More than a beauty queen

I remember as a kid getting applications in the mail for beauty pageants. I ALWAYS wanted to apply, but my mom ALWAYS said no. In retrospect, they were probably a scam, so, good going, Mom. And, my mom probably realized that I don’t like being fussed with and I don’t like being told what to do, so it probably wouldn’t have been a good fit.

So, I don’t know much about pageants. Enter, Jessica, 30-something mother of three young kids. Jessica competed in the Miss America system and even won the title of Miss New York State.

I was excited to talk to Jessica about what attracted her to the pageant system and to tackle some of the stereotypes we have all heard. And, it was moving to hear Jessica talk about the platform she holds so dear. Check it out!

Caitlin: So, here’s the first question: Is beauty pageant the right term?

Jessica: (laughs) Well, I call them pageants.  When I was competing there was a push to call the Miss America System a “scholarship program,” but I still call it a pageant.

Caitlin: So how did you get started with pageants?

Jessica: Frankly, it wasn’t something I always wanted to do, in fact I remember when I was ten watching Miss America and making fun of the way the girls walked. However, at my High School in Memphis, there was a Senior Miss Pageant and I decided to give it a try.  We competed in Interview, Talent, and Evening Gown.  I was trained in classical ballet, and I danced 5-6 days a week a couple hours a day. I loved it, but I missed out on a lot in high school, and I thought it might be a good way to show people what I did all the time. I also thought it would be kind of fun, but didn’t think I would win. I thought it would be a popularity contest and I was kind of a nerd. I was a big nerd, actually.

So, I competed and to my surprise (and everyone else’s) I won. Then, about a week later I saw an ad for Miss Memphis, which was a preliminary to the Miss Tennessee Pageant, which would then lead to Miss America. And I said to my mom, “Maybe I should do this.” And she said, “Absolutely.” The very next day, I received an application in the mail from one of the judges from the Senior Miss Pageant who thought I would make a great competitor.

I ended up being first runner up, and I had a ton of fun, so I thought this was something I could see myself doing. And that’s kind of where it started.

Caitlin: So you eventually became Miss New York. How did you end up in New York?

Jessica: In order to compete in the Miss America System, you have to work in the state you’re competing in, have a permanent residency there, or you have to go to school there.  I graduated from University of Virginia and moved to New York City to pursue acting. I had some success, but mostly I was waiting tables and I felt like there was something missing in my life. I had competed in Tennessee when my parents still lived there, and I had competed in Virginia when I was going to school at UVA.  So, I decided to go and compete for Miss New York to give me some direction and focus in my life.

Caitlin: So, you had to win Miss New York City first?

Jessica: Yeah, you have to win a local before you can compete at a State Pageant. My first year I won Miss Manhattan.

Caitlin: Wow, that’s no small feat.

Jessica: Thanks, but then I went to Miss New York and I was first runner up.  I won’t lie, I was  pretty upset and I thought, I’m never doing pageants again. But, I decided to go back and do it on my own terms.For me, that meant I was going to be myself and that way, if I won, it would really be my win. And if I didn’t win, that was okay, at least I was being myself.

And I won Miss New York City and went on and won Miss New York that year.

Miss NY Pic

Caitlin: That’s awesome. What did winning Miss New York mean to you?

Jessica: The biggest thing was, that this was a goal I set for myself and I was able to achieve it. I think anytime you set a goal and achieve it, it’s a big deal. For me, that was it.

The other thing was, I had become very involved in my platform and I saw it as a chance to get that out to people and talk about my platform.

Miss America is unique because not only is it the largest provider of scholarships to young women in the world, you also are required to have a platform, which is basically community service.

Now, since I’ve gotten out of the system, Miss America has taken on the Children’s Miracle Network as their national platform. But, when I was in it, we could take on anything we chose.

Caitlin: And what was your platform?

Jessica: Combating teen depression and suicide.

Caitlin: Why did that platform mean so much to you?

Jessica: For me it was personal. I have suffered from depression since I was a child and when I got into the pre-teen years and teenage years, I suffered from a serious eating disorder. So. eventually, in order to save my life, my parents put me in a child psychiatric hospital. After a month I was kicked out because my insurance ran out and I went home. Fortunately for me, my parents were able to afford to pay for my treatment out of pocket.

As Miss New York, I made my platform two fold. The first aspect was the insurance portion with regards to Mental Health Coverage, and what we could do to change that. The other component I talked about, was the stereotypes that surround people with mental illness.

When I would go into schools, I would always say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘mentally ill,’ you think of a crazy person on the street.” And everyone would raise their hand. And I’d say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘psychiatric hospital’ you all think of an insane asylum with bars on the windows and locked doors” and everyone would raise their hand.

And then I would say, “Raise your hand if when I say ‘Miss New York’ you think mentally ill, psychiatric hospital, depression’” and nobody would raise their hand. And so, I’d share my story.

With adults, I would talk about the stereotypes that surround mental illness and how to obtain treatment.   Statistics show that 1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness in their life time. So, even if you don’t, more than likely someone in your circle will. And, do you know what to do if you or that person starts to suffer? Because a lot of time people don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to turn or even what the signs and symptoms are.

Caitlin: Yeah, I imagine that must have been very powerful as far as stigma goes seeing a successful, beautiful young woman who has dealt with depression and who has gotten treatment. I think that’s fantastic you could do that.

Jessica: It was so often I would do these talks and people would come up to me after and say, “Oh my gosh, me too.” Or, “My daughter suffers from this.” I think it’s just getting that awareness out there. As a society, we’re doing better, but there’s still a huge stigma that surrounds mental illness. People are embarrassed to talk about it. It’s a shame, it really is.

I like to compare having a mental illness to having diabetes. Some people with diabetes can control it with watching their sugar and watching what they eat. Just like some people with mental illness can control it by making lifestyle changes or seeking counseling.  Some people with diabetes have to have a permanent insulin pump, just like some people with mental illness need more care, such as medication, or even being in a facility.

Caitlin: That’s a great way to look at it. You know, you were so young, did you ever worry about having a platform that wasn’t glamorous.

Jessica: You know, not then. I didn’t care what people thought. Now, I really find that it’s not just about me. I have a family. Eventually I will have to tell my children about this. Is it my favorite thing to talk about now? No, because it’s so far removed from my life, but at the same time, I know that five years from now my kids will be on Google, and be like, “Mom, you have some explaining to do.” But, I also think it’s important for them to know about it, because there is often a family history and so I think the kids should be aware of that.

But, back then, I was like, this is who I am. You like me for who I am, or you don’t. Now, with having kids, I know what I say can have an effect on them. So I have to think about that.

Caitlin: What do you think was the most positive impact being Miss New York had on your life?

Jessica: I think the first thing I learned was to be myself. You know, at first, I was trying to fit a mold, and I was successful, but I didn’t win. And it wasn’t really until I decided to really be myself that I won. I think from a personal standpoint, that was very helpful.

The other thing was seeing kids I helped. Seeing kids who went through what I went through. Let’s be honest, high school sucks for some of us, but what I could say to those kids was, if I can get through it, so can you. And being able to give them just a piece of hope was really something that was good for me.

Caitlin: You mentioned stereotypes earlier and I know everyone has a stereotype of what they think pageants are and beauty queens and that sort of thing. So, which ones are true and which ones aren’t?

Jessica: A lot of the stereotypes I think is people getting Miss America and Miss USA confused. They both have their strengths and their flaws.  However, I tend to think of Miss USA as more of a beauty pageant, and Miss America as more of a scholarship program.

I always feel almost embarrassed when I tell people I was Miss New York. I’m fairly short and I don’t consider myself beautiful or anything. Pageants have taught me how to fix my hair and put on makeup, but I think people expect some sort of knockout beauty, and that’s not me.

I also think there’s a stereotype that the girls aren’t that intelligent. I come across that a lot. Most of the girls I met were incredibly intelligent and very committed to their platform and their education.

I hear the stereotype that it’s very catty, and you know, I think anytime there’s a lot of personalities in one room you’re going to have some issues.   But for the most part, I’m still very close, best friends with seven of the girls I competed at Miss America with.

Close friends from Miss America

The stereotypes that are true…. does it get competitive? Absolutely. Are there people slashing your bathing suit or stealing your shoes? No. Nothing like that.

We do glue our bathing suits to our butts during competition. That’s true. Some girls do put Vaseline on their teeths to be able to smile longer. A lot of hairspray.

Caitlin: So you have a five year old daughter. I’m curious, what do you tell her beauty and what it means to be beautiful?

Jessica: We don’t really talk about beauty. I try not to make that a focus or something we talk about a lot. I do tell her she’s beautiful every day, because I think you should tell every little girl that she’s beautiful, . But, more important, I tell her that she’s smart and that she’s sweet. I stress that we need to be nice. Thankfully, my daughter has a much different personality than me.  She has a pretty healthy dose of self confidence, and we always say we want to get her a shirt that says, “I’m not bossy, I have leadership skills.” I’m sure when she’s older we’ll talk about it more. But, she’s just a little girl and I want her to enjoy that. It goes by so quickly.

Caitlin: So if she wanted to do pageants, what would you tell her?

Jessica: I think she’s too young now. But, that’s just a parenting decision my husband and I have made regarding all sports or extracurricular activities. We don’t let our boys play soccer tournaments all weekend either.  We feel there will be plenty of time for team sports and activities when they are older. Right now, we just want our kids to enjoy being kids and play.

If she decided when she’s 12 or 13 that she wanted to try pageants, okay. I’m a big believer that if you can come up with three good reasons why you want to do something, then, yeah, I’ll consider it. I don’t think it’s any different than choosing to play soccer or run a race or something. For me it’s just another form of competition.

photo (56)

I think the hardest thing now, as an adult having been Miss New York, is that people assume things just because of a former title. I think my friends like to bring it up when I meet people, because it’s unique, and honestly I am forever grateful I had the experience.  However, I would like to think there’s a lot more to me than that.

I think anytime you meet people it’s so easy to have a stereotype about them based on a past experience and I think the more we can try to keep an open mind, the better off we’ll be in general.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know I wholeheartedly agree with that last line. I really believe in the power of talking about things and getting past the superficial to break down barriers and build relationships. So, thanks to Jessica for chatting!

What did you learn that surprised you? Have you ever competed in a pageant? Talk to me!


5 thoughts on “More than a beauty queen

  1. Love this and Love you Jess. So proud to know you and see you continuing to carry that message and advocate for wellness. Be well, Tom

  2. I met Jess when she was Miss New York, and was living with her Host Family in Watertown (The Clobridges) who happened to be my next door neighbors. She was a breath of fresh air! We had been lucky to meet quite a few of the Miss NY State contestants over the years, but Jessica was a stand out! She was, and still is, genuinely kind, intelligent, courteous and just a great young adult! She, and some of the other contestants, changed my mind about’s not always about beauty…it’s more than’s the inner beauty that counts. I’ve personally never considered being in a pageant (a. I’m 4’7″ tall average looking, and I have no talent), but knowing this young lady has made me think that it’s a great way to earn scholarship money! Anyways, Jessica Renzi is such a strong woman..I feel honored to know her.

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