Pageant Girls: Beyond the Beauty
A closer look at what it takes to be a Beauty Queen.
Cypress sat down for an interview with Miss Tipton, Miss Mid-South, and Miss Tennessee and got an enlightening glimpse into how each woman rose above the stereotypes and blasted away all the misconceptions about pageant life.
When you think of pageants, what naturally comes to your mind? High heels, bathing suits, and shallow platitudes, maybe? Most people in America have been exposed to pageant life in some way or another, whether it’s by turning the TV on to TLC’s “Toddlers in Tiaras” or by knowing someone personally involved in it. Inevitably, this causes preconceived, and often inaccurate, notions of what pageant life is like that impact our opinions of pageants and the people involved in them. Upon being given the opportunity to interview Miss Tipton County 2017, Madison Butler, Miss Tennessee 2016, Grace Burgess, and Miss Mid-South 2017, DeLaney Timberman, it became clear that pageant life consists of much more than simply dressing up and looking pretty—it takes hard work, unwavering willpower, and a desire to give back to the community.
As soon as Madison, Miss Tipton County, walked into our interview, her genuine warmth lit up the room. Although she is probably interviewed day in and day out, she still seemed truly excited to provide her perspective on pageant life. She was very easy to talk to and made pageant life seem relatable. Madison, a Rhodes College alumni, is a self-proclaimed small-town girl and former Miss Dyersburg. What also stood out right away is how tall she is! This works to her advantage as she has a love for basketball and even played for the varsity basketball team at Rhodes. She proves that women in pageants are simply human—they are dynamic and have many passions outside of pageant life, and for Madison one of these passions happens to be sports. Although Madison has now aged out of pageant life, she is excited to see what’s to come in this next chapter of her life.
As for Grace, Miss Tennessee 2016, well, she could not have been more appropriately named. She radiated an aura of gracefulness and humbleness despite her major successes in pageant life. She spoke gently and was conversational. What stood out most about Grace was her unmistakable love for children. As she waited to be interviewed, she played with a young boy in the lobby, and when describing her experiences in working with children, she didn’t make it seem like it was a service at all. She seemed to find a sense of happiness in helping and teaching children, and her work alongside Governor Bill Haslam for children’s literacy has only made her love stronger. Her long-term goals are to continue to help children in any way that she can, which is why she decided to major in Child Development at the University of Memphis. Although she recently had to pass on her title, she did it with graciousness and excitement for what the new Miss Tennessee will bring to the table.
At first impression, DeLaney came across as very dedicated and kind-hearted. When describing her path to becoming Miss Mid-South, she portrayed an incredible sense of maturity and work ethic. She began participating in pageants at the age of 17 and, realizing she has a natural knack for them, shows no intention of stopping now. She expresses a selfless love for philanthropy and an astonishingly mature perspective on how to gracefully win or lose. Before achieving her title of Miss Mid-South, she held the title Miss Henderson County. During her interview, she cordially discussed her love of broadcast journalism (her major) and the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
When talking with all three girls, we began to see what many people don’t realize about pageant life, which is the copious amount of community service involved. The hard work these young women put into improving their communities is staggering, and a lot of this work is aimed at improving the lives of the children of Tennessee. When asked about their participation in community service, all of their eyes immediately lit up—their passion for helping their communities was undeniable.
When asked if there were aspects of pageants most people would not expect, the amount of service involved was the first thing each mentioned. Each young lady has a specific platform—that is, a specific cause for which they want to raise awareness for. Madison explained, “I think there’s a lot of superficial and artificial stigma around pageantry, and I was guilty of that myself until I was actually in those shoes. There’s a big element of community service. My platform was St. Jude, and I also got to host the Miracle Mile 5k in Atoka at Gateway Baptist Church. We brought in over $5,000 for Lebonheur Children’s Hospital. These girls—yeah, they’re wearing heels—but they’re really working hard for their platform...A lot of ladies are discounted and discredited for the amount of work they do. I’m all about breaking those molds and throwing away those binaries.” In addition to her work at St. Jude, Madison is also a Children’s Miracle Network local ambassador.
When she mentions hard work, she isn’t kidding. In addition to the community service they are involved in, they also hit the gym like clock-work—sometimes up to twice a day with a lot of emphasis on cardio. Along with this strict exercise regime, they are on very strict diets, evidently high in healthy fats and low in carbs. Both Madison and Delaney expressed disdain for Tilapia. “I don’t think I can ever eat Tilapia again!” Madison joked lightheartedly. Not only are these women pushed to their mental limits, but they are pushed to their physical limits as well. All three women looked healthy, toned, and strong...maybe there is something to eating Tilapia!
This hard work is definitely rewarding. For example, when asked about her favorite part of community service, Madison said, “The best part about being involved in service is being able to see it hands-on, seeing what your work is doing, and how it’s working on young children. For instance, getting to go speak at Atoka Elementary or Munford High School...are things that not every young lady gets to do. Those children really look up to you...It’s extremely rewarding. Those kids are learning from you, but I have learned more from them than I could have ever learned from sitting in a classroom.”
As Miss Tennessee, Grace spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy toward her platform, ‘Ready, Set, Read!. As a result, she has worked alongside Governor Haslam for Character Education and Literacy. She has travelled to 258 schools to read to over 50,000 children and to teach them her clever acronym ‘GRIT’ (Give it Your All, Reach High, Ignore Negatives, and Try and Try Again). ‘GRIT’ is her way of teaching kids to never give up or take the easy way out on their way to achieving their dreams. As Miss Tennessee, Grace also served as Tennessee’s Goodwill Ambassador for Tennessee’s Children’s Miracle Network (CMN). On top of all this, she also worked as an Official Spokesperson for Governor Haslam’s Books From Birth Foundation, on the Volunteer Tennessee’s Honorary Board, and much more. Just reading her resume is exhausting! However, she did not complain once. Her favorite part, she said, is the “...impact we have on children across the state.”
DeLaney’s platform, on the other hand, is ‘Keeping Families Close.’ Her service involves working for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Memphis and providing essential resources for families caring for sick children. This includes providing housing near their sick child, travel expenses, and more. Through pageants, she has gotten to visit many children who are in the hospital and she felt compelled to do something, anything, to help. She explained that “most of the time, the parents just sleep in the little chair beside them. I found the Ronald McDonald Houses—they just provide everything a family could ever need while their children are being treated...housing, gas money...even something as simple as shampoo and conditioner. I have seen such a difference. It’s been a huge blessing to raise over $8,000 for them.”
As to what keeps herself going, DeLaney laughingly admitted, “There are so many mornings at 6 [a.m.] when I don’t think I can curl my hair anymore, but you walk into those schools, and [the children] light up your world, and it makes everything so worth it.”
Another facet of pageantry that many people are unaware of is the opportunity to receive thousands of dollars in scholarship money. The Miss Tipton County Scholarship Pageant has awarded tens of thousands of dollars in monetary scholarships since 1997. For Madison, she most likely wouldn’t have been able to attend Rhodes University if it weren’t for the scholarship opportunities. With deep gratitude, she explained, “The Miss Tipton organization alone organized over $90,000 for young women to go to college…They allowed me to go to college and to one of the best schools in Tennessee.” Grace has earned $39,000 in scholarship money and her student loans were paid in full. “It’s really been a blessing...It helps a lot of girls out.” DeLaney attested to this, explaining that the scholarship money she received through pageants is “a big part” of why she was able to attend college.
When asked if they could give any advice to girls considering entering pageant life, they were eager to offer their hard-earned wisdom. It could all be simplified down to the same piece of advice—“just do it!” Madison answered, “It doesn’t matter if you play basketball [like me], it doesn’t matter what you look like; anybody can do a pageant. It’s all about bringing your best to the table. I’ve seen talent acts from hypnotizing chickens to spinning a basketball on stage!” Grace agreed and emphasized on the scholarship opportunities pageants can provide. “Just go for it and put yourself out there. You don’t regret it because you do learn so much from the program. If you win a local title, you can win anywhere from $500 to $1500 in scholarship money. Everyone gets scholarship money,” she encouraged.
DeLaney definitely understands how some girls could be hesitant to become involved in pageants. She admitted, “Even I was reluctant towards it.” She suggested that any girl considering pageant life finds a platform that they are truly passionate about. “When you can make that personal connection, it makes the hard days so much easier,” she advised. She also encouraged girls to get involved in order to form a first hand opinion about pageants: “Don’t listen to anyone else.”
A common stereotype of pageant life is that competition is cutthroat and that you don’t make it out with your self-esteem unscathed. However, when asked about this perception, they all heavily disputed it. On the contrary, participating in pageants actually improved their self-esteem and taught them skills they will have for the rest of their lives and careers.
Grace, for instance, found that pageants provided her with invaluable lessons on how to lose gracefully, pick yourself up, and keep going after demoralizing setbacks. When she first began competing, she didn’t reach success right away. The first time she competed, she didn’t even make the top 15. However, she took valuable lessons from those experiences and uses them to teach children the role of perseverance in goal achievement.
Pageants also helped Grace reach her full physical and mental potential. She explained, “I learned how to eat right and exercise and how to live a healthy lifestyle, which made me feel better—which made me more confident.” She also obtained skills that she can use for the rest of her life. “I learned how to network and how to speak to people. I used to be terrified of public speaking. It helps you open up and break out of your shell. If there’s one thing I’m walking away with, it is confidence.”
Madison explained that most of the scoring is based on the Talent and Interview portions. “These girls are being judged less on their outer appearance than on what they’ve done in their communities, on their talent, and what they’ve worked hard at. It really helped me with my confidence.” DeLaney found that pageants “make you stop and realize what you’re made of. It shows you who you are and what’s really inside of you.”
When asked on whether the competition caused a tense working environment, they all expressed how the other participants have instead become reliable friends and sources of empowerment. Madison gushed, “Delaney and I are now lifelong friends, even though she was my competitor this year and she beat me. She will be in my wedding one day.” She also expressed sincere pride in the other women’s accomplishments. “I have met some outstanding women...who can do really great things, who have raised $30,000 for their platforms, who have 4.0 GPA’s at Ivy League schools.” Grace expressed the same sentiment—“I made some really great friends—Madison is a dear friend of mine. You build new relationships. The girls are so down-to-earth.”
When asked about what they planned to do after their time in pageant life comes to an end, each woman expressed excitement about what is to come. Madison, a lover of all things books, graduated from Rhodes College in May 2017 with a degree in Literature. “Where I’m headed with that degree is to be continued. I’m hoping life will lead me on a path meant for me.” Grace will graduate from the University of Memphis in December 2017 and hopes to use her Child Development major to work for LeBonheur Children’s Hospital one day. DeLaney, who received her Associate’s in Broadcast Journalism from Jackson State Community College, is transferring to University of North Alabama to receive her Bachelor’s Degree. One day, she hopes to become a Public Relations Director for a Children’s Miracle Network Hospital.
The insight provided by these ambitious and hard-working young women shed light on what pageant women really go through behind the scenes. While they are very much aware of the stereotypes surrounding what they do, they refuse to let it get to them—they know in their hearts that the work they are doing is invaluable to their community. Madison, Grace, and DeLaney are all wonderful examples of how pageant life can improve communities, children’s lives, and the lives of the pageant women themselves. As Grace so eloquently described it, “It’s a lot more than fake eyelashes and teased hair!”
These women are extremely proud of the Tipton County franchise and how much it has given back to the community. In 2015, the Tipton County chapter was even named “outstanding local pageant.” Three executive directors have led the organization, including Melanie Wright, Mary Gail Elam, and co-directors Erica Price and Robyn Scott. Each of these women have been recognized as “Director of the Year” for 2003, 2013, and 2017.
The directors put their heart into these pageants as much if not more than the girls. Their duties include preparing the titleholders for the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant in June, resume building, platform development, as well as providing guidance to the participants. In 2017, Jen Tyler was welcomed to the team as the Miss Junior Teen and Miss Teen Pageant Director. As director, she also oversees the teen titleholders’ community appearances and interviews. Recent Teen Titleholders include Miss Junior Teen Tipton County, Kimmy Smith, and Miss Teen Tipton County, Kasey Moore. Since 2012, the teen franchise has nominated a representative to compete at the Miss Tennessee’s Outstanding Teen Pageant and Miss Tennessee’s Teen Princess Pageant. The awards won by participants within their franchise include Miss America Academic Award 1998, Miss America Community Service Award 1999, and Winner of Miss Tennessee 2016.
One very notable winner of the Miss Mid-South Teen Princess pageant is Desiree Dyson, who won the title in 2014. She then returned to compete as Miss Tipton County’s Teen Princess in 2015 and won the state title. Her success in pageants showed how pageants are becoming more diverse and celebrating all kinds of beauty. She explained, “My year as Miss Tennessee’s Teen Princess 2015 was unbelievably life changing. The night I was crowned was also the night I made history. I am the first and only African American to be crowned in the Miss Tennessee Organization, which began in 1953. I was also the first Tipton County resident to hold a state title. Being that I am a minority, it was a privilege to be able to be a role model to all by exemplifying diversity and positivity. I had no clue how amazing my journey was going to be until I had the opportunity to take it. I learned that one person can really make a difference and impact the lives of others. It was an amazing, eye-opening, humbling experience that I will never forget.”
If you would like to be a part of the Miss Tipton County or Miss MidSouth scholarship pageant, you can contact Director Robyn Scott by phone at 901-832-1284 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit their Facebook page titled “Miss Tipton County/Miss Mid-South Scholarship Pageant” for further information. For information on other pageants spanning across Tennessee, please visit wp.misstennessee.com/org/local-pageants/.