That sentence gives me butterflies.
I’ve written and re-written this post countless times, trying to come up with the right words to express how I feel about Miss Wisconsin week 2018, one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m forever grateful for this experience and it was nothing short of breathtaking. I left with about $3,000 in scholarships, a preliminary swimsuit award, a marketing and communications award, 26 friendships, a full heart, and a greater sense of what I’m capable of.
Never did I ever think I’d be standing in the final two. Of course, I dreamt of it for years, but I never imagined it would ACTUALLY be happening. As I stood there, waiting for a moment that could potentially change the course of my professional career, I had only a few seconds to prepare myself for a wide spectrum of emotions. In just a moment, my heart could be broken right there or it could be on it’s way to Miss America. In that moment, that flimsy little piece of paper held by the emcee had so much power. Scary, right?
Miss Wisconsin is a job I’ve been working toward for about five years. I’d be lying if I told you I dreamed of becoming Miss America since I was five years old. I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t really learn much about the Miss America Organization until I was a high school senior, entering my first local pageant. I learned that I could be a servant leader, advocate for issues I’m passionate about, and earn scholarships for college. What did I have to lose? The idea that I could start a positive chain reaction in my community was something that set my heart on fire. Since then, I knew the job of Miss Wisconsin was something I wanted to continue to pursue.
Over the past five years, I began to understand what this job truly entails (and yes, it is a full-time job for 365 days). I learned that this is NOT a job that is all about me. Miss Wisconsin is a representative of this state and the people who live here. She is a voice for the voiceless, using a sparkly crown as a microphone. She is someone with a big heart and an open mind. She is a servant leader who dedicates her time and energy to bettering the lives of those she meets. You can’t create a Miss Wisconsin; she must already live in the hearts of very few women.
This idea was something I always had a focus on, but it became much clearer as I pursued my second local title over the past couple of years. If I truly wanted to be Miss Wisconsin, I had to find her in myself.
Blood, Sweat, Tears and Fears
For a lot of contestants, myself included, there’s a huge focus on preparing heavily for the specific areas of competition: Private Interview, Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear (R.I.P), Onstage Question, Talent, and Evening Gown. We put in countless sweaty hours at the gym for that swimsuit bod and we rehearse our talents until there’s literal blood, sweat, and tears. We study every news article we can get our hands on, and search endlessly for the perfect evening gown and wardrobe. I chose to look at each area of competition individually and pinpoint specific ways I can improve. For example, talent is a category that I have to work extra hard at, so I dedicated a large majority of my time to polishing my routine (THANK YOU Haley, Hayley, Laura and Scott!!!) I also get really nervous for Onstage Question, so I made sure to study a variety of current events and understand my thoughts on them so I could deliver a well-thought-out answer.
Although important, those areas of competition are not what make someone a great Miss Wisconsin. If I were to be Miss Wisconsin, I wanted to be 110% authentically Jessica first. The largest part of my preparations leading up to Miss Wisconsin included reflection. I asked myself, “Why do I want this job? What do I bring to the table? How am I ready for this? What can I do to further prepare myself, not only for the competition, but for this job? How can I share my heart and be completely Jess in every area of competition?”
This was hands-down the most beneficial tactic I used to prepare for this opportunity. I decided to take extra time to get to know myself, so I could best communicate to the judges exactly who I am and what unique qualities I could contribute to the role.
By the time Miss Wisconsin week rolled around, I felt ready. Lemme tell ya all about it…
The Time Has Come
The week itself is always a wild experience. For those who aren’t familiar, all 27 contestants arrive in Oshkosh on a Sunday to unpack before a short evening orientation and rehearsal at the hotel.
On Monday, we were up early for a full day of rehearsals with our production team and a luncheon with the Winnebagoland Shrine Club and veterans from King, WI. My table was introduced to a lovely lady named Barb. Her husband served in the Army and they had been married for 61 years while residing in Antigo, WI.
Following our afternoon of rehearsal, we were all off to The Waters for Merchant’s Dinner, a semi-formal event with all of our sponsors, the state board of directors, and our panel of judges. I had the pleasure of sitting by Addison, the sweetest little gem. We shared lots of laughs and excitement over glitter, cheer and dance, and potatoes. A girl after my own heart.
On Tuesday morning, my group (contestants #15-27) went over to the auditorium for our talent rehearsal before meeting Group 1 (contestants #1-14) for lunch with the Oshkosh Kiwanis Club. We all had the chance to get some fresh air and share our platforms before heading back to rehearsal.
On Wednesday, I was up VERY early to get ready for my private interview. I woke up feeling a strange mix of emotions, mainly because I had spent the past 6 months (or years, I suppose) preparing for this day. I was eager to have my time with the judges, but also anxious over the fact that I had to fit everything I wanted them to know about me–my goals, plans, accomplishments, challenges, and redeeming qualities–in just 10 minutes. Once I stepped into that room, time flew and it was done before I could blink. I shared my heart and left feeling like the judges knew who I was. I walked out of the interview room feeling relieved and content, and that’s all I could have asked for.
Following my interview, we all headed over to the auditorium for lunch with the Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen contestants before another rehearsal leading into night one of preliminary competition. My group competed in Onstage Question and Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear that night, and boy, was I NERVOUS. I’ll be honest, Onstage Question is my least favorite area of competition. The worst, I won’t even sugarcoat it. I could probably count on one hand the number of women who look forward to Onstage Question. There’s some sort of unwritten expectation to solve the world’s problems in less than 20 seconds without spewing complete word vomit. My preliminary onstage question was about whether or not I felt Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian probing was constitutional. Naturally, my brain decided to take a field day as I delivered my answer, and I walked off the stage with a confident smile, but feeling incredibly disappointed.
However, it was over, there was nothing more I could do, so I had to move on and focus on the next area of competition and A SISTER WAS READY. Lifestyle & Fitness in Swimwear has always been one of my favorite areas of competition because it allows you to showcase the hard work you put in to your health and wellness, physically and mentally. Those who have never walked on stage in a swimsuit will probably never fully understand the feeling, but it is liberating. I was especially motivated this year because I was aware that the Miss America Organization will be eliminating this area of competition come September (I’ll share my feels another day…) so this would potentially be my last chance to have this unique experience.
After all areas of night one preliminary competitions were done, I was quietly hoping that I could earn the preliminary Lifestyle & Fitness award, something I had my sights set on for a while. To me, a healthy lifestyle encompasses physical AND mental wellness. Mentally, I’ve faced some challenges over the past handful of years, and Miss Wisconsin week was especially difficult for me this year (shout out to you, anxiety). I had a hard time sleeping and eating most days, and had a constant voice in the back of my mind shouting negative thoughts, but I tried to push them aside and focus on the present. Despite many tears, I send so much thanks to my family, friends, director, and the women around me for pushing me through the week when my mind wanted to give up.
We all also have our own struggles with body image, and there were a lot of women sharing the stage who had the muscle and curves that I always wished for. However, every body is different, so I had to learn to love mine for what it’s capable of, unleash my inner Beyoncé, and fuel my body with what it needed throughout the process. At the end of the night, I was named the preliminary Lifestyle & Fitness winner. I hope I made Beyoncé proud.
Thursday was night two of prelims, and my group competed in Talent and Evening Gown. TBH, talent has never been my favorite area of competition either. It’s something that I have always had to work really hard at. This year, instead of performing a lyrical dance, I wanted to do something super fun. A high-energy jazz routine to “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen seemed to do the trick (and a costume that sparkled for miles also helped, thanks to my forever director, Katie). I’ve never been more excited for the talent phase of competition! My evening gown was also something I looked forward to wearing that night and I felt a perfect balance between sassy and sophisticated (thanks to Kathy at Bridal Elegance). It was a good night.
Friday was our day to let loose and relax, which was nice because at this point during the week, we all transform into The Walking Dead. The “Strikes for Scholarships” bowling fundraiser was a blast (hello, there was pizza) and gave us a chance to step away from rehearsals and competition for a while.
At the hotel, after a quick nap, we all got ready to cheer on our Teen queens at the Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen competition. I’ve technically never had my own Teen before, but I “adopted” a pretty great one (Savannah, Miss Halfway Creek’s Outstanding Teen) and was so excited to cheer her on as she placed 2nd runner-up! I was also rooting for Mandi, my sweet hometown sister, who ended up taking home the crown! Seeing all the Teens light up the stage was a reminder that the following night, we would be crowning a new Miss Wisconsin.
Saturday was a strange day. I woke up feeling physically and emotionally exhausted and anxious about the night ahead. We spent the morning at the Oshkosh Farmer’s Market before heading to Festival Foods for lunch and a meet & greet. Then, we went to the auditorium for one last rehearsal before finals. On Saturday evening, we don’t know who will be performing, since only the Top 11 have the chance to move on in the competition. Although I was so content with my performances during the week, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was one of those eleven women that would be announced later that evening.
After a quick snooze at the hotel (naps are essential when you’re running on 4-5 hours of sleep each night), I took a moment to reflect on the past week. I looked back at where I started in this organization five years ago as a 17 year-old high school senior. I remembered where I was two years ago during my first time at Miss Wisconsin. I saw where I was just six months ago when I started this year as Miss Seven Rivers. Something consistent between all three was GROWTH. Regardless of what was going to happen on Saturday evening, whether I was going to finish as a non-finalist, if I was going to make the Top 11, Top 5, or even if I were to become Miss Wisconsin 2018, I was incredibly proud of the path I’ve been walking and the growth that has happened along the way—growth in my heart, in my mind, with my platform, in my community, toward my career, through my education, and beyond. Whatever was going to happen would be such a small part of my journey and growth. There was a myriad of beautiful moments that came before this day and a lifetime of opportunities that lie ahead.
Come Saturday evening, we all gathered backstage for prayer before taking our places to find out who would move on in the competition. I’ll be honest, I had to force myself to feel okay with being a non-finalist again. As much as I wanted to be in the Top 11 to perform once again, I had to prepare myself to accept the fact that I might not be. It’s a strange mental battle.
After the first four of the Top 11 were called, I suddenly heard my name and felt a huge wave of relief and some happy tears. I made it!
Swimsuit, Talent, and Evening Gown flew by and it was time to line up again to find out who would advance to the Top 5. Quite honestly, I was absolutely content right there. I had my chance to perform again, I soaked in every moment of that evening and felt honored to be standing there in the Top 11.
But just a moment later, I was called into the Top 5 and I WAS SHOOK. How did I get here?! I had only a few seconds to be excited before stepping forward to complete one more area of competition…the final Onstage Question (dun dun dunnnn).
HOWEVER, by the grace of the good lord above, my brain and vocal cords seemed to work together this time and I walked off the stage feeling good about my answer and delivery. And that was that. There was nothing more I could do and I was either Miss Wisconsin 2018 or a runner-up, and I was over the moon for either one.
We stepped forward to hear the results…
“Fourth runner-up is…”
“Third runner-up is…”
I was still standing there.
“Second runner-up is…”
Before I knew it, the chance that I would be on my way to Miss America was closer than I’d ever imagined. At first, I honestly didn’t realize I was standing in the final two because I was clapping and so excited for Elise, who stepped forward as second runner-up.
Then, I turned to my right and I noticed that it was just Tia and I standing there (AGAIN, HOW DID I GET HERE?!) and in just a minute, one of us would be Miss Wisconsin and the other would be the first runner-up.
In that moment, waiting for one of our names to be called, I don’t remember what I was thinking, but I only had a second to prepare myself for what was about to happen.
“And your new Miss Wisconsin is…”
That split second is one I don’t think I’ll forget for a while. Yes, my heart sunk, realizing that it wasn’t my name, but I also got to participate in the joy and excitement of another woman’s dream coming true.
As much as I wanted to be Miss Wisconsin, as did the 26 other phenomenal women standing on that stage, I am incredibly honored and content to be named first runner-up.
Onward, Upward, Forward
Waking up on Sunday morning was actually relieving. I got to go home, sleep in my bed, see my family and my dog, and continue being Miss Seven Rivers 2018. I still took home thousands of dollars in scholarships, many friendships, and so much love from everyone around me. I truly felt like I had won.
So what now? I’m still Miss Seven Rivers until January 2019, I have lots of fun ideas to continue sharing my platform with the state of Wisconsin, I’m on the post-grad job search, and LOVING my local Culver’s drive thru. FACT: I ate Culver’s every day for at least six days after Miss Wisconsin week. I didn’t deprive myself beforehand, but a good Butter Burger heals the soul, I pinky promise.
I’ve been asked if I will compete again next year, and to be completely honest, I don’t know. This program has changed drastically over the past year, and it is not the same organization I fell in love with five years ago. I’m anxious to watch the Miss America Competition in September, and I am also nervous for how the changes and lack of effective communication by the national board will affect our beloved local programs. Time will tell.
Although I’m not entirely sure where my path in the Miss America Organization will be headed in the next year, I AM sure that the path behind me has been the most rewarding experience of my life thus far. Many doors have been opened because of this program, and for that, I am forever grateful.
I have never done this alone, and I have so much love for those who have been with me throughout this time. My family, friends, and amazing director, Abby…thank you for your constant love and belief in this wild dream of mine. The gifts, words of encouragement, sweet notes, and hugs…I could go on and on. Thank you for the sacrifices you’ve made to help push me to where I am now.
To those who worked behind the scenes with me, from mock interviews to wardrobe assistance to talent critique, I thank you for your time, generosity, and knowledge.
To those we shared the week with–volunteers, hostesses, production team, directors, community members–thank you for your hospitality. The encouraging hugs and pep talks (and the food, of course) were greatly appreciated! Thank you for donating yourselves to us.
To the 26 women I shared this experience with, thank you for simply being. The week was filled with so much positivity, encouragement, and understanding. There are very few feelings like the moment when you walk off stage after a performance to be greeted by a group of empowered women who share the same dream, but also the same joy and excitement for another woman’s success.
From my perspective, Miss Wisconsin is not the be-all and end-all. This entire experience is one beautiful stepping stone to an even more wonderful final destination. Wherever this path leads me, I can’t wait to get there.