Pageant Talent Competition

Pageant Talent Competition

Pageant Talent Talent Tips | How to Develop a Pageant Talent | How to Perform like a Professional in Talent Competition

You Can Develop a Pageant Talent

Even in talent pageants, lack of a stage talent needn’t prevent a girl from competing... and winning

Talent competition winner at 1983 Miss America Pageant, Debra Maffett
Debra Maffett won the 1983 Miss America talent competition -- and the crown -- despite having started with "no talent" when she entered her first competition.

According to Sam Haskell, senior vice-president of the William Morris Talent Agency, who now runs the Miss America Organization, many young women who initially lacked talent developed stage talents in order to pursue the crown. “Talent has to be nurtured and acquired if it is not something you already have. A lot of girls who wanted to be Miss America had no talent when they first entered, but they found something they could do and worked at it, and worked at it, and worked at it.” The skills they developed were simply tools to help them achieve their goals.

Miss America 1983, Debra Maffett, now a recording artist, is a classic example of a “croak-to-crown” talent competition transformation saga. After being convinced by friends to enter her university’s pageant, Debbie learned talent was required. She almost backed out at the last minute, but decided to try singing, although she had never sung for an audience. “I got up on stage and my worst fears were realized,” she recalls. “I froze. My mind went blank. The words just didn’t come out-in front of a thousand people!” When the pianist kept playing, Debbie hummed along, throwing in an occasional word. “I don’t think I scored any talent points,” she quips.

Such a fiasco would have quickly ended other beginners’ pageant aspirations. Yet rather than quitting because she “didn’t have talent,” Maffett decided to build on her seemingly limited raw talent … at an age when other contestants were retiring from pageants. “Debbie had her first vocal lessons at age twenty-one,” recalls her mother, Nonnie. “When she decided this was what she wanted, she just started doing it. During college, she would drive hundreds of miles to take voice lessons.” Her determination paid off handsomely four years later. Debbie won a talent award and the Miss America title, proving to future contestants that lack of talent is not necessarily the end of the dream. Sometimes it’s just the beginning. (Read more about developing a pageant talent late in the game)

Related: Introduction to the Talent Competition

Talent Competition Tips - Perform Like a Professional

While the right music and costuming establishes the mood of a pageant talent, successfully selling a performance to the judges and audience requires experience. Repeatedly performing onstage (and surviving a few flubs in the process) trains a contestant to be confident with thousands of eyes upon her, handle a micro­phone comfortably, keep her cool when something goes wrong onstage, and project showmanship across the footlights. The more experience a contestant gains performing, the more confident and professional her performance becomes in the spot­light of competition.

Gain Experience Performing Your Talent

1992 talent competition at Miss America, Carolyn Sapp sings
Carolyn Sapp, Miss Hawaii and America 1992, demonstrates how a singer who is not a professional performer can develop sufficient skill for the talent competition. Sapp was a model and a business student who developed a commanding presence as a singer.

The easiest way to develop a stage talent is to take small steps to gain experience before an audience. Over time, many “steps” of experience performing in front of an audience can nurture a fledgling talent into a mature, confident performance.

“It’s important to make yourself get out and perform in public,” advises Christina Chriscione, a former Miss New Jersey, “even if it’s just at your local church. Get that experience. As corny as it sounds, stand there and perform in front of your family-just like your mom made you do when you were a kid,” she chuckles. “As a singer you’re opening up your heart and soul, and unless you’ve had some experience, it’s a fright­ening thing to ‘let go.’ You have a tendency to become introverted when you don’t feel comfortable. That’s the last thing you can afford to do when you’re performing. You need to get experience performing.”

Even small towns offer opportunities to perform: church services, birthday parties, school musicals, nursing homes, civic clubs, political events, holiday programs, talent contests, local pageants, and so on. By accepting increasingly challenging opportunities to perform, a new performer steadily increases her confidence.

“You have to do it to be good at it,” advises Kim Boyce, a Christian recording artist and semi-finalist at the 1983 Miss America Pageant. “I really think years of standing onstage is what develops stage presence. Whether your talent is singing, baton twirling, gymnastics, or whatever, you have to keep doing it to become good at it. If you haven’t had a lot of experience you just have to force yourself to go out there onstage, no matter how nervous you are, no matter how much you think you’re going to mess up. Just go ahead and do it - and know that you’re gaining valuable experience in the process.”

To gain experience with a vocal talent, Steve Bishop, of Express Trax, recommends that singers consider purchasing a karaoke, what he calls “a Sing-along machine that’s basically a portable public address system.” This lightweight, high-tech machine features two cassette players, speakers, a microphone, and some special effects. It is an ideal tool for a contestant to practice her talent, master microphone technique, and record herself performing with her background music. To gain experi­ence performing, she can also bring it to public appearances where audio equipment is unavailable. Gain experience any way you can.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Getting up onstage and gaining experience as a performer is invaluable, but what actually prepares contestants for those public performances are the hours of practice they invest before stepping onstage to perform. Whatever the talent, prac­ticing helps contestants feel comfortable onstage and to per­form with that wonderful quality of apparent effortlessness.

1984 Miss America pageant talent winner Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams, Miss New York, won the talent competition and the 1984 Miss America crown. Williams was a performing arts major at Syracuse University with considerable experience performing.

Even seasoned professionals rely on practice. Terry Meeuwsen, Miss America 1973, who was already a performer with the New Christy Minstrels, perfected her skills with constant practice.

“Whenever we were with someone who had never heard me sing, Ginny [Virginia Habermann, her coach] would say, ‘Terry … ‘He Touched Me.’ I was expected to sing it as though I were selling it to nine judges in Atlantic City. I sang a cappella everywhere you could conceive of. I sang in hair salons. I sang in restaurants. I sang on street corners. I sang in dress shops. I would be singing in the middle of a store while people were wandering around shopping. When I look back on it I think I must have been out of my mind to have done those things! But I’ll tell you, it really paid off for me.”

Shirley Cothran is another example of how diligent practice can work wonders in shaping up even the puniest talent. Although she had been dabbling with the flute for years, Cothran hadn’t been able to afford private lessons. But she refused to let her limited training hold her back. What she didn’t have in professional coaching, she simply made up for in practice. “It became such a part of me because I practiced it every day,” she explains. “Maybe not in one sitting, but every time I had an extra five minutes or two minutes and fifty sec­onds, I would play my song until I absolutely could play it backwards .”

“When you get on that stage, you have to be extremely comfortable with what you’re doing and confident,” Cothran warns, ”because when you get out there, and all of a sudden you’re not thinking of the music or fingering the different notes - but you’re praying, ‘Lord, help me to get through this piece without stumbling’-it needs to be automatic. That’s extremely important for contestants. You only have one chance to play that song,” she says. “You may have played it flawlessly fIfty times before that, but if you make a mistake that one time, that’s the only chance you get. So, it’s important to have it down perfectly.”

Practicing your Talent is an Investment

Investing in practice can payoff in unexpected, life-changing benefits.

When Donna Axum competed for the Miss Arkansas title, she and another contestant were tied for the state crown. Organizers asked the judges to break the tie by determining which of the women had earned the most points in talent. Donna had earned two more points. By that sliver of a margin, she was named Miss Arkansas and went to the nationals where she won the national crown. “Imagine being that close to a life­-changing experience,” Donna exclaims. “That should be an example that you should practice an extra hour or two to get that one-point, two-point edge-because it can really make the difference.”

Practice, practice, practice.

Related: Introduction to the Talent Competition

Sell Your Pageant Talent


Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, Miss Michigan won the 1988 Miss America Pageant after performing a Tahitian dance in the talent competition. Many onlookers initially dismissed her changes of winning with such a talent... but she utterly charmed the judges.

Personality and showmanship are keys to the hearts-and votes-of judges during the talent competition.

The personality a contestant projects from beginning to end of her performance plays a decisive role in her appeal to judges. "Without showmanship your talent's not going to work," asserts Robert Zettler, past president of the Miss Ohio Pageant. "It may mean making someone come to tears, or fall down with laughter, or feel good - but they'd better create some emotion."

From the moment you walk on stage, project the charisma and confidence of a pro.
"They have to think of themselves as entertainers," Zettler stresses, "not just as somebody presenting a talent. They have to take that audience and say, 'I own you for the next two minutes and fifty seconds and I am going to command your attention.'''

He advises new contestants, "Visualize yourself as an entertainer. You're doing a full concert in two minutes and fifty seconds. You have to have a good beginning, no letdown in the middle, and a grand finale. Leave them wanting more.

"You have to have personality," advises Dorothy Benham, Miss America 1977, "and if you're not a tremendous talent you have to sell it - no matter what you do. Whether you're a pianist, a dancer, a singer, or an actress, you have to be able to relate that to that audience. Show them the personality inside of you and draw them into whatever you're doing."

Best talent competition music for musicians
Pageant talent music ideas for dancers

Nail Your Talent Finale and Exit

Project personality throughout your talent performance and as you conclude. Your finale is the panel's last glimpse of you before they award you a score. Infuse those final moments in front of the judges with energy and showmanship. Stay "in character" until you are completely offstage. A serious classical singer should curtsy and glide behind the curtain with the dignity of a Metropolitan diva. The effervescent clogger should almost bounce offstage. The ballerina's departure should radiate grace. The gymnast or baton twirler's exit should exude energy. Your exit is the signature to your performance.

Showmanship is the quality that transforms a fine performance into a winning talent.

Related: Introduction to the Talent Competition


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