When I received an invitation as a member of the press to attend the “Miss USA Homecoming for Alyssa Campanella” I quickly replied Yes!
I’m not a follower of beauty pageant stuff but it gets my attention sometimes. I read news clips of pageant winners and the occasional scandals, like when Donald Trump had to decide whether to dethrone Miss USA Tara Conner.
Ms. Conner won the title in 2006 and took fourth runner up in Miss Universe that year – which for her was also a year of partying dangerously. She landed in a drug and alcohol rehab as Trump, who operates the Miss USA pageant, gave her a second chance to keep the title.
Then in 2007 Miss Teen South Carolina went viral in a terrible way. During a Q&A session Lauren Caitlin Upton responded to a question with a cringe inducing ramble. The video was viewed millions of times and tagged her as the quintessential dumb blonde. Never mind that she was an honor student in high school who played varsity soccer for four years.
I went to the homecoming event with an open but curious mind last Wednesday, held at the swank Hollywood hotspot Drai’s in the W Hotel. Floor 18, please, where I strolled past the rooftop restaurant to the pool area surrounded by intimate cabanas swathed in red lights.
Soon I was in the midst of a gaggle of teen beauties anxiously awaiting the arrival of Miss USA, who had recently returned from the Miss Universe pageant in Brazil. There was no doubt Alyssa was the prettiest of them all, wearing a floor length white dress with black cardigan, her pulsing green eyes and long radiant red hair topped with a Cleopatra crown. She’s 5 foot-eight but with high heels she flowed to her platform like a goddess giant walking on air.
A line was soon formed by the 100-plus women in the crowd for a photo shoot with the beauty queen. Many were former pageant winners and others who hoped to become one. As the crowd swelled and people milled about I began the interviews. I wanted to know their story, about why they were here and what they aspired to become.
Rather than finding the stereotype of dreamy-eyed, ego inflated goo-goo dolls I discovered something much different. These were young women of character, goal oriented, ambitious, bold, daring, honest and open, humble, genuine, kind and friendly. They were hard working risk takers; youthful entrepreneurs with aspiration to not only improve their lives but that of the world around them.
Yes they really enjoy the glamor of pageants but it requires very hard work. They work out daily, stay up on current events, learn public speaking skills and how to perform with poise and grace under intense pressure.
“You have to mentally and physically prepare, keep up with current events and build your confidence,” said Alexis Swanstrom, 17, the newly crowned Miss California Teen USA. “We are intelligent, smart women who want to change the world.”
“It’s a privilege to show off on stage,” she said. “It’s what I work so hard for.”
It took Swanstrom three years to win, starting at age 13. In her first try at Miss Teen she was second runner up, then first runner up, and this year the winner. Asked how she felt not winning first place in the previous tries she said, “I know I did my best. I stay humble.”
“The competition is fun and you gain a lot of confidence,” said Annie Read, 17, crowned Miss New Hampshire Teen USA last month. “It can open a lot of doors.”
Emma Baker, 18, Miss California Teen USA in 2010, chose to forgo a 4 year soccer scholarship at University of Nebraska-Lincoln to instead focus on pageantry. It paid off.
“It changed my life,” she said. In a July 2010 interview with Seventeen magazine she said, “It is very important to remain humble and grounded. I stay true to myself; true to my beliefs and my morals.”
She invited me to sit down next to her as I introduced myself and asked for an interview.
“You have to know the full story,” Katie said. And what a story it was.
In 2006 she was the first woman from Montana to win a major pageant title, of Miss Teen USA. She spent the next year living in New York City at Trump Place with Miss USA Tara Conner, the one who ended up in rehab. It seems that Conner’s penchant for partying rubbed off on Blair. Things got bad. Conner and Blair were regulars at nightclubs, engaging in underage drinking. Conner would later admit to cocaine use as well. She and Katie got a bit too chummy, though, as tabloids frequently reported about the two cavorting about and engaging in sexually explicit nightclub dancing and kissing.
Blair, then age 19, was portrayed as immature, disrespectful, naïve and ignorant. And the drinking turned out to be a big problem in other ways. Blair was a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
In December 2006 MADD issued a press release in which it said: “In the past MADD has teamed with Miss Teen USA to raise awareness about the serious and often deadly consequences of underage drinking. However, we do not feel, at this time, that Ms. Blair can be an effective spokesperson and will not ask her to represent MADD in future initiatives.”
“It was hell, a tumultuous year,” said Blair. “I wasn’t going to ever do a pageant again.”
As time went on Blair came to see more clearly how she had let herself down and blown a tremendous opportunity. Tired of the emotional haunting of those memories she decided to make a comeback.
“I wanted to do it over,” she said. She wanted to prove she was a strong, honest, educated and independent woman. Rather than sit around feeling bitter, regretful and resentful, Blair came back to the stage. She began to work out aggressively, raised money to enter the California pageant and went up against 280 contestants.
She finished 1st runner-up at Miss California USA 2011, behind Alyssa Campanella. Soon after that Campanella won Miss USA and handed the Miss California title over to Blair.
Blair, 24, is a graduate from the internationally recognized Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles with a degree in merchandise marketing. She plans to pursue an additional degree in Business Management at FIDM after she fulfills her pageant duties.
The second chance has made her humble and grateful.
“I write a lot of thank you notes,” she said.
~Strength & honor,