Behind the crown of Miss America

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  • Brittany Costello is a part of the college of Humanities, Arts and Science at UNI and encourages all women to get involved in the Miss America Organization.

  • Grace Lynn Keller is also a journalist, podcaster and storyteller.

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In 1921, the first ever Miss America was crowned. Margaret Gorman was the first Miss America. Mary Campbell, her successor, was the first and only person to hold the title twice, and the first Miss America to continue her education at a college after her reign. This past year, Miss America celebrated its 100th birthday – and all of the changes that have come over the past 100 years.

“Miss America has evolved in society as women in society have evolved,” the Miss America Organization (MAO) stated in 2019, after their reveal of discontinuing the swimsuit program. MAO reported that the discontinuation of the program was meant to shift the program’s focus to provide more of a spotlight on candidates’ thoughts, ideas and social impacts.

Even the talent phase of the competition has evolved beyond the usual talents of vocals, dance or a theater performance. Candidates for the past decade have introduced new talents to the Miss America stage, such as monologues, poetry, scientific experiments and speed painting. The evolution of the competition has been evident. Candidates compete in talent, private interview, onstage interview and social impact pitch and evening wear, compared to the first competition that Gorman and Campbell once competed in.

Now, Miss America’s focus is to elevate candidates and titleholders’ thoughts and opinions,  encourage the continuation of their education, to promote what their talents are and for candidates to present themselves with grace.

On Jan. 12, 2022, B.C McClay of the New York Times published an article titled ‘What is Miss America, if Not a Beauty Pageant?’ McClay discusses how Miss America evolved, but how, according to McClay, MAO has remained reminiscent of the competition from 1921.

McClay states that, “Today’s ideal woman is still porcelain perfection; she just has to be a lawyer too. It’s similar to how Barbie is still Barbie in every sense that matters, but now she’s a scientist.” McClay also did not take a liking to Miss New York Sydney Park’s poem about societal constructs that she was forced to abide by. But McClay was just a perspective outside looking in. While McClay was placing her judgements onto the competition, Iowan titleholders were completing hours of service and preparing for Miss Iowa in June.

From a competitor’s perspective, McClay could not have gotten it more wrong. Brittany Costello, UNI student and current Miss Clinton County explained why she got into the MAO. 

“My first ever competition was Little Miss Clinton County 2010 when I was 8 years old!” After that competition, I was hooked and went on to win my first title as Little Miss Scott County 2010.”

When asked what keeps her coming back and competing in the same organization she has for 12 years, Costello replied “So many things. I don’t normally get the chance to perform my talent (a piano performance), but I love playing for large audiences so this is a great way to do so!”

Costello continued, “Another reason that I keep coming back is because of the incredible sisterhood. After being a part of this organization for roughly 12 years, I have become close friends with so many amazing women who have similar interests as me and I will forever be grateful for that. Last but certainly not least, I come back to continue to make a real impact with my social impact initiative. I recently rebranded mine to Watersheds: Think Global, Act Local and I am really fortunate to be able to use my title as Miss Clinton County to share my new Social Impact Initiative and the scholarships that are provided are just an added bonus with being involved in this organization!”

The current reigning Miss Iowa, Grace Lynn Keller, also helped explain the impacts of MAO, especially for Iowan women. “The scholarships would be the biggest way MAO has impacted me. Paying off half my student debt in a single year has been life changing. I had zero idea how I was going to afford my student loan payments when I graduated last May. It brought me to tears to see that balance so significantly reduced.” Keller also explained how the connections that she’s made have elevated her life. “The women I’ve met through this organization are incredible, and I’ve made some lifelong friends! I was never someone who had a huge group of girl friends and often struggled to find other women who I felt like I connected well with. The friendships I’ve found through MAO have given me the connections I’ve been searching for, and really set me up with a network of like-minded, ambitious, authentic women who I feel like I can actually relate to.” MAO has given so much to the women that compete within the organization, and will continue to give women opportunities, scholarships, and platforms.

As the Miss Iowa locals season comes to a close, there are still two more opportunities to compete, one of them being Miss Blackhawk Valley in Waterloo. Both Costello and Keller encourage women at UNI to compete. “Just do it! I spent three years on the fence before I finally jumped in, and one of my biggest regrets is not trying it out sooner. Here I am now with half my student debt paid off, a network of incredible women from share life with, the platform to serve an entire state and I had the opportunity to represent my home on the Miss America stage. The amount of pride I feel when I think about how much this organization has done for me and for the countless women who have come before me and will come after me brings tears to my eyes.” Keller said.

The Miss Blackhawk Valley and Miss Northeast Iowa competition will be held on March 20, with the recipients of the titles also receiving scholarships, sponsorships and the opportunity to compete at Miss Iowa in June. For further information, paperwork, and communications, contact [email protected].