Talking with the Miss America candidates

New England Pageant News was able to sit with several of the Miss America candidates – from New England and beyond – to talk about being part of the 100th Miss America competition, how the phases have treated them so far, and the camaraderie or sisterhood among the women from across the country.

“I’m having the time of my life,” said Miss Massachusetts Elizabeth Pierre. “It’s been really awesome getting to spend time with the fifty other candidates competing for this job. Stepping on the stage yesterday was just insane, and I’m just really proud of the performance I’m putting out there so far.”

“I can’t believe I’m here,” said Miss Rhode Island Leigh Payne. “I still can’t believe I won Miss Rhode Island, so to be here has been even more of an overwhelming happy, fun experience.”

Performing their talents on the Miss America stage – something they all had practiced ad infinitum – was a dream come true. While some said they are experiencing nervousness at times, none said anxiety was any sort of a hindrance.

“It was absolutely incredible,” said Miss New Hampshire Ashley Marsh. “My second year of dance, I actually tap danced to a song called ‘Someday I’ll Be Miss America,’ so it’s always been a dream to tap dance on the Miss America stage. I really never thought it would happen, and it happened last night. It was truly the best feeling to be up on that stage.”

“It was amazing,” said Miss Connecticut Sapna Raghavan, who performed a traditional Indian dance, which she choreographed herself, to a musical piece she also put together. “It was so special, because the audience was pretty quiet. I’m used to an Indian audience who is keeping track with me, who knows [the style] and is with me. I could tell this audience was thinking ‘What am I watching,’ which I personally like to do the most. I like to be like, ‘Ha-ha! Here I am!”

“During dress rehearsal, I always get the jitters and nerves, and backstage I always get nervous, but once I hit the stage, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m having so much fun,'” Pierre said.

“I was really surprised,” Payne said, after answering the judges’ questions on stage, and presenting her Social Impact Initiative. “It was enjoyable throughout the entirety of the preliminary. I enjoyed the moment on stage. There was no shakiness of the knees, and that was a first for me.”

Miss New York Sydney Park won the preliminary talent award for her spoken word poem, during which she also played a character, of sorts, which was maybe part of herself.

“Every time I’ve performed that talent, I’ve tried to listen to different types of music to set the tone for when I go out there,” Park said. “Performing poetry is about being present and speaking the feelings that you’re feeling. I think all of us have that extra character, that is someone we wish was our bodyguard. It’s the person who we wish, when we get the wrong order at a restaurant, would speak up for us. That comes out every once in a while, and it’s just important to remember that you have a backbone too. When I’m performing that talent, I just want to be that person – that person I would have wanted to look up to when I was a little girl.”

The candidates also shared their thoughts on how this big moment in their lives will stick with them, and perhaps help shape their growth.

“Coming from a small state, there is just not anything like this [in Vermont],” said Miss Vermont Danielle Morse. “So, I think just knowing how something so big – on such a large scale – can run. Six months from now I’m just going to be so proud to represent my absolutely favorite state, where I was born and raised.”

“It’s absolutely the people that I met. I have two best friends [Miss Virginia Tatum Sheppard and Miss West Virginia Jaelyn Wratchford] who I’ve met in this organization. I love all of these women, but Jaelyn and Tatum – we’re like this little trio, and I’m excited to see all that we accomplish together,” Pierre said.

“I think it’s the preparation for Miss America – it really makes you step back and think about yourself,” Raghavan said, “what you’re passionate about and what makes you tick – what makes you excited in the morning. I think every woman can agree with that. We’re doing so many things we hardly get time to think about ourselves. I think I’ve really found my voice, and I’m unapologetically me.”

The private interview, the candidates said, may have revealed something about what the judges will be looking for when deciding who the 100th Miss America will be.

“I went to a very professional school in a big city….so I had just come out of interviewing for internships and jobs, and I told the judges that Miss America brought a lot of joy back into my life,” Payne said. “I’ve been very technical for a few years, so that was very genuine. It’s really just a really happy experience. I’ve gotten in touch with that side of myself again, and I was able to communicate that.”

“I think it went really well. I got to say most of the things I wanted to say,” Park said. “What I was kind of seeing is that they are looking for what a modern woman in America would be like, and who can represent that best.”

“The judges are so fun, and they’re there to have a good time and to get to know us. I got asked a lot about myself,” Pierre said. “They are 1,000-percent looking for someone with a plan, someone who knows what they want to accomplish or how they want to accomplish it. I think I did a good job in portraying that.”

“I absolutely love the panelists that we have this year, so I think I was just so excited to go talk to them. I shared who I was and what makes Ashley Ashley,” Marsh said. “I think they’re just looking for someone who is ready for the job, who is ready to start day one promoting their social impact as Miss America, and someone who cares about the program and the service aspect of it.”

“It was awesome, and I was so shocked,” Raghavan said. “I had thought that I might not get the questions I want. I think they were very receptive to diversity. A lot of the themes in the interview were around diversity and inclusivity, which is the legacy I want to leave. It felt very much that they were on the same page – that it’s what they wanted to talk about.”

“Walking out, I was thinking it’s not me that they want, but that’s okay,” Morse said. “I got asked about firefighting and the children’s hospital – things I’m used to talking about, so that was nice. I honestly don’t think I got to show my heart as much as I wish I had.”

Perhaps most of all, the candidates are enjoying their time getting to know each other, sharing silly and fun moments, and forming that sisterhood that is central to the experience for them.

“People seem to bond over their talents and the things they have going on,” Pierre said. “Miss Indiana Braxton Hiser and Tatum, Miss Virginia, realized they were both theatre kids, so basically every day now, they go into a song-and-dance from a different musical, and give everyone a show, so that’s really fun.”

“We were wearing masks, and I tried to eat my soup through my mask,” Raghavan said. “I had soup all over my mask all day. There have been a lot of funny jokes- all the girls are so fun.”

“We were rehearsing a few days ago, and we came out and were standing around in our walking pattern. All of a sudden, everyone starts singing – we were just singing the theme songs to Disney shows and clapping hands. It was so genuine, and we all knew it. Something like that can only happen her, so that was really special.”

“It was really exciting to watch Sydney Park, Miss New York, win her talent prelim,” Morse said. “We’ve been close, so it was great to see my friend’s accomplishment.”

UPDATE: More candidates interviewed

Miss Nevada Macie Tuell said she’s extremely grateful for the experience. She competed for title of Miss Nevada seven times (!) before winning the state crown in her last year of eligibility.

“It was a whirlwind, especially after doing this, including the COVID year, for nine years,” Tuell said. “I was told ‘no’ seven different times. Finally, hearing ‘yes’ on the eighth time, finally getting to stand on the Miss America stage, let alone the 100th anniversary Miss America stage, is an honor – it’s very humbling to represent my home.”

Tuell, who had played the violin for most of her competition career, chose this time to sing Queen’s “Somebody to Love” as her talent.

“I feel good about it. I’m proud of how much work I’ve put into my preparation,” she said. “I decided to do something my heart feels more passionate about, and do a vocal performance. I am a Classic Rock kind of girl. Classic songs have always been in my upbringing. I knew it was important for me to do something that I grew up loving and I grew up singing. When I stepped on that stage, I could feel every beat and every lyric to that song.”


Tuell said the panelists were very serious about their job in the interview room.

“I walked out as though that was the best interview of my entire life,” she said. “They are looking for someone who is going to take this seriously as a career, because being Miss America is a full-time job. They want someone who is dedicated and willing to serve. They want someone with a plan.”
 
Like others, Tuell said the friendships are what will have the most lasting impact on her, after the crowning.

“They will genuinely last me a lifetime. There’s been a lot of time to get to know these girls – getting to know their stories. I’ve learned a little bit from each girl that I will take along with me in my life,” she said. “That, and I’ve proved to myself that I’m capable of accomplishing my dreams.”

 

Miss Washington Maddie Louder said her dance also meant a lot to her, because she has dealt with an eating disorder, which has caused her to be very ill in the past. To perform a dance with such physical effort was, in itself, a triumph for her.

“I started realizing that the voices who told me I wasn’t good enough – not only in the dance school, who told me I wasn’t good enough to dance unless I lost weight – but also the voices in my own mind, that said you won’t be good enough. I do that dance just for me now, just to dance because I love to dance. It’s about how I breath and how I express myself,” she said.

Louder didn’t get a clear sense of what the judges were looking for in the interview room, instead just enjoying the moment.

“I laughed with them, I cried with them, I shared my heart with them. All I can be is me, and show them my best self. From that point on, it’s in their hands whether they think I’d do the job of Miss America,” she said.

In the future, Louder said, she’ll look back at the emotional experience from the competition.

“No one prepares you for it. It is a whirlwind of emotions,” she said. “From the highs and lows, to feeling anxious from the pressures of the week, or the pressure you put on yourself before you go on stage. I’m trying to put all those feelings aside, but also knowing that I’m human, and at the end of the day, trying to lean into that vulnerability as a human being.”

Miss District of Columbia Andolyn Medina said she felt great after preliminaries, and did the absolute best that she could, and that lead to a little sigh of relief. She said she chose her song, a soulful rendition of “Summertime,” because it has multiple layers of meaning to her.

“It’s from the opera Porgy and Bess, and it’s one of the first African-American operas, and it’s set in South Carolina, which is where my mom’s side of the family is from,” she said. “When you hear some of the current renditions of ‘Summertime,’ you hear that jazz and that soul, so when I sing it, I’m singing an operatic version, but it reminds me of my family, my Southern ties, and the whole story of the song is of your parents and family members believing in you and wanting you to succeed.”

The biggest thing Median thinks she’ll take from this experience is learning the resilience that her fellow candidates have had, as well as her own.

“After the year that we’ve had, to be that passionate for something and hold onto that passion for so long, I think that’s what I’m going to remember the most,” she said, adding that she’s also learned to be more patient with things she can’t control.

“Coming into this year as Miss DC, it’s really changed my lens, to where I want to enjoy and make the most of all the little moments that I have, instead of critiquing the moments that I don’t have.”

Medina said that as soon as she met her Miss America sisters at the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition last summer, she recalled hearing from former candidates about how the sisterhood forms and that at least some of them would become her best friends.

“I sat there and thought ‘Who’s going to be my friend? Who am I going to get close to?’” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that you get that close that quick, but you look at our class and it’s happened!”

Miss Connecticut Sapna Raghavan said she was “unapologetically herself” when she performed her traditional Indian dance on the Miss America Stage.
Miss Nevada Macie Tuell said she hopes to spread her ‘magic therapy’ across the country.
Miss District of Columbia Andolyn Medina said her class has bonded quickly and strongly.

Class Complete!: Miss Massachusetts aiming for 3-0

Elizabeth Pierre’s first pageant was the Miss Boston/Miss Cambridge competition in 2020, in which she won the Beantown suburb’s title. After a 17-month wait, she was crowned Miss Massachusetts 2021 on July 17, and is aiming to take the Miss America title this December.

Twenty-three women from across the commonwealth competed in the two-day pageant, which was described as one of the most competitive in recent history.

First runner-up was Kristina Ayanian, Pierre’s “sister queen” and Miss Boston, and the two shared a couple of thoughts while they were waiting for that final announcement.

“We were just saying how proud we are, because we started the journey together,” Pierre said. “So, being on the Miss Massachusetts stage as the last two holding hands was such a full-circle moment.”

Pierre said she plans to spend her year promoting her social impact initiative, We Hear You, which empowers young people.

“It’s about empowering young voices,” she said. “I really want young people to become the leaders that they are, especially in this world right now, where we’re so divided and so polarized.”

The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Pierre is the first of her family to be born in the U.S. She said she is excited to visit Haiti one day.

She added that she wants to understand her family and their culture, and feels for the Haitians who are currently experiencing troubled times.

“I think the country is really struggling, and it’s really sad. As the first free black nation, we never really had the opportunity to celebrate that,” she said. “Moving forward, I hope we can find some stability, and be able to be a nation on its own.”

Pierre said she decided to compete in her first local almost a year-and-a-half ago, because she loved the Miss America Organization’s talent phase of competition. A classically-trained dancer, Pierre said she gave it a shot, just “for fun.”

“I ended up with the title and now, after a year of a lifetime, I’m excited to continue,” she said. “I’m so excited to go to Miss America. It’s the 100th year! I’m excited to be able to join the 100th class, represent the commonwealth, and hopefully be the first Miss Massachusetts to take home the crown.”

For more information, visit http://www.missmass.org.

CT, MA Make Top 5

Miss Connecticut Bridget Oei and Miss Massachusetts Gabriela Taveras definitively showed that the New England states are indeed pageant states as Oei finished as first runner-up and Taveras placed as 4th runner-up at the Miss America finals competition on Sept. 9.

Oei impressed the national television audience with her high-energy Irish Step Dance that included a moonwalk tribute to the King of Pop, among many impressive movements. Taveras shined while singing a soulful rendition of “Rise Up,” a song that expresses much of the obstacles overcome by the Lawrence, Mass. native.

Both women impressed judges with their stage presence, as well as how they spoke in the competition’s red carpet phase, on-stage question contest, and a new phase, that included questions from the other contestants.

Taveras was asked, by Miss Wisconsin Tianna Vanderhei, about how people can improve face-to-face interactions in a world obsessed with social media.

“Simple put, it’s time to just put them down. Unfortunately, technology has made us dehumanize one another,” Taveras replied. “We start to look at people as Democrats or Republicans, black or white — there’s no grey area anymore and that’s really important in 2018. We’re not just one kind of person. We’re a multi-faceted, complex people, and the women on this stage — we represent that.”

Oei, who had developed a tracheal implant that powers pacemakers using a patient’s own breath, was asked by pageant judge Carnie Wilson what she wishes she had invented.

Oei replied by saying that a friend of hers had a stroke years ago, and she did not recognize the symptoms.

“I would like to invent an app that allows a person, when they see red flags, to go through the symptoms, [so] they know whether they need to get that patient some medical care,” Oei said.

On Friday, Sept. 7, New England Pageant News was able to sit with both Oei and Taveras for a second time during pageant week, and asked both how they were getting ready for the finals, and how it was to perform their talents on the Miss America stage during prelims.

“It was so exciting. So invigorating,” Oei said. “It was very honoring to perform on that Miss America stage and show America what Irish dancing is all about. I’ve had the time of my life since I began and I am just enjoying that stage.”

“Honestly, I don’t know what happened on that stage last night,” Taveras said. “In every phase of competition…I’ve kind of not been really there, which is interesting. I know I’m present, I know I’m there, but afterwards, I just kind of blacked out the entire thing. It’s like an out-of-body experience. When I went back and listened to my song on video, I was like ‘Oh, I really did do a good job.'”

About her chances of making top 15, 10 or 5, Oei said it was very much up in the air.

“Who knows,” she said. “I think that I’m giving it everything I’ve got, ad that’s all I can do. There are some things that you can control, and some things you can’t. I can only worry about Bridget. I’m feeling excited, feeling ready. Can’t wait to get out there and speak my truth.”

Taveras had a similar thought.

“I genuinely have no idea, because everyone had a great interview, and everyone is so accomplished. It’s really going to come down to what the judges are looking for. If you want someone who has a PhD, I’m not your person, because I don’t have a PhD. All I can do is hope that the judges saw something in me – that they saw how genuine and authentic I am, and just listening to my story and where I come from, and the impact that it can have on people.”

Oei’s first runner-up finish means that she did the best she could do, and still gets to go back home, which she was looking forward to.

“There’s so much more to do when I get home,” she said. “I have appearances set up. Schools are in session, so I get to talk to them about my STEM initiative. I really get to make an impact in Connecticut, and that’s what my year is all about, so I’m so excited to do that.”

 

Miss Massachusetts Nabs Two Big Awards

Miss Massachusetts Gabriela Taveras took home a STEM award worth $5,000 in scholarships and the preliminary award for on-stage question and private interview, worth another $1,000, in the Friday night competition at Boardwalk Hall.

“I”ve almost paid off my student debt with these two plaques right here,” Taveras said, excitedly, in the press room after that evening’s competition.

“I don’t really remember what happened on that stage, to be honest,” Taveras said, still somewhat in shock. ”

Taveras was asked what message, should she travel abroad as Miss America, would she bring to the world about our country.

As for the STEM award, Taveras explained that her mission was to hush people who doubted her.

“The reason I went into STEM was because I was told I couldn’t. I was told I wasn’t smart enough, and that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, so I said, ‘Well, watch me!'” she said. “Years later, I got my Bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.”

Describing the moment she learned she won the preliminary award, Taveras said she had something else on her mind just before that.

“I’m so surprised. I was standing there when they were announcing the interview winner, holding my breath, thinking ‘I just really can’t wait to order Chinese food later,” she said. “I’m just really blessed and excited to have this opportunity, and to show all the kids who are like me that you really can do whatever you want to do. I’m just so fortunate.”

Taveras thanked her local organization, the Miss Boston organization (she held the title of Miss North Shore when she competed for Miss Massachusetts this year, and was Miss Boston in 2017).

Miss Massachusetts was also asked how she was going to prepare for the finals, and keep her focus.

“Just have fun,” she said. “God has already chosen who Miss America is, so I can’t get so focused on the competition. I’m just going to have as much fun as I possibly can. If I’m the woman for the job, I’m the woman for the job. I’m just going to enjoy my friends, my sisters, for the next 48 hours.”

Conversation With…Miss Massachusetts

Miss Massachusetts Gabriela Taveras just had a few quick minutes between rehearsals to chat with New England Pageant News. The Lawrence, Mass. native said she’s extremely luck to be at the competition, and is taking it all in, while realizing that conquering her fears, and her difficulties growing up, have made this moment so much more worthwhile.

Despite being a little tired, will you be ready to perform your talent in tonight’s prelims?
I feel like adrenaline just takes over your body. You’ll be wired and just feeling like “This is your one shot, you’d better do it.” In rehearsal, the lights were on in Boardwalk Hall, so I didn’t feel like I was competing. I could see everyone. It was kind of boring.

How has your stay in Atlantic City been?
So much fun. Everything is good. I told the judges [in the interview room] that I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be dead by the age of 18, and now I’m at Miss America. It’s so cool. It’s such a good time.

The sisterhood with the other girls — with all of the changes happening, how is that?
We’ve had to support each other, because of all the things that are going on. It’s traumatic. We’re not really talking about it, because we’re focusing on ourselves. The way I interpret it is that we are the reset button for the Miss America Organization. So, we have the opportunity to make it what we want it to be. There have been plans in place for the new Miss America 2.0, but ultimately, we have an opportunity to also contribute to that new identity of who Miss America is supposed to be.

And what is that?
Well, it’s great, because all of the women in this class are extremely accomplished. We have people who are going to get their PhD or start their own business or non-profit organization. It’s time for people to actually respect them for what they do.

What do you have to say to all of your people back in Massachusetts?
The thing that makes Massachusetts so special is that we are willing to take what we can give. When tragedy happens in our state, we all band together and try to make it better. When anyone criticizes our state, we band together and defend ourselves. It’s been so beneficial to me, because it’s gotten me far. I’m so proud to be from Massachusetts.