Opinion: A 64-year-old tradition—Is Miss USA still relevant?

Maureen Francisco August 2, 2015 0
The 51 contestants for the Miss USA 2015 pageant at the Houmas House Plantation and Garden in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Sunday, July 5. • Photo courtesy of HO/Miss Universe Organization L.P., LLLP

The 51 contestants for the Miss USA 2015 pageant at the Houmas House Plantation and Garden in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Sunday, July 5. • Photo courtesy of HO/Miss Universe Organization L.P., LLLP

I cheered.

I cried.

I celebrated.

That pretty much sums up my three-hour Miss USA experience, which was held on July 12 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The families showed up with their signs, T-shirts, and unlimited enthusiasm for their contestants. For many, Miss USA is similar to watching the Super Bowl. Rather than wear sports jerseys, you dress up for the occasion. It’s not uncommon to see women wearing five-inch heels (and no, I’m not just talking about the contestants).

May Ching Praseuth, a Chinese American, is the stage director and choreographer for the state pageant qualifier to Miss USA for Washington. She’s been doing this for 10 years. This was the first year she attended the Miss USA pageant.

“It was more than what I expected,” said Ching Praseuth, who is a mother of two. She said she did have doubts as to whether the pageant world is relevant today with the recent news and backlash from people who only saw the glamorous side. Some called the pageant sexist. Others said it’s primitive.

However, after attending the show, Ching Praseuth said, “It gave me a new sense of encouragement and how empowering it is for women at a whole new level. I wish people really understood what the depth of what these pageants do for women. It’s not about the makeup or swimsuit, it’s about the preparation to the woman you are called to be.”

That has always been the goal of Miss USA: Empower women to fulfill their potential.

But why is this year’s Miss USA was different even though the message has always been the same? Why did Ching Praseuth have a moment of doubt?

Recap:

Weeks leading to the Miss USA telecast, the focus had been about the fight between NBCUniversal and Donald J. Trump, both 50% owners of the pageant. It all started when Trump talked about illegal immigrants during his official announcement to run for presidency.

Days after Trump’s presidential speech, Univision decided not to air the pageant, then NBCUniversal followed. Soon sponsors, hosts, entertainers, and judges distanced themselves from the Miss USA show. Immediately the headlines were about “who” dropped their support of the pageant versus the accomplishments of the contestants who earned the spot to compete on the national stage to utilize the title to not only be a welcoming ambassador of America but to serve and help others.

Despite the controversy, not one of the contestants withdrew from the competition. All 51 delegates (50 contestants representing their states and District of Columbia) proudly said their name, age, and state. People could watch Miss USA on the Reelz network and online.

As I was sitting in the audience during the live show, there was a feeling of patriotism. The contestants wore red, white, and blue in the opening dance number and during the swimsuit portion of the competition. Even the new crown displayed stars and replicated the New York skyline. As I got an up close view of the crown, it reminded me of the Statue of Liberty.

Throughout the Miss USA show, you’d learn more about these contestants. I already knew this, but to the people tuning in to watch Miss USA for the first time due to the controversy, I’m glad the show emphasized, “The contestants are more than just pretty.”

They’re wicked smart too.

• 10 are studying or working in law or politics.

• 14 are studying or working in the medical field.

They break stereotypes.

• McKenzi Novell, Miss Washington USA 2015, was in a zombie film.

• Rashontae Wawrzyniak, Miss Michigan USA 2015, works on cars.

They each have a story.

• Candice Bennatt, Miss Louisiana USA 2015, escaped an abusive relationship.

• Anea Garcia, Miss Rhode Island USA 2015, is a product of rape.

Once the competition started, I was so submersed with the show that I forgot about the drama. I found myself being drawn into these contestants’ stories and the adversity they overcame to stand on the Miss USA stage. I saw Wawrzyniak wipe away tears when her story was told about how her mother left her family when she was just three years old. Consequently, Wawrzyniak was raised by her father who had a passion working on automobiles. She’s now a car expert at auctions.

When the hosts announced which ladies made it to the top five—Oklahoma, Texas, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Nevada—four of the five women were women of color.

That was when I reflected.

Univision, NBCUniversal, sponsors, hosts, judges, and entertainers dropped out of their Miss USA obligations because they didn’t want to have anything to do with Trump since he is part owner of Miss USA. Some called Trump’s remarks racist. Others called them insensitive.

From my personal experience, I was introduced to the Miss Universe Organization by my husband, an immigrant from Korea. Long before the controversy, Trump’s team recruited David Van Maren to be part of the organization about 15 years ago. I, myself, am an immigrant from the Philippines. Together, we are executive producers of the pageant qualifier to Miss USA and Miss Teen USA for the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Whether you agree or disagree with Trump, he has started a dialogue of race issues and we are reminded about the boundaries of our freedom of speech.

The Myths:

People are concerned about Trump profiting from our company. He doesn’t. We are an independent company that has been contracted by the Miss Universe Organization to produce the pageants in the Northwest.

We hire local contractors and create jobs for many. Our team is quite diverse, which also includes our former Miss Washington USA 2008 Michelle Font who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. She owns and operates Seattle Pageant Coach. We continue to be part of the pageant family for the same reason Font continues to be involved beyond her reign. Font said, “I believe in what every contestant can gain from a pageant, whether it is confidence, building self esteem, overcoming fears, making friends, opening doors to their future careers or just plain having fun with women of their age who are equally driven and motivated.”

In fact, one sponsor I spoke with at Miss USA seeks out pageant contestants. IST is a facilities management company based out of Atlanta with more than 1,500 employees. Do you need a receptionist? What about litigation support? Do you need help with making copies and organizing your documents? IST hires sales people to sell its “support package” and software to companies. According to the CEO, Founder and President, Hal Blackman, he believes pageant gals have the skillsets and communication abilities that someone with 10 years of sales experience has. They can articulate their thoughts, present themselves and are driven. The company’s national director of sales recruiting is Miss USA 2009 Kristen Dalton.

Which then brings me back to my original question: Is Miss USA still relevant?

Blackman brought six of his team members who are former pageant ladies to talk to the Miss USA contestants about the fact of life after the crown. They shared their testimony about how their pageant experience helped them find success working in Corporate America.

Finally, when Miss Oklahoma USA Olivia Jordan heard her name and was crowned as Miss USA, her reign will be filled with charitable work, appearances, and preparation for Miss Universe where she’ll be meeting women from all over the world. No doubt, she’ll be asked some tough questions from the media. After watching her compete at Miss USA, she’s more than qualified to answer them.

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