It’s every contestant’s nightmare. You’re in your pageant interview… a judge asks you a question … the panel stares in your direction awaiting your answer … and your mind goes blank. You can’t answer the question!
Don’t panic! “Many girls make the mistake of hemming and hawing,” notes Jeff Bell, a veteran pageant director. “They panic and start perspiring and look like they want to cry.” Admitting you don’t know an answer, Bell says, “just gives judges a chance to ask you about something you do know.”
This usually applies to questions requiring a fact as the answer:
- Who was Sally Ride?
- What was the War Between the States?
- What is the First Amendment?
- Name the vice-president.
- Where is the Gaza Strip?
Failing to answer a fact question is not going to be fatal to your pageant interview. In fact, Jennifer Sauder survived such a moment while competing for the Miss Florida title. Judges grilled her with a rapid-fire series of fact questions. When one stumped her, she admitted, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that.” Stumped by the next question as well, Jenny used the moment to prove she could handle tough spots with humor. “Sorry,” she quipped, laughing, “I don’t know that either.” She became Miss Florida and made the semi-finals at the Miss America Pageant.
Likewise, Miss Americas Dorothy Benham (1977) and Elizabeth Ward (1982) each missed a question during their state pageants, won anyway, and went on to win the big one.
Even at the national level, missing a question need not damage a contestant’s chances. During her national interview, Miss Michigan, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, was unable to answer a judge’s question. “If I didn’t know something, I was honest,” she admits. “There was one question where I didn’t know the person so I said, ‘I’ve never heard of that person before.’ I was honest.” Judges selected her as Miss America.
The way a contestant handles not having an answer makes all the difference. “If she tries to fake an answer, I’ll know it,” observes Sam Haskell, a Hollywood agent and national pageant judge who now leads the Miss America scholarship pageant. “If she honestly admits she’s not prepared, or if she asks me to help her better understand the question, I’ll point her.” If you can’t answer a question, ask the judge to rephrase the question, or calmly admit that you don’t know, smile, and move on to the next question.
Not knowing an answer is not a big deal … if you don’t make it one.
Never Say “I Don’t Know” to a Pageant Question that Asks for Your Opinion
While it is acceptable to occasionally admit you don’t have an answer, never reply, “Sorry, I don’t know,” to a pageant question that calls for your opinion. There are some questions you must answer or risk “flunking” your interview.
At an national pageant, a political science/international relations major didn’t even try to answer any question that required her to think or stretch. When asked, “Do you think sales of nuclear arms to China should be banned?” she refused to even attempt to offer an opinion. Her cop-out, “Sorry, I’m not schooled on that,” unquestionably lowered her scores and eliminated her from consideration. Frankly, we didn’t expect her to be an expert on China. We simply wanted to see if she could think.
When a judge asks for an opinion about an unfamiliar subject, rather than losing points for not answering, Haskell advises contestants to share their general thoughts on the subject. “I would rather a girl just say, ‘You know, I don’t really know about this, but I think if they’d do this .. .’ or, ‘You know, I’ve thought ‘about that too, and while I don’t understand it well enough to know, this is what I think … .’ Whether she’s “right” or “wrong”, I prefer realness.
You won’t a ways have a firm opinion about an issue the panel brings up. Rather than passing on a tough question, share whatever thoughts come to mind at that moment in a casual, conversational style:
- Admit that, while it’s an interesting question, you haven’t
- given it much thought before.
- Find the main point of the question.
- Mull it over quickly.
- Listen to your gut reaction.
- Share your thoughts with the judges (“It seems to me that … “).
While judges realize that a contestant can’t possibly have answers to every question, they do expect her to be able to think. If you don’t have a definite opinion to offer, converse with the judges about the subject in a natural, friendly way. But always try to answer a question that calls for you to express an opinion.