One of the most common misconceptions in pageants is that only singers win. In fact, sadly, when preparing for the pageant talent competition, some contestants have been warned that “singing is the only talent that wins”. Thankfully, that view has become more and more rare. Most pageant judges are fair, realizing that all contestants have the right to be judged fairly and impartially … whatever their talent.
However, even though the majority of pageant judges evaluate non-vocal talents with an open mind, some judges are subtly biased in favor of singers. Those few judges may not even be fully aware that they are doing so. In all likelihood, they simply love great singers. Probably just a personal quirk.
Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, a dancer faced such discrimination at a state pageant when a veteran judge told her she’d have to switch to singing to win. Furious, Kaye Lani scolded the judge and refused to change her talent. “The judges manual says that talent is based on creativity, uniqueness, stage presence, personality, and the training involved,” Rafko says. “It does not specify that you have to be a singer or instrumentalist. A talent is a talent.”
Kaye Lani continued to compete as a Tahitian dancer — and became the first Tahitian dancing Miss America!
Sam Haskell, a renowned talent agent who now runs the Miss America scholarship program encourage contestants to proudly perform their own unique talent. “There is a fallacy that you have to sing to win. Everyone thinks that singing is the easiest thing to do … but it is also the easiest thing to do badly. The first thing I mark off on is a bad singer.”
Haskell recommends that contestants avoid such pitfalls by focusing on their own strengths. “If a girl cannot sing well, I suggest that she find something that is unique to her – whether it playing a musical instrument, doing a dramatic interpretation dancing the hula, or playing ‘Chopsticks’ … as long as she does it well. It’s better to do something that you already know how to do, feel comfortable doing, and do well, than to try to get up there and squeak out a song.”
Like many contestants, Shirley Cothran of Denton, Texas, once assumed she would have to sing to win. After losing several times as a singer (including one loss to a roller skater), she learned to play the flute — and won the 1975 Miss America pageant.
Debbie Riecks, Miss Colorado 1989, too tried singing, then dumped it in favor of her stronger talent, playing the flute. “I sang when I first competed because I had the old traditional concept that you had to be a singer to win. Then I realized that it’s not that you have to be a singer, but that you have to be able to communicate with the audience.”
She switched to the flute and, using a clip mike to move around the stage, performed “Dueling Banjos,” “dueling” with an unseen banjo. The judges loved it and she placed as second runner-up to Miss America (who, incidentally, played the marimba).
Most important, of course, is the fact that two back-to-back very non-singer talents won recent Miss America titles. Mallory Hagan, an energetic tap dancer from New York won the 2013 Miss America Pageant tapping to James Brown’s “Get Up Off That Thang”. Her successor, Nina Davuluri Miss America 2014, also from New York, performed a classical Bollywood fusion dance, not only a dance talent, but a first-of-its-kind dance form at a Miss America Pageant.
So, in answer to that common question “Do I have to be a singer to win?”, the answer is that the best way to win pageants is to perform your strongest talent – whatever that may be. If you are a pretty good singer, continue using your vocal performance in talent. If you have a talent that is actually stronger than your singing voice, experiment with using that particular skill in the pageant’s talent competition.
Stick with your strengths.