Waking up in my own bed was a strange feeling on Monday. For most people, it’s comforting to get home from a week spent in a hotel and finally sleep in your own bed. Although I am thankful I didn’t have to wake up at 6:30 a.m to head to rehearsals again, I would be back in Oshkosh in a heartbeat if I had the chance to spend one more day with 24 outstanding women for the best experience of my life a.k.a.. Miss Wisconsin week 2016.
Let’s rewind a little bit.
Here’s A Little Background Check
My friends and family know that I started this crazy journey about 2 and a half years ago during my senior year of high school. I heard about a local pageant affiliated with the Miss America Organization being held in my hometown and decided to give it a shot just for fun. Sure enough, I had a phenomenal experience, caught the “pageant bug,” and took on 5 more local pageants after that until I captured the local title of Miss Northern Lights 2016 in mid-January of this year. Since then, I’ve been spending the majority of my time (in between a full-time college schedule and part-time job) developing my platform, making appearances in the community to speak and volunteer, and also prepare for the next step… competing for the state title of Miss Wisconsin.
Like me, 24 other women from across the state of Wisconsin had also captured local titles and would be joining me to compete at the Miss Wisconsin Scholarship Pageant in June. For each and every one of us, our goal was to become Miss Wisconsin 2016 and represent this great state at the Miss America Scholarship Pageant (Yes, THEEEE Miss America. No, not Miss USA or Miss Universe, those are both completely different organizations. We’ll discuss that another time). However, only ONE of the twenty five of us could be Miss Wisconsin. We each prepared in our own ways, working with our directors, local board members and volunteers to improve for each distinct area of the competition: Interview, Onstage Question, Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear, Talent, and Evening Gown.
The preparation process became one of the greatest growing experiences for me, as I learned about my personal strengths and weaknesses. As humans, we often do not put ourselves in situations that force us to look at both sides. We tend to avoid areas of our lives where we are weak and continue in areas where we feel comfortable and strong. This opportunity forced me to recognize my weaknesses and address them directly, and that is something I don’t think I can find anywhere else. Preparing for each area of competition was one thing, but the lessons I learned about perseverance, motivation, and self-awareness through that preparation process are skills I’ll carry with me forever.
Time was running down, finishing touches and final mock interviews were held and soon enough, it was time to pack up for Miss Wisconsin week. I took every lesson learned, every word of constructive criticism, and every ounce of confidence in me and I hit the road for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Behind the Crown
So many people think that being a titleholder is such a glamorous lifestyle. At times, it can be. The crown and sash, dresses, makeup, photo sessions, and public appearances can make you feel like a celebrity sometimes. However, that is only a small fraction of what a titleholder does. Me and 24 of my sister queens were NOT competing for prizes, photo shoots, modeling contracts, or fame. We were each competing for the JOB of Miss Wisconsin.
Miss Wisconsin is NOT a beauty queen. In fact, as soon as she is crowned, she serves as an official spokesperson for her personal platform as well as Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and CITGO. She spends an entire year traveling across the state of Wisconsin and beyond to speak about important social issues. She embodies the four points of the crown: Service, Style, Scholarship, and Success. She does not win a fancy apartment or loads of spending money, but instead receives a $10,000 scholarship to go directly toward her college education. She is a fund raiser, advocate, spokesperson, and role model for the state of Wisconsin and the Miss America Organization. Therefore, Miss Wisconsin week is essentially a very extensive job application.
Sorry I got a little excited…
Miss Wisconsin Week
As soon as all 25 contestants arrived in Oshkosh on Sunday, we checked in at the auditorium and the hotel where we would all be staying together for the week.
Saying goodbye to mom and dad, we went right into orientation and rehearsals on Sunday evening. I was lucky enough to have Miss Fond du Lac, Katrina Mazier, as my roomie for the week. Aside from the competition itself, the time spent with all the girls in our hotel rooms is where my fondest memories of the week will be held. Taking off the gowns, washing off the makeup, and just kicking back and having fun with some of the most incredibly kind and intelligent women I’ve ever met was the best part of the experience.
The really cool thing about the Miss America Organization is that every girl involved comes with a unique story. Talking to each contestant during the week, I learned what fuels their fire for service and advocacy. Whether she is an advocate for autism awareness or promoting literacy or domestic violence prevention, each woman I met was aiming to make a difference in the lives of others and stand up for something she believes in. When you put 25 of the smartest, most driven, kindhearted, and motivated women in the state of Wisconsin on one stage, it’s a pretty amazing experience. As a matter of fact, everyone is genuinely rooting for each other to be successful, something you’ll never see on Toddler’s & Tiaras, is it?
Monday was made up of rehearsals, rehearsals, and more rehearsals. We were usually on the go from 8:00 a.m to as late as 11:30 p.m some days. In between morning and afternoon rehearsals on Monday, we had the pleasure of joining the Winnebagoland Shrine Club and some incredible veterans from central Wisconsin for lunch and good conversation. After that, it was back to rehearsals. If you can imagine spending six hours a day dancing and walking in heels, you can get an idea of how nice Band Aids and a hot bathtub felt at the end of the day.
After rehearsals concluded on Monday afternoon, it was back to the hotel to get ready for Merchant’s Dinner, where we were able to get dressed up to meet our sponsors and judges for a night of dinner, conversation, and entertainment. This was a very cool experience as well, seeing the faces behind the Miss Wisconsin program who make it all possible with their generous donations. Having the opportunity to speak with the judges on a personal and intimate level made the competition seem a lot more comfortable as well.
On Tuesday, half of the contestants were preparing for their private interviews. Most people don’t know that this is a huge part (25%) of how a winner is chosen. Before the actual show begins, we all have a 10 minute private interview with the judges, where they can ask us virtually anything. Usually, we converse about our platforms, viewpoints, goals, and accomplishments, but it’s a good idea to be prepared for a wide range of questions. Politics, current events, and social issues are also hot topics discussed in private interview.
I was placed in the second group of contestants, so I went to a two-hour talent rehearsal until my interview on Wednesday morning. After group one was finished with their interviews and group two completed talent rehearsals, we joined together for a picnic with the Oshkosh Kiwanis Club, where we each spoke about our platforms and talents while getting to know community members. After that little break, we were back at rehearsals once again until dinner and relaxation time at the hotel that evening.
DEEP BREATHS… On Wednesday morning, I had my private interview. I was up early to look my best, say a little prayer, and call my director for a quick pep talk. Needless to say, I ruined my makeup with a fountain of nervous tears while I was on the phone (mixed with a little bit of overtiredness). Knowing that all my hard work and hours upon hours of preparation would lead up to this moment was a very scary and emotional realization. But I was ready. I was prepared to show the judges what I had accomplished and all the things I have to offer. I was prepared to show them my passion and drive. You never know exactly what the judges are looking for, so the best idea is to remain true to yourself and be confident in who you are. The best way to win is to win as YOU. I was called downstairs to the holding room until the judges were ready for me. Soon enough, I was introduced to the judges and my 10 minutes to make a lasting impression started right there.
Walking out of my interview, I couldn’t help but burst into tears of relief, gratitude, and pride. I felt that I was able to show the judges who I truly was and that’s the most I could’ve asked for walking out of that room. Whether I ended up being Miss Wisconsin or not, the judges saw ME.
After interviews were complete, it was back to rehearsals for the afternoon to prepare for the first night of preliminary competitions. I competed in Swimsuit and Onstage Question on that night, which account for 15% and 5% of the total scoring.
Let me tell you, walking on stage in a swimsuit and heels takes a lot of strategy. You have to mix the perfect amount of sexy, classy, and confident. A lot of people disagree with the swimsuit portion of the competition, but in reality, the Miss America Organization began as a bathing suit contest way back in 1921. It’s a part of the program’s history and it continues today as a testament to a woman’s ability to appreciate and take care of her body, regardless of size or shape. Since the job of Miss Wisconsin may include uncomfortable or awkward situations at times, it’s important to remain confident. That’s what this area of competition is truly testing. They always say if you can walk on a stage in just a swimsuit, you can pretty much do anything.
In regards to Onstage Question, I was asked whether or not I believe Hillary Clinton is a role model for my platform GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve. Regardless of political affiliation, I answered YES, Hillary is in a position of leadership and it’s important for young girls to understand that possibility in themselves. My platform is all about encouraging young girls to make a difference in their communities through service and leadership. We need more female leaders, starting locally in our communities, and if we teach our girls to be confident and proud of their abilities, they can stand up for what they believe in, make a difference in the lives of others, and achieve anything. *mic drop*
After each night of prelims, there is a preliminary swimsuit winner and talent winner named. My goal was to win a swimsuit prelim, but it wasn’t in the cards for me this year and that’s perfectly okay because I am so happy with how I performed the first night. In fact, our fabulous Miss Madison-Capital City, Sarah, won the preliminary swimsuit award after getting burnt in the leg with a hot garment steamer backstage 10 minutes before the show. Even with her skin peeling off and blistering, she still rocked the stage and looked AMAZING and walked away with a $250 scholarship. You go girl!! *fist bump* Just goes to show you never know what happens behind the scenes. What you see on stage is just a small representation of what actually goes on behind that smile and sassy strut.
Thursday morning, we woke up for a short rehearsal and then we were free to meet our families for lunch and a backstage tour. After a long week filled with early mornings, late nights, stress, and rehearsals, it was nice to take a break to see all the people who came to support me.
After lunch, it was back to rehearsals one more time before the second night of preliminaries, where I competed in Talent and Evening Gown. Now, I always say that my talent is my weak point since I have never been professionally trained in any kind of dance. In fact, I only started dancing as a sophomore in high school while many of my sister queens have been dancing since age 3. I knew it was going to be tough, so I put some long hours into that 90 second routine and I am incredibly thankful for all those who took the time to help me create and polish it for the stage. (Shouts to Hayley, Grant, Megan, and Katie). After a very rough talent rehearsal earlier in the week, I was nervous for my talent performance that night. Since talent actually makes up the majority (35%) of a contestant’s total score, I knew I had to nail it in order to bump up into the Top 10 on Finals night. I knew that I had to connect with the audience and captivate the judges by telling a story through movement. I took a deep breath, walked out onto the stage, got into my starting position, and just closed my eyes for a moment and took it all in. I thought to myself,
I was chosen by a local panel of judges who believed in my mission, I practiced and prepared to the best of my ability, I took constructive criticism, and I am ready to perform this talent on the Miss Wisconsin stage. I am good enough, I can do this.
I hit my turns and finished my final pose strong and looked up in tears as I walked off the stage. I could not have been happier with my dance that night. I may not have had the best routine out of all the talents, but I knew how far I had come and how hard I worked to get there. That was absolutely good enough for me.
After both nights of prelims, we were all able to go into the audience to visit with our families. I cried again (mostly because I was exhausted and relieved by my performance). I left it all on the stage both of those nights and was more confident in myself than ever before.
Rise and shine and RELAX! Friday was a breath of fresh air, as we were all headed to a golf outing to benefit Miss Wisconsin scholarships. We were given a lot of freedom, which I could describe as a pilot episode of “Miss Wisconsin Contestants Gone Wild” if you can imagine all of us behind the wheel of golf carts. It felt so nice to get outside, relax, and spend time with one another off the stage.
Friday was an interesting day because, now that preliminary competitions were over, everyone was (im)patiently waiting to find out the following night who would have the honor of being chosen as a Top 10 semifinalist and continue on in the competition. Friday was a mix of relief and feeling on edge, and those two emotions together can be really exhausting.
After the golf outing, the majority of us fell asleep on the 10 minute ride back to the hotel before having some free time to meet with our directors. As soon as I met with Katie for dinner, I immediately started crying. In fact, I cried almost every day that week. It’s so strange because I always felt so grateful and blessed to be where I was, competing for Miss Wisconsin, but it was also a very stressful week because of the fact that we were all working so hard for that position. With the combination of very little sleep, stress, and an irregular eating schedule, my body was just exhausted to tears. After a good cry every now and then, I put on my big girl pants and focused myself once again. I was taking on the most amazing opportunity of my life and I wanted to soak in every moment.
Following my vent session, we were all ready to get dressed up again for the Teen pageant that evening. Seeing those young girls perform and watching the crowning of the new Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen made me so excited for the following evening when we would find out who our own Miss Wisconsin would be. Come 11:30pm, we were back at the hotel for bed time, but I could not sleep. The next day would be the final day of an amazing, exhausting, liberating, humbling week competing for the job of my dreams. I didn’t want it to end.
Today was the day.
My 24 fellow contestants and I were off to the Oshkosh Farmer’s Market for a morning engaging with community members, signing autographs, and taking photos. This is easily one of my favorite parts of being a titleholder because there is no better feeling than seeing a little girl’s eyes light up at the sight of your crown. It’s moments like these that make me realize why I do this. Even though I was running on a few hours of sleep and plenty of physical and emotional stress, I realized that there are people who look up to me and my mission. There will always be a little girl in the corner of my eye admiring my presence, and for that, I am so blessed to serve as a role model in this position.
After the Farmer’s Market, we were off to Festival Foods to have lunch and help bag groceries while promoting the final night of the pageant that evening. By this day, I think the majority of us were all zombies from the lack of sleep and long days, but it was all SO worth it.
Following our short stop at Festival, we were able to go back to the hotel to rest, recover, and prep for the final night of competition. I took this time to reflect on how incredible this journey had been. Just two and a half years ago, I entered my first pageant not knowing what the Miss America Organization was all about. Now that I had spent the week with numerous directors, volunteers, contestants, supporters, and sponsors, I knew exactly what my involvement meant.
Regardless of the results of the competition, Miss Wisconsin week is made up of just a few of the 365 days that I have the privilege of being Miss Northern Lights. This competition is not an accurate representation of what it truly means to be a titleholder. I was standing there on that stage because I pushed myself to be the best version of Jess. I chose to surround myself with people who were going to lift me up and believe in my abilities. I had a platform that I wished to spread throughout my community and the state of Wisconsin, and with a crown or not, I knew that my mission would still continue after the week’s events concluded.
Fast forward to the announcement of the Top 10 semifinalists that evening… I stood there on stage, praying that my performances throughout the week would carry me into the Top 10, a goal I set for myself going into my preparations for Miss Wisconsin. I hoped the judges saw a potential Miss Wisconsin in me, believing in my mission and my abilities to carry the organization further with a state title. As the names continued getting called, I was more and more nervous. I wanted to be able to perform one more time that night for my friends and family. Before the final name was called, I looked over and felt so much pride for my sister queens who were moving forward in the Top 10. The Miss America Organization is beautiful and unique because everyone is genuinely cheering for one another and there is always so much love, positivity, and encouragement between contestants. I was especially excited for my Miss Wis roomie, Katrina, for making Top 10. I wanted to run up and hug her so badly as soon as she looked back at me with such excitement and relief when her name was called as a semifinalist (P.S.. if you’re reading this, Miss Fondy, I love you tons and I am so proud of all you’ve accomplished and overcome).
After the final name was called and the words “Miss Northern Lights” were left unspoken, I did feel upset. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little disappointed. However, I had to remember that this was not the end of the world. I was still receiving a scholarship just for being there, my family and friends were still there cheering me on, and there were 10 outstanding women who needed my support as they advanced in the competition. I could not have been happier with my performances in all areas of competition that week and I left it all on the stage. I will never forget going back to the dressing room to get into my comfy clothes with the rest of the non-finalists and crowding around the backstage monitor, cheering on our sister queens. Katrina, Miss Fond du Lac, Top 10 semifinalist, and my lovely Miss Wis roomie, came out from her dressing room, ready to perform her talent and I gave her a huge hug and we cried together. This was one of the best moments. I was so incredibly proud of her for being only 18 years old, surviving a very hard time in her life, spreading her message of suicide prevention and awareness, and I was so happy the judges saw the beauty that I also saw in her.
Fast forward to later that night… a new Miss Wisconsin was crowned (Courtney Pelot, you are fabulous and I am so excited for you!!!!), we all embraced backstage, and I felt so blessed and humbled to have been a part of this experience. Two and a half years of working toward a dream of walking on the Miss Wisconsin stage and I just did it. I reached a goal this past week. I didn’t make Top 10, I am not Miss Wisconsin, and some people might look at those results and give up after not reaching a specific goal like that. However, I am proud of myself and how far I’ve come since the very beginning and I will keep spreading my mission as Miss Northern Lights because that is God’s plan for me right now. This week, I gained scholarship dollars, life experiences, confidence, a greater sense of self, and 24 amazing sisters. Priceless.
During my two and a half years of involvement and preparation, there are so many people I’d like to acknowledge for their efforts toward my journey.
First and foremost, thank you to my family and friends for allowing me to do this. Thank you for watching me go off on my own and always understanding when I had to cancel plans for Miss Wisconsin prep or last minute Miss Northern Lights appearances. Thank you for letting me run wild toward my dreams. I love you all, you know who you are.
Mitch, thank you for jumping head-first into this pageant boyfriend role. When I met you, I was preparing to compete for Miss Northern Lights and you have never ceased to believe in me and my abilities from that point. Thank you for understanding when I would have to finish paperwork or read up on news articles while you sat patiently next to me, or when I would have to cancel date nights for mock interviews, appearances, and talent rehearsals. Thank you for always treating me like a queen, with or without a crown on my head.
On the flip side, thank you to those who didn’t think I could do it. For those who doubted me or didn’t think what I was doing was worth it. Thank you for fueling my fire.
Katie, I am so blessed to call you my director. From day one, you put so much time and effort into my readiness for the job of Miss Wisconsin and I am eternally grateful for your advice, hugs, constructive criticism, and words of motivation and empowerment. I look up to you in so many ways and I will be lucky to be half the woman you are when my time as a contestant is over. I am so honored to be your very first Miss Northern Lights. Thank you for teaching me to be confident in my accomplishments and for never giving up on me.
Megan and Brenda, thank you for all your help along the way. Megan, thank you for traveling hours to help me choreograph and perfect my talent piece. Your advice allowed me to improve as a dancer, communicator, and titleholder. Thank you for sacrificing your time and energy toward my journey! Brenda, thank you for reaching out and getting me involved in this organization during my senior year of high school. Since then, I have loved getting to know you and growing in my faith, my platform, and as a young woman. Thank you for building me up from the very beginning and helping me understand my true worth as a woman of the Lord.
To the host moms who spent the entire week with all the contestants both backstage and in the hotel, thank you for taking care of all of us by donating your time, hugs, helpful hands and kind words. Having you all around made the environment so relaxed, and without you, we all would’ve been starving, dehydrated, stressed, and left with unzipped gowns.
To Jeremy and the rest of the security team, thank you for keeping our best interest in mind and for keeping us all safe and in order. No creepers got to us this week, thanks to you and the crew. You rock.
To the Miss Wisconsin Board of Directors and stage crew, thank you for offering this opportunity to the women of Wisconsin. I appreciate, more than anything, your time and commitment to this organization to make this program a success. I look forward to working with all of you in the future!
To my sponsors: Nona Lione for my alterations, Dave and Trish at Fast Signs for my autograph cards, Big O’s of Portage, Sean Malone, Gary O’Hearn of the Optimist Club, Knights of Columbus, and Amy Sullivan, THANK YOU for your generous donations on the road to Miss Wisconsin. I was able to purchase state wardrobe, pay for gas to get to appearances, and gather everything I need for a successful week at Miss Wisconsin and beyond as Miss Northern Lights. Money is hard to come by these days and I appreciate that you were able to donate to my efforts. THANK YOU!
Finally, to my sister queens, thank you for being YOU. Each of you is unique, passionate, driven, smart, and deserving of this opportunity to serve and represent your communities. It was a pleasure and honor to be surrounded by each of you this past week. Nobody can understand the value of these relationships until they take the step to get involved and I am so happy you all chose to enter your local pageants, because if you didn’t choose to get involved, you wouldn’t have been able to change at least one person’s life with your stories. I am so blessed to call all of you my sisters and I can’t wait to see you all again and continue to watch you change the world with your efforts and missions. I love every single one of you.
I can honestly say that this organization has changed my life for the better. Like I’ve said before and will continue to say for the rest of my life, there are so many programs to get involved in, but none of them are like the Miss America Organization. Service opportunities, scholarships, sisterhood, and personal growth are all things that I was looking for as a young girl. I found all of that through this program and I encourage every woman between the ages of 17 and 24 to reach out to me personally or visit one of the websites below. Do it, just do one local pageant like I chose to do almost three years ago. I guarantee you won’t regret it because you have nothing to lose, only so much to gain.
To compete to become a local titleholder within the state of Wisconsin:
If you live, work, or go to school in a different state in the U.S:
The state pageant lasts one week, my reign as Miss Northern Lights 2016 lasts one year, but the skills gained through this experience and my involvement in this organization lasts a lifetime. For that, I am forever grateful and so proud to be serving as your very first Miss Northern Lights.
Miss Northern Lights 2016