Behind the hair, makeup and glamorous outfits, pageants present women with many opportunities.
Pageants give competitors a purpose while teaching them professional skills and providing scholarship opportunities.
The two most prominent organizations that most women compete in include the Miss America and the Miss USA organizations.
While there are other organizations in the U.S., most women compete at these two as they offer the largest prize packages and scholarship opportunities.
Miss America and Miss USA have made recent changes that have impacted competitors.
But besides the recent changes, pageantry in Nebraska has helped give women the opportunities they need to grow their confidence and be proud of who they are.
Why did they join?
Megan Rhodes, the title holder for Miss Nebraska America in 2014 and Miss Nebraska USA in 2020, attributes much of her success to how pageantry helped shape her into who she is today.
“Eleven years ago, I couldn’t look myself in the eyes and tell myself I was beautiful,” she said. “I hated myself. I didn’t think I had anything to contribute to the world.”
Rhodes said finding pageants helped build her self-confidence and allowed her to become the best version of herself.
She said when she was competing for Miss America, it helped her get over a binge eating disorder as a freshman at a Nashville college.
“I was 12 hours from home,” Rhodes said. “I was a small fish in a large pond, and pageants gave me something to grab onto and a goal to achieve.”
Now, Rhodes is a successful business owner of a seven-figure company called Powerhouse Pageantry which has helped women in all 50 states with pageant training.
She has helped over 300 clients win their local, state and national pageants.
Katie Leu Hoatson, currently Miss Lincoln in the Miss America Organization, started in pageantry eight years ago to promote her platform, which focuses on promoting health and beauty at every size.
“It [pageants] really just opened so many doors that I could never have imagined,” Hoatson said.
Being the first plus-size woman to make the top five in the Miss Nebraska America pageant, Hoatson said she wants to inspire others and show people that pageantry is not a one size fits all and that everyone can find their place.
While many join pageants because it gives them the self-confidence they’ve been looking for, another significant contributor is scholarship dollars.
Addilyn Wilson, a contestant part of the teen division in the Miss USA organization, won about $125,000 from one pageant alone for winning Miss Omaha’s outstanding teen when she was still competing for the Miss America organization. Recently, Wilson has switched organizations.
She said that part of the America system is how they want girls to continue their schooling. The organization offers scholarships to help contestants financially support their education and help establish their career goals.
But Wilson also said that pageant winners don’t just win money, they also get sponsors, which in turn help give back money to the organizations.
One of Wilson’s friends, Aubrie Charter who is Miss Teen USA, has duties to fulfill that require her to reach out and visit her sponsors, whether they’re in Omaha or Kansas City.
Charter also took advantage of the scholarship opportunities to help advance her education.
“At the age of 13, I was raising enough scholarship money to pay for dual credits my junior and senior year of high school,” she said.
Before going into her first official year of college this fall, Charter has enough credits to qualify as a sophomore.
“Going into college and having those abilities that other people don’t have makes me want to promote pageantry more,” she said.
Recent changes in the organizations
Over the past couple of years, both the Miss USA and Miss America organizations have made some changes.
Miss USA and Miss America eliminated the swimsuit portion of their competitions a couple of years ago and both have received some mixed opinions, said multiple sources.
While some didn’t agree with the change, others, like Lexi Nolda, who is Miss Platte River in the Miss America organization, believe it opened a lot of doors to a lot of different women.
“I was a competitive gymnast, and I was super strong and muscular, and I remember looking at the girls, like, I could never do that, I could never walk on the stage in a swimsuit,” she said.
“And so when they got rid of that, that was kind of an inspiration for me to be like, okay, now I feel like I can actually do this and actually compete in this organization.”
Hoatson also felt impacted by the decision. “That swimsuit competition, I think it did have an effect on me,” she said.
The Miss America organization has now transitioned to a fitness portion of its pageants. Rather than contestants wearing swimwear, they’ll wear leggings and sports bras to promote physical and mental health.
Another change particular to the Miss America organization is that they have a new CEO and have dissolved their non-profit status, as Nolda put it.
“They’re trying to bring Miss America back to a celebrity status instead of just volunteerism,” Nolda said. “Volunteerism is still a very important aspect of the organization, but getting people to know that Miss America is still very alive and prevalent is important.”
For Miss USA, Rhodes said they now allow Mrs. competitors, or married women to compete for the title of “Miss USA.”
The organization has also increased the age for women to compete.
“I think it’s great,” Rhodes said. “I think people are waiting later and later to have children and get married, and they’re really developing themselves professionally.”
Because of the changes in both organizations, some competitors have chosen to switch which organization they’d like to compete in.
It all goes back to what Hoatson said about pageantry not being a “one size fits all,” and that “everyone can find their place” among whichever organization fits them the best.
Providing confidence, scholarships and a purpose, pageants have impacted so many women in Nebraska and beyond.
While there’s a physical element to pageants, there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Erin Swanson from Norfolk and the owner of Springboard Girls, another pageant coaching company in Omaha, talked about the importance of the interview in a competition.
Learning these skills can benefit contestants when they enter their professional careers.
Rhodes said pageantry is an intermediary stepping stone for women who want to build their portfolios and brands.
“They know how to present themselves, they know how to dress, they know how to walk into a room and be taken seriously,” she said. “And that’s why what we’re doing is so important because we’re quite literally creating the female leaders of today and tomorrow.”
So beyond the evening gowns and the high-heeled shoes, these women are learning valuable skills that will help them prepare for the real world.