing the time and money in competing.
2) Amazing friends
In pageants, there is a lot of talk about "sisterhood", "best friends" and even "going to Miss America to find your bridesmaids". In the beginning, I disregarded this all as a bunch of baloney, but I've come to realize that "sister queens" are definitely a real thing and that the bond is very real.
I'll be blunt here: I've encountered a lot of superficial, two-faced, catty and selfish people in pageantry---not just competitors, but also moms and directors. (It's funny---they're all nice to you after you win.) However, I've also met some of the most amazing people in the world whom I love dearly; all of my pageant roommates, fellow competitors, my sponsors and my directors (Consider this your shout out, Rocky.)
3) A sense of urgency to go back to school.
It's no secret; Miss America is the largest scholarship provider for women in the world. With the money I've won at the local, state and national level, I have a new sense of urgency to go back to school. Although I didn't see grad school as part of my immediate plan, I need to start using my state funds within a year (or two, if I get an extension) of when I was crowned. So, I'm going back to class for a little bit #ILoveCollege
(PS: Exciting announcement about my school plans coming soon)
Girls that compete in pageants often become subjected to judgemental people. This is nothing new, but I was certainly surprised by how much I was stereotyped because of my title (in both my personal and professional life). It bothers me when people first find out I'm Miss Massachusetts and say things like "You don't seem like that type of person" or "you seem too smart for that". What does that even mean? Is it supposed to be a compliment? A bigger issue is when people make assumptions about my musical abilities because of my title. After I won, one of the restaurants I perform at wrote a congratulatory post on their website. That weekend, a man approached me after my show and told me that when he heard Miss Massachusetts was performing, he figured I'd be pretty but didn't think my performance would actually be any good. He apologized for his assumption and told me he was actually very impressed with my music and couldn't wait to come back again. Instead of being offended, I really appreciated his honesty; I had never thought of that perspective before. If one person said it, others have certainly thought it. In another instance, an audience member admitted that he assumed my repertoire would be Broadway showtunes and "not really his type", given that stereotype about pageant competitors; he later described my performance as "versatile" and "exceptional".
I try to turn these instances into a teaching moment and educate folks about the real motives and mission of the Miss America Organization. Haters are gonna hate. But most hate stems from ignorance.