Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pretty Smart: Lessons From Our Miss Americas by Penny Pearlman

Lesson 1: Beauty from the inside out

“It’s wonderful to watch a pretty woman with character grow beautiful.” Mignon McLaughlin, author and former editor of Vogue

People say that because these women are beautiful doors open for them. The former Miss Americas interviewed for this book admit to that. But what they will also tell you is that the door closes with a bang if there is no substance behind the beauty.

Shawntel Smith (1996) said, “I’m going to be honest and say that appearance does matter. Being attractive will get you through the door, but it won’t help you keep a seat at the table, get the position, or have the opportunity. What counts is your intellect, your personality and the integrity with which you walk into a room. Your determination and perseverance are what will get you the job. A lot of beautiful women vie for the crown each year. So why not crown them all? There’s only one girl who can win the title of Miss America. It takes more than just a pretty face.”

Once you meet our Miss Americas, you can’t help but put aside any notions about the women who become beauty queens. Though many of them are certainly drop-dead gorgeous, you can walk down the street and see any number of equally attractive women. It’s not just their long legs or shiny hair that makes them beautiful. Their warmth, intelligence, poise and generous natures make them knockouts. The confidence and life-changing experience of succeeding at a high target they set for themselves and being spokeswomen for causes they support changed their inner perceptions of themselves and can change our view of them as well.

Tawny Godin (1976) observed that people who may at first appear ordinary become more beautiful as you get to know them. “The way you carry yourself, the way you walk into a room has little to do with your physical beauty. You could be the mousiest person on the planet in terms of the way you look, but if you believe in yourself and know who you are, people get it.”

As my friend’s mom used to say, “You know, the girl who won Miss America wasn’t that pretty before, but now that she’s won, she’s gotten much prettier.”

From the inside out

Some people who are considered beautiful base much of their identity on their external appearance. You may be drawn to them initially, but if they aren’t genuine, it won’t be long before you are looking elsewhere for companionship. Unless they nurture what is inside, their external beauty will fade as they age. “Being physically beautiful can change many times in your life at any age based on your personality,” says Ericka Dunlap (2004). “I’ve seen beautiful, exotic looking women who are arrogant, rude and pretentious. They would have been a lot lovelier if they had had a better attitude, because attitude determines your beauty.”

Nicole Johnson (1999) will tell you, “Beauty is not make-up and curls and glitz but is found in struggle or challenge, the beauty from within.” She recognizes that beauty can be an asset to open doors as long as it is more than physical. “Science proves that attractiveness is an asset in business. I would agree with that but I think attractiveness is subjective. I rely on attractiveness of the heart more than anything else. Along with my intelligence, my heart and my emotions are my calling cards.”

Donna Axum (1964) agrees. “I think anyone who is attractive, whether or not she is Miss America, has a leg up on less attractive people. It’s just common sense that it will get you through the door, but credentials have to follow. You have to be able to sell yourself, your abilities and your ideas if you are interviewing for a position. It’s like we say in the selection process for Miss America, you’ve got to bring the whole package.”

But many of the Formers discovered that their beauty and celebrity as Miss America could be a handicap in the professional world. It became, as Donna put it, a double-edged sword. “Many women will say that a certain person advanced so much farther because she is beautiful. That’s an excuse. If you’ve got the ability and the professional fortitude, then jump in there and get going. Those are the attributes that people are looking for. Without that you’re just another aging pretty face.”

Our Miss Americas have the ability to change our opinion of them by their authenticity, their intelligence, their genuine interest in others and their ability to enlighten and educate without putting others down. They encompass charm, wit, warmth and wisdom rolled into one lovely package.

Too fat, too thin

You would think that these women, given the highest endorsement of beauty by winning the crown, would see themselves as others see them. Not so. They are just like a lot of us. Many of our Miss Americas struggled with their self-image when they were children. They say that they did not feel pretty and cite crooked teeth, big ears and plump bottoms.

Gretchen Carlson (1989), who now shops in the petite department, will tell you that she packed a few extra pounds when she was younger. “I was a tomboy, not into my looks at all. I struggled with my weight my whole life, especially as a child. I was a chubby kid who faced a tremendous amount of ridicule. When I overheard a guy I wanted to go out with say, ‘She’s a really nice girl, but she’s too fat,’ I got my act together and lost thirty pounds.

“The morning after I became Miss America I shared that story at my first press conference. I thought it would be inspirational to young girls to know that you don’t have to fit into this perfect mold to end up becoming Miss America. I told the press that my brother used to call me nicknames like Blimpo. The next day the headline in the National Enquirer read ‘Blimpo Wins Miss America Pageant.’ That’s how they spun it. I thought I was giving a positive message.”

During her individual interview, Jennifer Berry (2006) was asked by one of the judges, “Do you think you’re pretty?” “We were in the middle of a political debate,” Jennifer said. “I couldn’t believe he asked me that. I was not popular in school. I had big, thick glasses, crooked teeth and curly, frizzy hair. I’ve been 5' 8" since I was twelve years old and grew up being teased. I told the judges that I had never thought of myself as pretty because I was tormented and made fun of so much. I was just dorky. I’m twenty-three years old and I’ve been Miss America but sometimes I still feel like that awkward little girl.”

Being with other women who are perceived as beautiful and accomplished can be intimidating. For many of the Formers, appearing at the national pageant was a bit daunting. Many did not feel that they fit the mold of a beauty queen, but they knew they had other qualities that would help them shine.

When Tawny Godin (1976) went to Atlantic City at nineteen years old, she looked around at the other contestants at a fancy dinner one night before the Pageant. “Miss Illinois was seated right where I could see her. She had a yellow dress on that night, long dark hair like me and false eyelashes. She looked perfect. I had never been that appearance-conscious as a teenager. When I became Miss New York State, the pageant people taught me how to use false eyelashes and made me cut my hair. I had hair so long that I could sit on it. That night I was looking around thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t belong here.’ I thought that you needed to know certain things and have a certain look in order to fit in. I definitely didn’t have that look. That just wasn’t who I was.”

Tawny characterized herself as a preppy who wore corduroy pants and crew neck sweaters with turtlenecks. She knew little of the techniques the other contestants employed. “Some of these girls were putting masking tape on their butts to hold their bathing suits down and using contouring to enhance their bust line. I had never even thought about doing anything like that. I didn’t even know that sort of thing existed. When I saw people putting Vaseline on their teeth I couldn’t figure out what they were doing.”

Lee Meriwether (1955) didn’t know she had been entered in the Miss San Francisco pageant until the day of the audition. Back then, someone else could sign up a contestant. “One of the fraternities at the University of San Francisco where I was in school had entered my name. To this day I don’t know who. I would never have entered on my own. All I knew about the Miss America Pageant was that it was a bathing beauty contest. I was not one to don a swimsuit very often. I grew up a skinny, awkward kid with big dumbo ears and a snaggle tooth. I was gawky and gangling. [Lee is almost 5' 9" tall.] When I didn’t get a role, people would say I was too pretty. But when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see that. My first rejection happened when I was twelve years old. I was told that I was too pretty to play Mrs. Lincoln. It’s happened over and over. I could have understood being told, ‘You’re a terrible actress,’ but it has never played right for me that the emotional depth I can bring to the role is negated because they think I’m too pretty.”

Several decades later Lee was surprised when she saw herself again in the 1966 Batman film in which she played Catwoman. “Just recently they had a retrospective of Batman at one of the theaters and they invited me. I thought that it would be fun to see my face on the big screen. When I saw myself I went, ‘Wow! I looked pretty good.’ Why didn’t I see it back then? Why wasn’t I aware of how I looked?”

As number eight in a family of ten children Angie Baraquio (2001) always thought her older sisters were prettier than her. “I always felt like I was too fat or too short or too something. When you participate in a pageant, people have this perception of you as being beautiful. It goes back to your own perception of yourself and your self-esteem. It took years for me to realize that the outside part will come when I just work on my inside.’

Every one of us struggles with doubts about our appearance at some point in our lives. We worry that we are not pretty enough, tall, short or thin enough. We wish our hair were straight or curly, our bottom bigger or smaller. When we realize that beauty comes from the inside out, then we can nurture our nature as much as we attend to our appearance.

What the judges see

Many people misconstrue the intent of the Pageant, believing that it focuses predominantly on physical attractiveness. The job description for Miss America describes a broad range of skills and personality characteristics. As a scholarship program that promotes the ideal of a well-rounded woman, the Miss America Organization looks for someone who “represents the best of contemporary women… The youth of our nation must be able to find her as someone to whom they can relate; but, at the same time, she must present a professional image when called upon to meet with corporate communities…” She is charged by the Organization to “be able to motivate people from every age-range and socio-economic background to action and they must walk away feeling that having heard Miss America speak made a difference for them at that moment in time… She is on call twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week for the duration of her time as Miss America... The role of Miss America is only limited by the capabilities and the desires of the woman who wears the crown… Miss America must be able to push herself and the organization to live up to the responsibilities of being such a person.” That’s a daunting task for anyone, let alone a young woman between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four.

During the Pageant process, each of the contestants meets with the judges’ panel for a twelve-minute interview. The public never sees these interviews, which are held during the week before the televised contest. The contestants know that their eloquence during this brief time can make or break their potential for being in the top fifteen and ultimately Miss America. They know that they must be articulate and knowledgeable about their platform, current affairs and a variety of other topics; be able to answer questions spontaneously and comfortably; exhibit an air of confidence and poise; and present their case as to why they should be crowned Miss America. That’s a tall order for a twelve-minute interview.

Donna Axum (1964), who is currently on the board of directors, lays out some of her specific criteria when judging. “The most important thing that Miss America does is talk to audiences, individuals and the national press and media. Her speaking skills have to be tops in my book. When I judge, I like to delve under the first question and see what kind of in-depth knowledge the contestants actually have on an issue. They’ve got to be smart. They’ve got to be quick-minded. On the other hand, they’ve got to be approachable, personable and relaxed when you talk to them, with a quick, easy wit. I look for a genuineness of heart and spirit, which is difficult to quantify, and a sense of compassion for people or causes. They’ve got to be talented because they may perform a lot on the road. I was one of the first performing Miss Americas. The more usable you are, the more appearances you have. They have to be stunning. When she walks into the room, people have to say, ‘Yup, there’s Miss America. She’s the whole package.’ ”

The Miss America Organization used to define the qualities that Donna looks for in the winner as confidence and poise. Today the Organization calls it the “it” factor.

Tara Holland’s (1997) goal was to have the judges see who she was on the inside. She felt that if she was able to communicate that, then she would win, regardless of the outcome of the competition. “The more involved I became in the system, the more sure I was that the only thing that would set me apart from the others would be how I conducted myself in that interview room. At the Miss Kansas pageant I had a very academic interview and was frustrated because I didn’t feel that my personality came through. I did win Miss Kansas, but I was determined that the Miss America judges were going to find out who I really was. I came to realize that that there could have been another young woman named Tara, with long dark hair who sang opera and had literacy as a platform in that room. Somebody could look just like me on paper, but I was the only person who had the thoughts, convictions and passions that I had. That was all that mattered.”

Tara ended her interview at the national Pageant feeling that she had succeeded in showing her best to the judges. “I’m passionate about the program because it promotes the complete package of what it takes to live a successful life. You’ve got to take care of yourself and your body. You need to work on what you’re naturally gifted to do and know what your passions are. You need to be able to communicate well, then you need to be involved in your community in some way.”

The judges I spoke with said that it wasn’t the winners’ physical beauty that set them apart, but their ability to command the stage, their charisma and self-confidence. The winners had that indefinable quality of poise that made them glow in a group of winners.

Vernon DeSear, a Pageant judge, watches the way a contestant connects with the audience. “The most important thing that I look for in any young woman is her ability to command the room and the stage.” Leonard Horn, former CEO of the Miss America Organization and a judge, said, “There is a charisma, a self-confidence that comes through to those of us who are watching or judging them. You can see that positive self-esteem just in the way they interact with the crowd. On the stage you can look at all the contestants and certain ones stand out. They have a confidence about them. They know who they are. They know where they’re going. They have a goal-oriented way about them. It just shows.”

Rebecca King (1974), who has been a judge and is on the board of the Miss America Organization, describes the “it” factor. “I believe you could put a Miss America in a room with a hundred young women and you’d find her in about three minutes.”

Having been a judge, Susan Powell (1981) is well versed in what that inner glow looks like. “It all happens in that private interview. There are strict guidelines about what you look for – about what Miss America should be. It’s a scary thing as a judge. You will be changing some young woman’s life. When she walks into the room and there is something about her, the way she walks, the way she speaks and the level of honesty with which she communicates, that inner something is apparent. It’s a quality that is almost indefinable. There is no hiding under the lights of that interview. As a judge you immediately eliminate thirty-six people, just from those first sixty seconds. Twelve minutes is really long if you’ve eliminated someone in the first minute.”

Four-time Miss America judge, Frank Deford, author of fifteen books including one about the Miss America Pageant. and an award-winning sports writer, came to understand what set the winner apart. “In the interview room you saw them differently than when they were on stage. If they didn’t have anything to say you knew that within the first minute and half. You could sense it. I was always looking for someone who was smart and engaging and also looked good. I found the Miss Americas I met almost universally to be very attractive people. I remember the expression that was used – she lit up the room. There was just something about her. They seemed to be more in control. They didn’t seem to be as programmed. That was a large part of it. You had the sense that they could go with the flow. They were prepared for anything.” He confessed to a change of heart once he started to participate. “I didn’t expect to like them so much.”

Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian who was a judge the year Shawntel Smith (1996) won, was impressed with the quality of the women who compete and the power of the Pageant to change lives. His initial skepticism morphed into admiration. “On television, you don’t really get the opportunity to know the girls. But when you are there for a few days and you are with these young women, you get a chance to know them better. I remember how when I watched on television, I would pick my favorite, but the judges would pick another person. I came to see that it’s because the judges know the person better. We see the contestants in different circumstances. When you’re judging, you spend a lot of time with them. But when you watch you wonder why the judges picked her.

“My perceptions changed when I got to understand the quality of the women. That’s what I would want my daughter to turn out to be – someone who is intelligent, who has great character, some talent and is motivated in what she is trying to do. I think any parent would be extremely proud of his daughter for going through that process.”

Shawntel spoke with Bruce after she won. “ He shared with me why he liked me. What he said meant a lot to me because the interview was the one area where I had been trying to set myself apart. When he saw how down-to-earth and practical I was and that I had a plan to promote my cause of school-to-work after I won the title, he knew I was going to be the next Miss America.”

During the interview process that the public never sees, the true spirit of the individual contestants shines. It is the woman who exhibits confidence, intelligence and the belief that she has what it takes, who makes the judges do a double-take and put the crown on her head. She has that “it” factor.

Swimsuits and success

The swimsuit component of the Pageant has long been controversial. The Miss America Organization has kept it as part of the competition for many reasons. The first Pageant in 1921 was held in Atlantic City as a bathing beauty competition to spur local tourism after Labor Day. Now, loaded with tradition, the swimsuit component is expected by viewers. In 1995 the Pageant surveyed the public about whether to drop swimsuit from the competition. Overwhelmingly the public voted to keep it as part of the program. Its entertainment value is not to be underestimated. Other pageants not affiliated with the Miss America system copy the swimsuit component and make it a centerpiece of their contests.

Over the decades its importance in the judging at Miss America has waned. Swimsuit now accounts for the smallest portion of the overall score and isn’t as highly valued as the public might think. Both contestants and judges see it as another way to encourage young women to live active, healthy lifestyles and to be confident in any and all situations. The maintenance of a healthy and fit body is seen as a sign of internal discipline.

Heather Whitestone (1995) sees value in the swimsuit competition, though she didn’t feel that way at first. “In the beginning I was aghast that I had to do swimsuit. I kept telling myself that it was only one minute in the competition. Today I think it’s a good thing because the woman who wins needs to be in good health and strong enough to manage all the travel. If she can’t take care of herself then she is not qualified for that tough job.”

The swimsuit competition is a challenge for many of these young women. They have mixed feelings about having to appear confident and poised in not much more than a couple of handkerchiefs and high heels on stage in front of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers.

Even though Angie Baraquio (2001) found the prospect of parading in front of thousands in a swimsuit daunting, she knew she had to play by the rules. She even asked her priest about the appropriateness of participation when her mother gave her a hard time about wearing a two-piece swimsuit in such a public arena. He told her that there was no moral issue. “Your mom is very strict,” he said. “Don’t worry – I’ll get your back. I’ve got an in with the guy upstairs.” Along with his support, Angie was able to take that walk with confidence. “I’m an athlete. I know I need to wear the uniform. If I want to play in the game, I need to abide by the rules. I told myself, if I could do that I could do anything.”

She also counters the argument that being Miss America and especially the swimsuit competition belittle women. “If you say this is not an empowering thing for women, you’re wrong. You can’t knock it till you’ve tried it. The feminists say, ‘You have to walk around in a swimsuit.’ I said that I did it once, but I would never have to do it again. I just focused on trying to become the best that I could be. I was not starving myself. I was working out everyday, doing tae bo, lifting weights, watching my carbs and doing it the healthy way. I felt so much more confident once I did it.”

Deidre Downs (2005) understands why the swimsuit component is important. “I had never won a swimsuit preliminary, so I obviously wasn’t a standout in it but I think it has value. Your ability to walk across the stage in a swimsuit for twenty or thirty seconds and look confident and be poised is more important than if there is an inch of whatever on your thighs. The judges see that self-assurance and how you connect with the audience. Maybe you’re scared to death inside to appear like that in front of thousands of people, but you don’t show it on the outside. You go out there and be yourself.”

As an athlete, Deidre was comfortable with her body and wearing revealing uniforms. But even she was initially taken aback when she first received the Pageant-sanctioned bikini for the first time. “You were able to choose your color but not the style. About a month before the Pageant it came in the mail in a little zipper baggie. The director of the Miss Alabama program was with me when I opened it. She said, ‘I hope that’s not the whole thing. Is that the bottom or the top?’ I looked at her and said, ‘No. This is the whole thing, right in this little baggie.’ It was a string bikini and definitely more revealing than anything I had worn before. It was pretty controversial during the press interviews and garnered more media attention for the Pageant that year.

“The swimsuit competition is not a lightning rod for me even though I would characterize myself as a pretty left-to-center feminist,” continued Deidre. “I was out there pioneering even as a little girl when I played in the boys’ baseball league. I see it as more of the tradition of Miss America. Also, it’s such a small part of the scoring.”

Our Miss Americas discovered that they could handle anything when they were able to flash a smile, strut their stuff in a swimsuit and high heels and hold their head high.

First impressions count

We can’t help categorizing people by what we learn about them at a first meeting. All of us make flash judgments. We decide at first glance who is dangerous and who is not, who to like or who to dislike, often with no conscious thought.

Like it or not, your appearance can affect your future. By appearance, I don’t mean the face and figure that you were born with, but what you do with them. Someone once said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Anyone can change her appearance through the use of subtle make-up, a great haircut and good lighting. You can manage your body with regular exercise, healthy nutritional habits and clothing appropriate for your shape and size. Small differences in your physical appearance can create big difference in people’s perception of you.

Kylene Barker (1979) feels that to be a winner in anything, grooming is extremely important. “I believe in first impressions. First impressions stick with people. My grandmother even at eighty-nine gets up every morning, puts on her make-up, has every hair in place, gets dressed and always looks beautiful.” Kylene continued, “Beauty is first a positive attitude that you translate into make-up, clothing and fitness. We’re living in a society today where too many people don’t do anything to fix themselves up and don’t take care of themselves. I believe in exercising and eating right. Taking care of yourself and fitting it into your life has to become a priority. Being your most attractive is what helps people be successful. If you feel pretty you give off pretty vibes.”

“People don’t understand what the Pageant does,” said Tawny Godin (1976). “You take a young woman who wants scholarship money. Perhaps she’s never felt that she was the prettiest or the best at anything. But once you enter the Pageant and you know that you are going to hit the stage, something happens to you. You know that you’ve got to be the best you can be. Sometimes it’s more than you thought you were capable of.

“You find out that you can be a better pianist, or you pay more attention to your voice and learn to sing better, or you get interested in current events, or realize that a little bit of exercise makes a big difference. You are constantly raising your expectations and belief in what you can achieve. That’s fantastic! How can that ever be a bad thing? The outcome has to be better than what you started with.”

If you pay attention to your appearance, then people pay attention to you. Dress for self-respect. When you look great you promote your own self-worth. It’s also a sign of respect to others. If you want to be perceived as professional, dress professionally. If you want to be thought of as an artist, dress in a more creative way. If you want to be looked at as a rebel, then don a rebel’s clothes. Every cultural icon has a uniform.

The secret of perpetual curiosity

People who are curious about the world are more interesting to others. Sit beside someone who at first glance looks bland and engage them in a stimulating and lively conversation. Later you will wonder why you thought they weren’t attractive.

Donna Axum (1964) said, “Those who have shallow interests or no interests at all other than how to preserve the skin that’s hanging on their skeleton or the next shade of lipstick are self-absorbed. Women who are interested in the world become more interesting to be around.”

The Pageant recognizes this truism by weighting the off-camera interview so heavily. Contestants know that they have to be well versed on many topics and clear about their positions on a variety issues. To prepare they read newspapers, study what is happening in the world and educate themselves about important historical events.

Everyone who ever achieved greatness was a lifelong learner. They never assumed they know it all. The people you associate with and the books you read will be the key activities that will change you the most. Spend your time with smart people and you will become smarter. Associate with people who are doing what you want to do and you will learn how to do it too. Hang out with big thinkers and you will begin to think big. Connect with creative types and you will learn to tap into your own creative juices. Besides you’ll never know how useful something you learn today might be tomorrow.

Mary Ann Mobley (1959) said, “The day has been successful if I have learned a bit more about the world, other people and myself. I want to learn something new every day until the day I die. I see big challenges as opportunities for learning. I don’t think about age. I feel like I can’t wait to see what will happen next.”

To perfect her craft, Lee Meriwether (1955) never stops studying. While she was in rehearsal for a show, a group of school children came to visit the theater. Her advice to aspiring actors in the group was simple. “Stick with it, study and never stop reading.” One little girl asked Lee if she still studied. Her reply was heartfelt. “Every day,” she said. “I read about the theater. I read autobiographies. I study people. I’m studying you right now. I’m watching how you are acting and reacting to me. Who knows, I may have to play a little girl or a woman who thinks she’s a little girl.”

Donna Axum (1964) believes in the importance of perpetual curiosity for herself as well as others. “I like to read, particularly biographies and historical novels. I’ve always had a desire to experience different cultures. I have an inquisitive mind. That is an important element of success as well.”

If you have not focused on self-improvement as a regular part of your routine, you may want to consider starting with those ideas and actions that will have an immediate impact on improving your life. Understanding more about finances, interpersonal skills or technology could improve your debt picture, your relationships and your employment prospects.

Being a lifelong learner has greater benefits than broadening your horizons. Learning something new feeds your mind and spirit. Doing so makes happy new brain cells and will keep you younger longer. Research has shown that when you learn new skills, your brain builds new neural pathways. We spend way too much time feeding every part of our being but our intellect. We often stuff our thoughts with hours of channel surfing, our faces with food and dull our senses with drugs and alcohol. You can nourish your mind by learning to play a musical instrument, speak another language or cultivate your garden.

Why not put down the remote and use the time you spend flipping channels on yourself? The library and internet are great resources for accessing all kinds of information. Find a listing of free lectures in your area. Join a club focused on something that interests you. Go back to school to finish your education or get an advanced degree. It’s never too late. In time you will be amazed at the confidence you’ve gained alongside new-found wisdom and skills.

Being perpetually curious will help when you don’t know the answers. If you are curious you will be able to identify the resources you need and where to find the answers to your questions. Be patient with yourself. Learning takes an investment of time and energy that will pay you huge dividends.

Cultivate your character

If you want to attract people to you be kind, be genuine, be honorable. When you make people feel that they are important in your eyes and you show them respect, they will stand a little taller in your presence and remember you. Being nice doesn’t mean that you let people walk all over you. When you show sincere interest in who they are, listen carefully to what they have to say, you have paid them the highest compliment.

General Colin Powell had a powerful impact on Heather French (2000). Since her platform was veterans' issues, she and General Powell were together a number of times at veterans’ events. He told her about a Maya Angelou quote that she took very much to heart: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Heather was inspired by Powell's words. "When you give people that attention as Miss America, it makes them feel special. It doesn’t matter whether someone is two years old or in a wheelchair, every person deserves the best of who you are.”

The responsibility Heather felt as a representative of all the Miss Americas that had come before her and all who would come after extended to everyone with whom she came in contact. “You realize that you can have such a profound influence on someone else’s life. You remind yourself, ‘Don’t screw up.’”

Jennifer Berry (2006) saw how powerful being nice could be. “As Miss America I found that by being nice to people I was changing the perception that we’re just pretty girls. Even better was when they would tell me that I was fun and smart and real. Creating the environment as Miss America so that when I walked out of a room people had a different perception of me was really cool. The way you present yourself – first impressions – is vitally important. The word beautiful is in the job description for Miss America. It implies so much more than physical beauty.”

Our Miss Americas cultivate their characters and attempt to live lives worth emulating. Integrity and sincerity, intangible though they may be, are visible. Those women who become more beautiful with age exhibit such character traits in abundance. Integrity is evident in their interactions with others. What could be more appealing than someone who does what she says she will do, who takes responsibility for her actions and shows sincere interest in others?

Rebecca King (1974) said, “You have to have a strong moral compass. It keeps you focused. It helps you determine who you are and where you are going. You have to have that sense of integrity and character to carry you through confusing times. It’s basic. You have to do what you say you’re going to do. In business it can come down to a handshake. If I have an agreement with another attorney over the phone, it’s done. People count on you. If you’re not as good as your word, what good are you?”

We make emotional connections to people who exemplify high ideals. When we are with them, we feel the power of their focus and attention. They exude a genuine self-confidence. Just being in their presence makes us feel uplifted and special. That is how they capture our hearts and minds.

Susan Powell (1981) recognizes that inner beauty in others when she speaks of Jean Bartel, Miss America 1943, who successfully convinced the Miss America Organization to start awarding scholarships in 1945. “She was Miss America at a time when the Pageant was huge – queen of the universe. I just love Jean. I find how she is aging really fascinating. She’s gorgeous. She speaks her mind in a forthright but gentle way. She makes me feel important every time I’m with her. I don’t know how she does it.”

When you make people feel better about themselves, they will feel better about you. We are drawn to people who enhance our own sense of self. Our Miss Americas know this.

As I witnessed their interactions with others, I found them to be uniformly gracious, warm and patient. A little girl came up to Heather French (2000) and Heather got down to the child’s level to talk to her. For that moment, there was no one else in the room. Mary Ann Mobley (1959) took the time to ask a waiter about his family at a restaurant she frequents and write a thank you note to an airline employee who had helped her. Jennifer Berry (2006) and Shawntel Smith (1996) were welcoming to people who recognized them on the street. They all will pose for endless photographs with fans and listen to what someone has to say with patience and grace. These are the qualities that all great leaders and successful people have.

And when they see someone in distress, they feel compelled to reach out. Phyllis George (1971) has been deeply touched by the effect she has had on other people’s lives. “We need to let people know that they’re special. Sometimes you can say something to someone and not know the effect it has on them.” She told me a story about a lunch she had with her friend, Sue Ann, one snowy day in Lexington, Kentucky. “Behind me were two women, one of whom was crying and couldn’t stop. The other one was consoling her. As these two women were leaving, they walked by our table. I placed my hand on the arm of the one who had been crying and said, ‘Whatever it is that you are upset about, it will get better. It will, so please don’t think of the negative. Please think of the positive. I’ve been there. I’ve had those times. Just promise me that you’ll try.’

“Not too long after, her friend walked into a shop and saw Sue Ann. She asked Sue Ann to tell me that the woman who had been crying that day at Southern’s was planning to commit suicide. Her son had moved across the country and gotten into drugs. She blamed herself. She was recently divorced and was going to take drugs that very day. Because I had touched her and told her to not think about the negative things, but to think about the positive things in her life, she walked out the door and said, ‘If Phyllis George can do that, I can do that too.’ And she survived.”

Phyllis, like so many of her Miss America sisters, believes that there is a responsibility that comes with the crown. “If we can reach out to people, we should. We’ve been blessed with this amazing honor of being a Miss America. By showing that I cared, I saved a life that day and didn’t even know it.” By turning on the power of nice we tap into the very best that we can be. When we lift ourselves, we lift others.

When Phyllis won the Miss America Pageant in 1971, the women’s movement was in full flower. At that time feminists were vocal about their feelings that the Pageant was demeaning to women and would stage a protest at events when a Miss America was present. Phyllis tells of a time when she did an appearance at an automobile showroom in Dekalb, Illinois. Several women came to picket. “Here I am, a small town girl from Denton, Texas, at the highest moment of my life having won Miss America. It was a freezing cold day and they are outside picketing me. So I went outside and asked them to come in out of the cold. I asked them what their issue was. They believed that I was being exploited, but I said, ‘This program gave me opportunities to get a scholarship and have a springboard. I got to play the piano in front of millions of people and now travel all over the country. What’s wrong with that?’ They said, ‘You wore a swimsuit.’

“Then I said, ‘You’re doing what you’re doing because it is important to you. This is the way you want to approach life. Well, this is the way this small town girl from Denton, Texas is doing it. I got a lot of scholarship money. I’m meeting a lot of important people that maybe can help me with my career. I don’t feel like I’m being exploited. If I did, I wouldn’t be here.’

“They said that I wasn’t like the others. I tried to help them see that my Miss America sisters feel the same about the benefits of participating. I asked them to please respect the direction I’d chosen for my life.” Phyllis may not have altered the stereotypes held by other feminists, but that group gained a whole different perspective on what the Pageant was really about.

Donna Axum (1964) knows that her celebrity does not set her apart or put her on a higher level than others. “Humility is an important characteristic of being Miss America. You have to be able to relate to people in all walks of life across the country, have compassion for their status or the problems that they are dealing with. If you don’t have a degree of humility about you they won’t open up to you. Humility, though obvious to others, is invisible to those who possess it.” Now that’s beautiful.

We aren’t born blank slates. Each of us comes into this world with certain personality characteristics and capabilities. I’m not advocating you be someone so outside of who you are that you don’t recognize yourself. What I am advocating is that you take a look at yourself and decide whether you are pursuing your potential. Each of us has a range of achievement within which we function. When you actualize your highest self you are at your most beautiful. Then you are beautiful from the inside out.

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