The unique secret that is giving the New York Pageant its winning edge
When judges awarded Miss New York, Kira Kazantsev, the 2015 Miss America title on September 14th in Atlantic City, the panel unknowingly made history for New York state. Kazantsev’s victory made her the third back-to-back Miss York to win the Miss America title. That’s an historic first for the Miss America Program.
In 2012, Miss New York Mallory Hagan began the lucky streak when she was named Miss America 2013. She also broke the apparent jinx on tap-dancers, impressing judges with her highly-charged tap dance to James Brown’s R&B hit “Get Up Offa That Thang”.
Until Hagan’s victory, a tap dancing was viewed as a tired, passé talent, and no tap-dancer had managed to win the national crown since the 1930’s. Mallory’s performance and song selection raised eyebrows in the pageant world because they deviated so startlingly from the usual romantic love ballads and Broadway tunes preferred by many contestants.
The following year, Miss New York 2013 Nina Davuluri continued the winning streak when judges named her Miss America 2014, giving the Empire state the rare phenomenon of back-to-back national winners. Like her predecessor, Davuluri smashed stereotypes in the process, becoming the first woman of Indian ethnicity to be named Miss America and the first contestant to ever perform – let alone win with – a Bollywood Indian dance as her talent.
Clad in a vibrant silk Bollywood dance costume, loads of bling, and studded leather ankle cuffs, Nina whirled through a performance unlike anything previously seen at Miss America — and provoking online chatter that the performance was “inappropriate” for Miss America. Nevertheless, the judges clearly loved the unusual talent and awarded New York the crown again.
When Miss New York 2014 Kira Kazantsev stepped on-stage at Saturday’s Miss America competition, the odds of another Miss New York winning were remote…unheard of actually. No state had ever produced three back-to-back winners. Yet, by evening’s end, Kazantsev had made pageant history when judges announced her as the third Miss New York in a row to be named Miss America.
And, like her predecessors, Kira too was an original, evidently charming judges with her unique talent – sitting on the stage floor cross-legged singing Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” and clapping out the beat with a red plastic Solo cup. It was a scene swiped from Becca’s audition in the movie “Pitch Perfect” – which middle-aged viewers would miss, but which would instantly resonate with young viewers. You know, the ones the Miss America Organization needs to attract to stay relevant.
The performance immediately went viral on social and traditional media, being lampooned by some, which the New York Daily News noted: “It drew the full spectrum of social media responses, from a tiara crowned on a Solo cup to thoughts the judges were drinking heavily backstage.”
How judges scored it against several very technically difficult vocal and dance performances delivered that night is unknown (and a different question altogether), but the performance was decidedly youthful, memorable and culturally relevant to teens.
On Fox News, the new titleholder explained and defended her choice of talent: “The reason why I chose to do that talent is I wanted every single little girl in America to be able to see that you can do that talent — you can do whatever talent you want on national television — even with a red cup — and still be Miss America and have the time of your life. I literally in that minute and 30 seconds had the most fun I’ve ever had, and that’s because I stayed true to myself and I did what I wanted to do for my talent, no matter what everybody else told me, and it paid off. I’m very happy about it.”
For years, the Miss America Organization has struggled to make the competition more relevant, particularly to younger viewers. One step in that process has been being proactively instructing judges that contestants should be free to be unique and original with their choice of talents without fear of penalty. That development was to some degree inspired by the experience of Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, a Miss Michigan who won the 1988 Miss America title after performing a Tahitian-Polynesian belly dance.
Rafko later shared that she had been told by local judges that she would need to change her talent to singing to have any chance of winning at Miss America. Rafko ignored that advice and trusted that national judges would evaluate her as an individual. Rafko not only won, but went on to become one of the most respected Miss Americas of all, who worked tirelessly throughout her reign to advocate the hospice movement and compassionate care of the terminally ill. To this day, her example still inspires contestants to dare to be themselves.
Clearly, the New York program has taken that message to heart and mastered the art of empowering their state titleholders to stand out on the national stage by blatantly defying stodgy, outdated pageant prep advice:
- Ladies, don’t stand out too much….
- Don’t be too different from the others…
- James Brown music is not for pageants…
- Honey, tap dancing is a dinosaur talent that hasn’t won since the ’30s …
- Bollywood dancing is for, well, India, not the Miss America stage…
- Nah, the judges will never go for that sitting on the floor drumming on a plastic cup while you sing routine…
- and Pharrell Williams “Happy” at Miss America?
Even more notably, in the swimsuit competition (re-branded as “Lifestyle and Fitness”), the New York program’s organizers have deviated from standard pageant prep 101 in equally startling ways. Mallory Hagan, the first of the 3peat Miss New York winners, had what our grandmothers would have referred to as “meat on her bones”.
Despite Mallory having lost considerable weight, which was exposed in before-and-after photos leaked online, Hagan was the very picture of a healthy young woman who clearly had not starved herself. No jutting collar bones, no protruding ribcage.
Her boyfriend shared with the New York Post that Mallory “did not want to be rail-thin. She did it the right way: She did a lot of CrossFit, and she just ate a lot better.” Hardly the waif-like figure the pageant world has been gravitating toward in recent years.
Likewise, although her successor as Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, also reportedly lost 50-60 lbs through a healthy fitness and nutrition program, by the time she competed in the Miss America Lifestyle & Fitness event, her body reflected a healthy BMI and the normal curves expected of most college-aged women.
As it should be…after all, Miss America is a massive scholarship program whose purpose is to empower American young women to pursue higher education and meaningful careers; It is not a model search.
In recent years, contestants in some national pageants have been so thin that even former national titleholders have complained that they are simply “too skinny”. In contrast, Hagan and Davuluri’s physiques exemplified a healthier alternative – fit young women with age-appropriate BMI levels that make them positive role-models for American girls struggling with the demands of a culture obsessed with almost scary thinness.
So, as we look back on the three years of success of Miss New York program organizers, Pageant Center™ applauds their focus on letting their titleholders look like healthy American college women while emphasizing and encouraging their individuality and uniqueness. Kudos to the Miss New York program for breaking all the “rules” so well.