Disclaimer: The following is a collection of personal memories, experiences, and conversations. It does not represent the thoughts or opinions of individuals mentioned within the pages, nor does it represent the Miss America Organization as a whole. I am incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to compete at the Miss New York local level for 4 amazing years, and I could not be any prouder of my personal achievements. These memories described are rewritten from a blog, kept publicly to document progress, a journal, kept privately to document thoughts, and personal social media and email accounts. Thoughts do not represent the individuals, organizations, or events as a whole.
In 2010 Claire Buffie was crowned Miss New York. She was the first state titleholder with an LGBT supportive platform, won the People’s Choice Award at Miss America, and made it all the way to the talent portion on the final night. Before the completion of her term, marriage equality was granted in New York. She was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with. But this alone is not what makes her one of my favorite Miss New Yorks. She also won the first Miss New York pageant I had ever attended. In fact, she was crowned at the first pageant I had ever attended, in my life.
After a complicated morning, my sister’s boyfriend at the time finally decided to come pick us up at home and carpool to the event at UAlbany. Oblivious to any dress code, I wore a casual clothes. To make matters worse, shortly after arriving I was handed a green, oversized tee shirt from Mama Sheridan to promote her three daughters. I eagerly pulled it on over my undone hair and makeup free face.
This year the Sheridan sisters had made Miss America history as the first set of three sisters to compete on a state pageant stage together. Although Courtney and Kieren would not advance into finals, Keelie (whom I had never met) would do surprisingly well and continue throughout the evening.
When the top five was called, I listed to their on stage questions. The ladies sat on stage until they were called, when they would stand up and walk to the emcee, draw from the fishbowl, and answer a question directly related to their platform. Once Keelie had been bumped, the final person I inadvertently had a tie to, I started rooting for Claire simply because she was an LGBT supporter and i would like to support other allies. But hearing her answer solidified it. The passion and clarity in her voice when she spoke was so compelling, I knew she had just won. From that moment on, I became a huge Claire Buffie supporter. I voted for her to win People’s Choice at Miss America, which she did. I shouted at the television when she was cut just before talent. I would later be ecstatic to see her co-host the Miss New York 2012 pageant, and have a fangirl moment when she accepted my friend request on Facebook.
I would later watch from afar as her support in the Miss New York and Miss America system dwindled, and rumors circulate, harsh words fly across the screen. She would have her motives and character torn apart, and her desire to volunteer with the organization would be questioned. She would no longer be considered an asset to the organization, but a parasite that won’t let go. All of this would happen to my favorite Miss New York, as I watched like a fly on the wall, without knowing that I too would soon be ostracized from this empowering organization, much like Claire.
Only I would not have won Miss New York. I never even placed at a local, let alone won one. I competed at the local level for 4 years. I watched from the side of the stage as titleholder after titleholder took their first walk. I held hands with 24 of my pageant sisters as they heard their name called, and would let go to receive their crown and sash. Yet somehow I had the power to appear like a threat, and shake the foundation of the fragile Miss New York state board. Five years after watching Claire Buffie, a woman I had never met, be crowned Miss New York 2010, I would realized I was a lot more like her than I ever would have thought.
At this point in my life, pageants are still not relevant. I was still too shy, too weird, and too self-conscious. I despised trying on clothes, wore shorts when I went swimming, and still skipped class when I had a public speaking project. Miss America was an amazing concept, for someone else, but not in my reign of possibilities.
I don’t think I fully understood how attainable the Miss America title really is until I heard the words “it’s a three-peat” echo throughout Boardwalk Hall. By then it was too late for me to win the title of Miss America, but I had already won much more.
Prior to competing in pageants, my life was in shambles. My youth was shadowed by my younger sister, and when I went away to college I experienced such a culture shock it was overwhelming. My teen years were plagued by a cloud of looming doubt and depression. The four seasons I spent competing in Miss America locals successfully turned my life around, gave me a greater perspective of life and happiness, and a new set of goals to work for. I now had opportunities and connections, and for the first time knew how to look like a decent human out in public.
But on the flip side of every sparkly penny there is the dark side. That one person who uses you to scrape gum off the bottom of their shoe. The person you trust, and they betray you and in turn take away all you’ve earned, and attempt to devalue each strength and attribute I had developed, and claim each idea as their own. For me, this was the worst.
But rather than let her win, and maintain the control she thrives on so much, I am taking control of my narrative, and telling my story. How competing in the Miss America pageant system successfully saved my life, how it broke my heart, and how I’m my personal best thanks to it all.
Socially Challenged, Overprotected, and Defiant— The Perfect Pageant Spark
Growing up in a small towns brings very few unexpected surprises. Being a wallflower in a small town makes sure you don’t stand out, and having a very loud, outgoing, red headed sister is a sure way to ensure that no one knows who you are. Apart for a handful of compliments on my height, that quickly diminished with the onset diagnosis of scoliosis and loss of almost 3 inches, I was just another face in Montgomery County, New York.
What started as shyness soon turned into anxiety. As a child, I wouldn’t talk to strangers and had a hard time making friends. As I grew older, I became very stressed out in common situations, like using the phone, making eye contact with the cashier at the supermarket, or talking to my peers. Without risking my perfect attendance, I used to go home sick on days when I had an oral presentation, and hope that the teacher forgot the next day. If she didn’t, I’d take the failing grade instead of presenting. A mixed blessing, my straight ‘A’s allowed this and therefore I never faced my fears.
At one point in college I went on an anti-anxiety medication. It may have helped. The panic attacks definitely subsided, but the social abnormalities never balanced out. I would always be that weird girl. I would always be a wallflower. And I would always be in my sister’s shadow.
Junior year of high school, I convinced one of my friends to try out for the high school cheerleading squad. I was so nervous doing anything in front of anyone, yet somehow made the team. Because I was so anxious, I didn’t want to speak to the coach, I told her I would be on junior varsity. The following year, although I made Varsity as a requirement for senior athletes, my sister also auditioned. The following year, as I went away to college, she made captain and would be voted Most Dedicated Cheerleader. She had a way with doing- following in my footsteps, then doing better, or getting more attention for it.
Back in grade school, I used to beg my mom every year to let me compete in the Miss Fonda Fair pageant. I remember watching the girls ride by in the Memorial Parade as I spun my flag with the color guard, wishing with my sore feet that I had a crown instead of a cummerbund. Not only were they royalty, but were able to get into the Fonda Fair for free every day. We were only allowed to go once, and even though we only lived 2 blocks and a river away, our parents made us bring walkie talkies so they could check in every few minutes. The carnies are real. They come into town, stay a week, and in one day they can tear down an entire fairground, load their trucks, and get back on the Thruway and disappear. Whether or not any girls had been kidnapped that way didn’t matter, because the possibility was evident, and my parents were paranoid.
My mother refused to let me compete in the Miss Fonda Fair pageant. Every year I would beg her, and every year she would tell me no. I thought it was the money- there was a $15 registration fee. One year I planned ahead and saved my extra lunch money for nearly 4 months so I could afford it. I waited until the sign popped up outside of the fairgrounds, and asked my mom once again. But the answer was always no.
Why couldn’t I compete in Miss Fonda Fair? Because wallflowers don’t do well in social situations. They don’t do well on stage. I was a delicate child, and very obsessive compulsive with small details. I wanted my books in alphabetical order, but also organized by size. I wanted all my clothes hanging in the same direction, or the logos facing up. I went through a phase where I refused to wear jeans because the denim was cold on my legs and the seams would make me itch. I used to hide sweaters under my bed and hope my mom didn’t make me wear them. I refused to wear olive green, but half of my wardrobe had it. I also had a strong aversion to “play clothes” and “school clothes”, and was petrified my peers would see me in “play clothes”. I blamed it on my lack of friends for a solid year. It couldn’t be my eclectic personality that triggered the sleuth of name calling. I was socially awkward, and my mother was trying to protect my sensitive pre-teen self by refusing to allow myself to be placed in a situation where I could not control the outcome.
My sister liked to control things too- mostly people. She was not a wallflower. As a four year old preschool student, Lauren once climbed to the top of the slide on the playground and shouted to her peers, hands held high. “Attention everyone! I am going to sing a song. This one’s called, You Are My Sunshine.” When her school mates did not give her their full attention, she would shout to the boy on the swing or the girl at the boat wheel, “Why aren’t you listening!?” She commanded the stage.
It may have been a huge surprise when she signed up to compete in Miss Fonda Fair 2009, but it was no surprise that she won.
The Sheridan Sisters had been competing for many years. The three young ladies, all Irish Step Dancers, had much experience in the pageant circuit. Keelie, the oldest daughter, had held the Miss Fonda Fair title in the past, as well as Kieren and Courtney, and was set to judge the pageant. Secretly, the Miss Fonda Fair pageant was low on contestants. Kieren, who was dating Lauren’s boyfriend’s brother, recruited her for the pageant. Before I knew it, my sister was a pageant queen, and I hadn't even been allowed to compete.
Next thing we knew, Kieren had pulled the golden wool over both my sister and my mother’s eyes, and convinced her to compete once again, in the Miss Fulton County Scholarship Pageant- and official Miss America preliminary local. Miss Fulton is extremely competitive, and also incredibly strict with the eligibility. Although I had not been allowed to attend Early Admit at our local college, Lauren had been allowed. Fulton-Montgomery-Community-College was Lauren’s ticket to Miss Fulton County, and a shot at one of the oldest locals in the state, and the large scholarship that came along with it.
With no prep team, no coach, no budget, and no idea what to expect, Lauren borrowed dresses, wrote an essay on the importance of volunteering, wore a one piece bathing suit, performed an old NYSSMA song, and went home as 3rd runner up at Miss Fulton County. The pageant bug had bitten, and the virus was taking over.
I never attended one of her pageants. Green with envy, but too full of pride to admit it, I stayed away at college. I joined my school’s BGLAD club, held a leadership role, and when it came time to fundraise for a field trip to a statewide leadership conference, I posed the idea of a pageant. Apparently Mr. & Miss PSC was a thing of the past, and the older students were ecstatic to bring it back. Granted, this pageant was actually a drag show, but I decided to integrate the On-Stage Question category into the drag competition, and ask the contestants diversity themed questions. I would never be Miss America, but I held a darn good Mr. and Miss PSC.
One day, while trolling Facebook between classes, I noticed my sister had posted a status update regarding registration for the Miss Finger Lakes Pageant. I had never been to the Finger Lakes region. I had never heard of Miss Finger Lakes before. I had never considered signing up for a pageant, post my shattered Miss Fonda Fair dreams. But I was feeling irritated, for no apparent reason, and decided to comment.
That’s all it took. Before I knew it, my mother and sister were having a conversation about me on her Facebook. What would me talent be? I couldn't sing, and I certainly couldn't dance. I didn’t have an evening gown. Did I even have a passion for a platform? I better learn how to do my hair. I was going to embarrass them.
My mother didn’t write those comments with the intent to hurt me. She was trying to protect me. But I was hurt anyway, and fired up. I had typed that comment as a joke, but I was no longer joking. A search engine gave me the Miss New York website. I scrolled to the Finger Lakes section, copied the directors email, and requested further information. There was no going back. I had registered for Miss Finger Lakes 2011, and I would prove everyone wrong.
Miss Finger Lakes 2011- My First Pageant
I completed all my shopping online. I did not want to try anything on. I found a navy jersey knit gown with one shoulder and gems, a short black and white cocktail for my talent, and a purple Victoria’s Secret swimsuit with a padded triangle top and boyshort bottoms. Unaware of the interview portion until the night before, I borrowed a turtleneck and skirt from my sister. The opening number cocktail was an old homecoming dress I found in the back of my closet.
I had no tattoo cover up, because I hadn’t considered that a problem. I didn’t go tanning. I didn’t even own makeup or hair product. I had no preparation, no mock interviews, no talent training. I was going to wing it, and I was certain I would prove everyone wrong.
When I walked in the building, another contestant stood in the doorway and greeted me. I smiled, and she showed me where to hang my dress. Choosing a seat at the front end of the hallway, I hung my dress behind my seat.
“Let me see your gown,” the girl asked eagerly. Happy to make a new friend, I pulled up the garment back and showed her my beautiful new gown.
“It’s so pretty,” she said quickly. Then, stepping on the bottom, shrugged and walked off to the other side of the changing room where her stuff was waiting.
My sister had appeared in the doorway by this point, and saw the other girl step on my gown. To add insult to injury, it was winter, and winter upstate is brutal. Not only had she stepped on my gown, but she had stepped on my gown with snow and slush covered boots. “Stay away from her,” she warned. “She thinks you’re a threat, and she will sabotage you.”
Welcome to the pageant world, I guess.
We learned the opening number dance, met the other girls, and prepared for interview. My mother spent the morning at Walmart buying me makeup and tattoo cover up, since I had not brought any. When she returned we realized I also did not know how to wear any. My sister tried to give my hair some volume for interview, but between my braces, poofy hair, and makeup trainwreck, I’m surprised the judges didn’t tell me to leave the room before I ever said a word.
Wearing my borrowed interview outfit and my winter boots, the little miss girls walked us over to the host hotel for the interviews. Even though I was pleasantly surprised with my ability to speak to the judges, and didn’t stumble over my words or have a nervous breakdown at the podium. My answers were short, sweet and too the point. But I answered them all.
My closing number, on the other hand, didn’t exist. Mostly because no one told me that I needed one. But I thanked the judges for being there and told them I looked forward to the evening.
I danced the opening number, and stumbled through my introduction. Before going out in swimsuit, the girl who had stepped on my gown and had now realized I was not a threat, tried to touch up my back tattoo with her powder. Instead of my tattoo showing through the thin foundation, I now had a dark brown spot on my back. Then I tromped like a horse in my swimsuit, stopping at random parts of the stage, my shoulders completely slanted and my belly pooch sucked in tight. It was empowering, but the pictures still make me cringe.
My first ever talent performance went better than expected. I remembered all the signs, which is nice. The dress, knee length and black and white, didn’t match the song, an ethereal ballad. I stood center stage, signed the song, smiled, and walked off. The stage presence was a 2/10. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been tripping down the stairs.
After intermission, it was time for evening gown. I put on my gown for the first time since it came in the mail.
“I hate when you can see toes in evening gown,” another contestant told me. The gown was floating an inch above the floor.
Following evening gown, we were brought back onstage for the onstage question portion.
I drew my question: If you could sit down and talk to President Obama, what would you say?
I took the microphone and said, “If I could talk with Obama I would tell him to keep going. He isn’t going to be able to please everyone, so keep doing what we need and don’t let people hold him back from making a difference.”
A contestant’s mother in the audience yelled, “You go girl.” I would later learn that referring to the president by his last name is not acceptable in a formal situation, and he should be called Mr. Obama or President Obama. But despite this, my answer seemed to have resonated with the audience. The On-stage question portion would suddenly become my favorite phase of competition, validated each competition by audience members coming up and thanking me for my honesty, wit, and clarity.
Despite my pageant naivety, when it came time for crowning I held my breath, secretly hoping for my name to be called. The runners up were called. The girl who commented on my dress length was called. My sister was called. They took their flowers and made their way to the side of the stage. Then the winner was called. My name wasn’t called. This brought no surprise, and only a smidge of disappointment. But not hearing my name brought a wave of motivation. I didn’t want to win. I made it my goal to place. I had started late in my pageant career, and knew I had a lot of work to go. But I wanted to hear my name called.
Miss Empire Rose 2011 would have been my second pageant, ever, if not for the storm. Attending school in the Adirondacks made it increasingly difficult to attend events south of the Blue Line. Maybe I didn’t fight hard enough, or maybe the roads were just that bad. But I spent the first weekend in March sitting in my dorm room, probably watching Netflix or browsing Neopets.
Miss Mohawk Valley 2011
At some point during my Miss Finger Lakes ordeal, the woman running the sound equipment came up to me for small chat. She explained that she was not only a former Miss Finger Lakes, but used American Sign Language as her talent, and was also the current executive director for the Miss Mohawk Valley pageant. She encouraged me to continue competing, and inquired if I would be interested in competing in Miss Mohawk Valley.
At this point, the pageant bug had already bitten, but it was an extra encouragement to see someone actually invite me to compete instead of just weaseling my way in. There was that subliminal she just wants to raise her numbers thought process, but in truth that didn’t matter because there were no entry fees. It wasn’t like she would personally receive a cut of the hard word, sweat, and tears I would put into preparing for this pageant.
Since I was at school three hours north, I missed the optional workshop a few weeks before. My sister went, and tried to psych me out by describing the different potential contestants. I didn’t let it get to me, and focused on myself.
The pageant itself was also very encouraging- I met new family! The pageant, held at Herkimer High School, was advertised in the local newspaper. My father’s step mother saw our last name and asked her son, my uncle, if we were his brother’s children. My uncle’s wife and their two children decided to drive out from Rochester to watch the Crandall girls compete. Simultaneously, my grandfather saw the article and showed up as well. And even though he didn’t stay to say hello, because divorce in the old days makes things uncomfortable when your estranged son’s wife locks eye contact 20 years later, with her two kids you’ve never met, it was so nice to know I had family supporting me.
I still had no idea what I was doing. Lauren still did my hair and makeup. I bought an interview dress, which was a significant step in the right direction, over the borrowed turtleneck and skit. I hate turtlenecks. This pageant was filmed, and we would have the opportunity to watch the dvd later. I still cringe when I watch it, and in truth have the dvd hid in a sock drawer somewhere. We are our worst critics, but it was very bad.
My biggest regret? Going backstage after crowning and taking my fake boobs out, then returning to the lobby with my gown still on for pictures. My gown looks too big and saggy in what would be a beautiful picture with my sister and current close friend, in the beginning.
Season Wrap Up
The first season was an eye opening experience. I received such an abundance of feedback, I struggled to balance it all and began to fill up a notebook with all my thoughts, feedback, reviews, and opinions. I drew pictures of the gowns that won, kept track of who had previously held titles, platforms, talents, and even hair color.
I decided I would have to learn how to walk in heels, and bought a pair of sensible 2 inch pumps to wear daily, for the rest of my life. I experimented with some new tattoo cover up, and considered getting a spray tan to help with the process. I bought a hair straightener, and began teaching myself how to curl my hair. I wanted to win.
While attending the aforementioned conference, geared around LGBT equality and diversity training, I attended an amazing seminar that drew references from Harry Potter and used the trials and struggled faced by the protagonists as not only motivators, but examples of overcoming adversity. Every struggle we face can be compared to a struggle faced by Harry and his friends at Hogwarts. I was incredibly inspired to bring this seminar back to my college, but also promote this concept in middle schools. Death in the family, racism, bloodlines, financial status, bullying… Very real, very relevant issues were discussed in arguably one of the best series of all times. How better to teach youth to overcome these issues, than with their favorite characters?
Boom, my platform. Just like that Using Literacy to Promote Diversity was born. Although I really wanted to focus on Harry Potter, I knew that I would be able to reach larger crowds if i increased my resource pool to other classics, such as Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland.
At this point in my experience, Using Literature to Promote Diversity may have worked. I would have come up with a cute literary pun to use at the title, had a solid marketing plan and class room seminar lesson plans, and been able to use my experience to promote my platform, and explain how it was necessary at the local, state, and national level. However, at the time, it was a vague concept I had come up with based off a short seminar at a conference. I needed to regroup. Inspired by Claire Buffie, I briefly considered an LGBT related platform that didn’t focus on marriage equality. Although marriage equality would be nice, there are more important things that gay and transgender people have to worry about, such as bullying at school or employment-non discrimination. And although I came up with an amazing slogan, Teaching Tolerance with my platform, Straightening our Priorities, Not Our People, I worried it was too politically charged and would open too many questions I wasn’t prepared for. At some point in my high school education, I learned briefly about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Later, in a business law class focused around public speaking, we were required to choose a piece of business legislature, and give a presentation on it. Although I attended a very conservative school, the presentation I gave on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or EDNA for short, was well received. The teacher had personal stories of coworkers and managers in his past who would have benefited from this law, and in truth, his pink polo wearing self, and his wife, would be protected under the law, since legally an employee can be fired based off a rumor or assumption without fact. This naturally became my next platform idea. I knew the law, I had presented the law, and I wanted to pass the law.
There are only so many bigoted judges an already self-conscious contestant can handle. There are only so many ways you can tell a closed-minded person that the law does not take away rights from straight people, nor does it give special rights to gay or transgendered people, it simply provides a legally balanced playing ground. I was irritated. I wanted to stand up for what I knew was right, but at the same time I was being squashed down by judges with questions like, “The Thousand Islands region is very conservative. How will you be able to convince the community that they even care about this law, since it does not affect them.” That question, by the way, was politically charged and opinionated, and should have never been allowed. But it was the turning point in my platform. I swallowed my pride and looked for another.
I had been donating blood for nearly 5 years at this point. My grandmother had donated blood until she went on blood thinners and started taking insulin shots, and after she died she donated her eyes to two blind people. My mother frequently donated blood when her iron was high enough. I had donated with my ex-boyfriends, my sister, and my friends at college. We all had different reasons for donating, but the results were all the same. We saved lives. I had begun volunteering at the American Red Cross blood services clinic at a way to kill time on my days off, but also fill my community service resume with something I would genuinely enjoy. It suddenly hit my like a bag of rocks. Promotion of Blood Donation would be my new platform.
I started off rocky. I had a lot of ideas- develop new donors, maintain current donors, get people who can’t donate to hold blood drives, open the restrictions. My platform statement was a mess, but at least my interview would run smoother.
And it did. But I was able to slowly chip away at the platform statement, and polish it up. In the end, I had a very strong very beautiful, passionate page promoting the development of the next generation of blood donors, and pulling the pop culture reference, and fandom, of superheroes, to do it. Why should we donate? Because You Don’t Need a Cape to Be a Hero. It is geared towards teens and young adults, gets them to the bed that first time (which is the hardest step), and encourages them to reap the benefits of becoming a long term donor, through the action of saving lives. It took nearly four years to build, but I am still able to promote this platform, and speak about it at American Red Cross seminars of conferences. If they were to ask me to.
Since aging out, I was able to transfer my two years of American Red Cross volunteer service to the Albany unit, and was recertified as a blood services donor in the Northeastern region. Instead of going into the Utica blood donation clinic once each week, I am now able to attend blood drives across the region- or right in my community. Instead of sitting at a desk and hoping donors come in, I am literally going to them, in the community, and helping every person I check-in make a difference in the lives of potentially three people. My experiences and research makes me a fabulous candidate for these positions, because I am able to answer questions, I know the science behind it, I know the logistics, and perhaps most importantly, I am a blood donor. I have been in their shoes, and we are working towards the same goal. To save the lives of our community members, by building a new generation of blood donors. We don’t need capes to be heroes.