Seventeen years ago this very weekend, I competed in the Miss America pageant representing my home state of Wisconsin.
When people ask how I did, I like to tell them I won 11th place. In my day, they only announced the top 10 finalists, so I feel I can safely assume I must have been 11th.
The thing about Miss America is that you only get one shot. Once you’ve been on that stage, you can never compete again. You have to give it all you’ve got, which is hard when you have no idea what the playing field even looks like in real life.
I had never been to Atlantic City, N.J., until I showed up for the pageant, so I had to rely on my committee and trust they would prepare me for the unknown.
I remember staring blankly at my traveling companion who was on her knees on her living room floor laying out every outfit I would wear for two whole weeks, complete with underwear, jewelry and shoes. Then she started labeling everything “Miss Wis.” It wasn’t until I was in a dressing room with 49 other contestants that I realized this was not her first rodeo. I’m certain her kindness and great attention to detail is the only reason you couldn’t see my undies on national television.
Of course, the Miss America program is about so much more than hair, clothes and nails. It’s about giving young women at every level of competition the chance to speak about an issue that has become their personal ministry.
Mine was “Overcoming Crisis.” I spent the year talking with kids about what to do when life rolls over you with those big, turbulent messes like divorce, death and moving. I can’t promise I changed the world, but I still have letters from several high school kids telling me I changed their lives.
I know I wouldn’t have been in that position if it hadn’t been for all of the people lifting me up and acting as my personal cheerleaders for that one magical year.
Now it’s someone else’s turn. Jacky Arness is our current Miss North Dakota. On Sunday night, she will step out on that Miss America stage for the final night of competition. This Fargo girl will give it all she’s got, and if she wins, you’ll hear me screaming all the way from Ohio. But even if she doesn’t, she’ll come home and continue to change her part of the world, one life at a time through her platform of empowerment.
I know Jacky is feeling the same support and love I felt 17 years ago, and so is her mom, Amy, who wrote me this letter about the kindness that is surrounding their family:
“Just when Jacky is feeling fatigued, discouraged, like she can never accomplish enough, or be prepared enough, we will receive something from a friend or even a brand-new acquaintance.
“We’ve gotten messages of encouragement and overwhelming offers of generosity, including a year of massage services, a year-long lease on a car, nutritional supplements, personal training, dietician expertise, a restaurant willing to host a fundraiser, a theater willing to donate space for a send-off party, a private plane ride to Williston to be at an important state-wide event, gas cards for travel and restaurant meals.
“It all helps defray the many costs of preparing a girl to be on a somewhat level playing field with these other ‘pageant’ states that get huge amounts of support.
“There are moments when I as a mom feel I need to be 10 people in order to provide the assistance needed, and then something will happen that will cause me to pause, get choked up, and sometimes literally have to sit down on the ground right where I am because I am so overwhelmed with gratitude!”
I remember feeling that way, too, Amy. Thank you for sharing.
These days I watch the pageant from the sidelines (aka my living room couch), while eating ice cream, but reading Amy’s words and thinking about the emotions her daughter must be feeling right now bring me back to my own year as Miss Wisconsin. It was a special time filled with special people and more kindness than a person could ever imagine.
Cheer on Miss North Dakota as the Miss America Pageant is broadcast live on ABC. The pre-show starts at 7 p.m., and the final competition starts at 8.
I need kindness stories! Please share your stories of kindness with me email@example.com or send a letter to Kindness is Contagious c/o Nicole J. Phillips, The Forum, 101 5th St. N., Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107.