Piano, Pageants & Politics

Stop asking me "What's next?"

The month leading up to, the week of, and the weeks following the 2017 Miss Massachusetts pageant, I entered slight panic mode every time someone congratulated me on my year of service. I knew what the follow-up question was: "So. What's next?"

I'd respond with some vague, canned, uncontroversial sound bite about "going back to school, working on my music, blah, blah, blah" (or the occasional one-liner), but in my head, I was freaking out; I had no idea "what's next". Once I passed on the crown, what was I supposed to be doing? Singing on Broadway? Curing cancer? Announcing my candidacy for president? If I didn't have some amazing offer awaiting me on July 2nd, was I moving backwards?

I won Miss Massachusetts a month after graduating college, so I hadn't really experienced that quarter-life crisis where everyone expects you to immediately secure a solid job with benefits (or a full ride to graduate school) post-commencement. But I imagine it goes a little something like this: Your friends want to know "what's next". Your parents REALLY want to know "what's next" and even your friends' parents evoke anxiety by casually inquiring about your future plans. Years of your life were dedicated to achieving one goal, and once that box is checked, distress over succeeding (or at least, completing) is replaced with a big, fat, uncomfortable void.

As a recovering perfectionist, the lingering uncertainty of "now what?" cast a shadow on my daily life. I became so hard on myself for "not doing anything", even though performing 4+ shows per week, teaching 25 weekly students, writing music and dabbling in various side projects would be enough to keep most people entertained. It didn't help that my social media was flooded with my Miss America sisters and their new jobs, new homes and new engagement rings; while our goals vastly differed, at least they knew "what's next" and were out there doing it!

As I pinned my hair up in neon-pink grandma curlers on the afternoon of the 2017 Miss Massachusetts pageant, I asked Lauren Kuhn, Miss Massachusetts 2014, about her own experience with the "what's next" blues. I have always admired Lauren, not only because of her impressive credentials (4th runner-up at Miss America, Harvard Dental School graduate, the list goes on), but because she was the first Miss Massachusetts I ever met. The initial impression she left on me undoubtedly influenced my decision to continue within the Miss America Organization. I was so relieved as Lauren admitted that towards the end of her reign, there were times where she just wanted to say "What do you mean, what's next?!" when folks inquired. "I'm going to continue being awesome and doing what I do!" I really liked that answer.

Because (most) women in the Miss America Organization (shockingly) have lives outside of pageants, former titleholders continue to succeed in their academic, professional and personal pursuits once their year of service is completed. While these endeavors likely coexisted with, and perhaps even proceeded a pageant career, the title of Miss State can easily dominate a woman's preexisting identity---to the outside world. While the experiences and opportunities associated with being Miss State undoubtedly influences each titleholder's life, she still retains her original identity. She still has the same things going for her. She still possesses all of the qualities that earned her the crown in the first place. No one, especially women of that caliber, should feel like a "has been" at 24.

When people asked "what's next", I often wondered if in their minds, I didn't have really anything else going on aside from being Miss Massachusetts. I felt like my exterior accomplishments and goals weren't good enough. Like many outgoing titeholders, I felt like a lot of people had high hopes for me and were expecting big things. Yet, I was falling short.

Back at the pageant, the "now what" conversation naturally arose (alot) as I socialized with sponsors, friends, contestants' families and complete strangers. To be fair, this is the socially acceptable and logical icebreaker when smalltalk-ing with a woman whose about to literally hand off her life-changing job to another woman. Still, I was overcome with a roller coaster of emotions; crying wasn't an option---I'd ruin my makeup. Resorting to the one thing that has consistently gotten me through the most difficult moments of my life, I channeled these emotions into music and began jotting some words down on a napkin in my dressing room. For my penultimate act as Miss Massachusetts, I debuted that song to the audience who had witnessed the beginning of my journey one year earlier. Same place. Same time.

I truly meant every word I sang. I didn't have time to censor whether my material was too personal or revealing. Or even made sense. I didn't have time to process how vulnerable my lyrics made me. Or consider how my audience would react when I explicitly called them out for their earlier interrogations; "let me guess, you wanna know what's next. Is this the best she'll ever do?" It was unrehearsed. It was unfinished. It was simplistic to the point of being borderline cliche. But it was raw emotion. Prior, I had never understood how Billy Joel wrote the music and lyrics to "New York State of Mind" in an hour. Moral of the story? Never underestimate an emotional songwriter.

July 1st came and it went---with a few tears, but no major casualties. I took a vacation---something my workaholic former self would never even consider. I hiked in the Berkshires. I mediated alongside the largest indoor statue of Buddha in the Western Hemisphere. Unlike Chris Christie, I got plenty of sun on the Jersey Shore. I sang along to "Piano Man", with the piano man. I ate plenty of donuts. I came home.

While my descend from the crown wasn't greeted by a contract from RCA, I realized I'm pretty darn close to living out my dream---working full time as a professional musician, getting ready to record my second album, trying new things, collaborating with artists, traveling---and that's not something too many people can confidently claim. I'm enjoying being in love---with my audiences, with the unique character of Boston, with the humorous scenarios I find myself in every day. I have amazing friends (that I actually make time for now). I have an incredible and supportive family. I am healthy.

I'm certainly not complacent, but for the first time, in a long time, I'm not restless either. Waiting is hard in an era obsessed with instant gratification, but I'm working towards some big things. I'm confident in myself and my abilities. I know what I need to do to accomplish what I want. I'm willing to put in that time and work.

I'm no longer intimidated by "what's next". Rather, I'm excited.

#alissamusto #MissMassachusetts