"Contestant number 6, What have your parents taught you?"
It was 2004 and I had been preparing for this question for years. My legs were shaking, and with stage lights in my eyes I could barely see the audience in front of me. I went through my mental checklist: Stand up straight. Feet in the 12/2 position. Nod to the judges. And deliver:
"My parents have taught me, two decades of marriage and two kids later, that love is not a fairy tale. Love can last forever."
At the 2014 Miss America pageant on Sunday night, Miss California, who would later win first runner-up in the pageant, was asked if the United States should intervene in Syria, right after Miss Oklahoma got an "equally difficult" question about what Miley was up to these days. But you probably won't hear much about her thoughtful, intelligent response in which she quickly outlined her opinion that action should be supported by Congress and the United Nations. You have, I'm sure, heard about the cringe-inducing time Miss South Carolina Teen (teen!) fumbled famously over a question about why one-fifth of Americans reportedly cannot locate the U.S. on a world map, or when Miss Utah said she wanted to figure out how "to create education better."
Behind the cloaks of Twitter and Facebook, it's easy for people to mock pageants, the women who sometimes make onstage mistakes in front of millions of viewers, and the perceived "high heels–low brow" culture.
But beauty pageants, though deserving of some criticism, do a lot of good for a lot of girls who don't even know they need them. Like me.
Growing up in rural South Carolina, in a relatively modest, middle-class home, I was a bit of tomboy. I had closets full of dresses and dolls, but tennis rackets and softball cleats were on the floor. Pageants were an annual tradition and fundraiser hosted at our local middle school, and I thought they looked fun, so I entered my first pageant at age 3. I loved people and being the center of attention, so pageants were a perfect place to focus that energy.
My parents didn't take my pageant hobby too seriously but supported me throughout. My mom remembers going to that middle-school gym with me. I wore a dress we recycled from a Christmas play and bought my photos from the Kmart portrait center. I strutted into that room like I knew I was the belle of the ball. Lots of my competitors arrived with big updos, layers of makeup, and clouds of hairspray. Many of them came armed with professional headshots and designer dresses. I'm told that I stomped around gleefully on stage, waved at my grandpa in the crowd, made the audience laugh, and loved every minute of it. That day, I won third runner-up. My Kmart photos even earned me the title of Miss Photogenic.
My next pageant was in third grade, the year I was accepted into the Gifted and Talented program at my school. This time, they asked contestants to share their weight on the entry form. I was always a little chubbier than my friends, and my mom could see I was nervous about it. She ensured me I didn't have to reveal a number.
With bright lights in my eyes as I walked on stage, I remember the emcee's words reverberating though the packed gymnasium: "Ashley is 4 feet 5 inches, and she says a lady doesn't reveal her weight." The audience didn't know what to do, and instead of clapping at the emcee's attempt at a quip, they were silent. This chubby, outgoing little girl was already showing signs of insecurity: Making jokes so laughter would fill the silence, they must have thought. I didn't win or place in that pageant. It was a blow: As the honor roll student and MVP of the softball team, I certainly was not accustomed to losing.
In eighth grade, I started entering about two pageants per year. Being overweight at 15 just does something to your confidence, but when I got on stage, a rush went through me — I was confident. I felt invincible.
I knew I was onto something with pageants — the better I did, the more confidence I got, and that spilled over into my academic and personal life. The pageants I entered eventually started including a talent portion, so I tried singing. I was good. In high school, the pageants involved interviews. I ended up training with some pageant coaches, and my ambition and determination translated to a quick wit and solid delivery on stage. Some pageants had fitness competitions, in which contestants wore shorts and a tank top, so I lost some weight and stopped eating junk food.
I'm well aware of the reasons pageants have a bad reputation: Sweet little girls on Toddlers & Tiaras drinking Red Bull to make it through competition are just one example. But I wholeheartedly believe that pageants are what gave me the confidence that made me the woman I am today. Through pageants, I got over insecurity and fear. I failed. I succeeded. I worked to become a better version of myself, and emerged healthier and more introspective.
If it weren't for pageants, I probably wouldn't have nailed my college interview, which led to my full scholarship. I wouldn't have had the social skills to enter and excel in my sorority, where I built significant and lasting friendships. The courage I learned from the stage led me — a girl from town with only one traffic light — to study in Greece, to live and work in New York City after college, and to never look back.
In college, after my pageant days were over, my fairy tale of a family went through an extremely difficult divorce. I started to think back to that question I answered when I was 17 about what my parents had taught me. The skills I learned and the confidence I developed in pageants helped me get through tough times and tough questions, on or off stage.