Breaking Down the Crown
Words by Kelly Powell | Photos by Kassi Jackson
Picture a row of four girls. One of them is a soft-spoken teenager, yearning for an outlet to express herself. Another is a small-town girl, mimicking the actions of her elementary school peers. The third is a high school musical theater kid, deliberating a change in extracurriculars. And the last is an elementary schooler, entertaining the appeal of being on stage.
They are girls about to compete for a crown, a sash or a trophy. Hallie Saculla, Haylee Koester, Alice Magoto and Megan Stier, three students at Kent State and one an alumna of American Musical and Dramatic Academy, have a similar message — pageantry is getting a makeover, and it’s a fresh one. For all of these women, high heels, swimsuits and spray tans are not their primary concerns. The stereotypes, they say, are incorrect.
At 14, Saculla, a senior studying journalism, gave pageantry a trial run by competing in National American Miss, a pageant for “growing confidence” in young women ages 4 to 18. Through a flyer in the mail and her mother’s prompting to try something new, Saculla entered.
“I grew up really shy,” she says. “I pretty much tried every sport and I just wasn’t good at it, so my parents were like, ‘We need you to have an outlet to meet people, to do something.’”
After advancing to the national level, Saculla “fell in love” with pageants. She was fascinated by the business side of the industry: the high-dollar gowns, the lofty entrance fees and the mysterious aspect of the pageant sector. But after winning the Miss Ohio Teen title in 2013, Saculla became more fixated on the coaching side of competition.
During the seven years she competed, she took direction from Christine Harmeyer, a pageant coach based in the Dayton area. After this time, Saculla recognized she preferred Harmeyer’s side of the enterprise, assisting young girls in preparation for their on-stage occasions. And Harmeyer loved her right back.
“When I first met her, I literally, you could ask her mom, thought she looked like a Hollywood star,” Harmeyer says. “Her eyes twinkle … and this big smile … she has the most beautiful skin and the most beautiful striking features, and so that was my first impression of meeting her and immediately, I wasn’t taken aback by her. She seemed warm and friendly — I hate to say ‘like myself,’ but — like myself, and approachable, put-together.”
Making a transition to the USA National Miss circuit, Saculla was a contestant’s dream judge. Categories subject to judging within the competition include formal wear, interview, community involvement and personal introduction. In every portion, she says, contestants should simply present themselves in a way that is “witty and memorable.” And formal wear, Harmeyer says, isn’t just about walking across a stage and back.
“Most times, people see something and are like, ‘Oh wow, she just walked out, did a couple spins and just walked off,’” she says. “No, it’s actually like every single movement that that girl did is pretty much a choreographed dance down to every single gesture, head turn and everything.”
It’s a package, but not simply one with beautiful wrapping paper, a pretty bow and a flashy To and From tag. Instead, when you open it up, the contents are impressive, with value and purpose attached to each one. The résumé, biographies and achievements of the women in pageantry are bountiful, Harmeyer says.
Perhaps the best gift of them all is the platform contestants are required to take. Alice Magoto, a freshman double-majoring in fashion design and fashion merchandising, took a stand on a platform called “Beauty Unedited: Redefining Beauty for the Next Generation.” Magoto was the first 18-year-old in 55 years to win Miss Ohio in the Miss USA competition. Her goal was to combat unrealistic standards set by the media, to disaffiliate from Photoshop and to promote authenticity on social media and in real life.
With “Conquering the Confidence Curve,” Magoto brought messages of empowerment to middle and high school girls through four topics surrounding photo manipulation: setting goals, respecting themselves, fleeing gossip and cutting down on social media usage.
“I would get the girls up and we would stand in a big circle in the gym or the auditorium and I would sing ‘Scars to Your Beautiful’ by Alessia Cara and I’d have them sing along,” she says. “It was always the best part because at that point I had gotten through to the girls and I would get a lot of tears. I would get a lot of hugs, I would get a lot of happiness and I would make them stand in a circle because you’ve got to look at each other.”
Magoto wasn’t the only one making waves in the pageant pool. Haylee Koester, a senior studying aeronautics and engineering, started competing with roots in humble soil around age 6. Competing in the same circuit as Saculla, National American Miss, Koester took advantage of the service opportunities her small town had to offer, partnering with “Meals ‘til Monday” to fulfill her platform requirement upon placement at the national level.
“We would provide them with something on Friday and we would give them a full bag of lunch, dinner and then breakfast and we’d send it home with them on the weekends; then on Monday, they’d come in and we’d feed them breakfast,” Koester says. “I helped them do their races and then pack their bags and deliver them.”
Not only have service opportunities kept Koester’s heart for pageantry beating, but the relationships with other women in the industry have kept the blood flowing. Upon competing at Nationals, Koester realized it didn’t feel much like its title: competition. Instead, behind the scenes, women are bonding, creating “lasting friendships” between interview, community service and formal wear categories.
“When we go compete out at Nationals in California, you meet all the other queens and it’s crazy how close you guys get because I remember going to other girls’ giving-away-their-crowns ceremonies and bawling watching them give up their title,” she says.
And it’s clear that Megan Stier, an alumna of American Musical and Dramatic Academy, wants to fill other women up rather than deflate them. Around the age of 12, Stier began to post YouTube videos about the industry, covering topics like how to stand on stage and how to answer during the interview portion. Before she knew it, one of her videos was at a half million views. She was doing what she loved, stepping out of her pageant heels and helping others try them on for size.
“It kind of went a lot further than I thought, and as I got older, more people were asking me for advice and stuff like that and it just kind of turned into a small little business,” Stier says.
According to these four women, a pageant contestant assumes every role: public relations spokesperson, humanitarian, public speaker and entrepreneur. The package is a present, a gift to the surrounding communities, overflowing through the careful taping job trying to contain it. In other words, the contributions to their counties offer more substance than a handshake and a wave.
“The typical stereotypes are: You’re a bimbo. You’re not intelligent. You’re just some ultra-feminine, beautiful, perfect woman who is narcissistic and basically just wants to be a model,” Harmeyer says. “They don’t really realize what goes into pageantry is very much like any sport or activity that anybody would do.”
Although Magoto refers to her time in pageantry as “opening up so many doors,” she’s refreshed that personally, she skipped the childhood training and caught up at a later age. Her coach called her “the quiet storm,” as most people underestimated her abilities due to her late entrance into the industry. She said no one knew “she was going to come this hard.” To their knowledge, she was immature and naive. Little did they know, she was entering the atmosphere with strong gusts of wind from day one.
Magoto’s ascension to Miss Ohio 2016 did not start with a high-end training facility. Instead, it began in her high school classes.
“I was answering questions in class like I would be answering interview questions because the other girls I was going to be competing against were in college,” she says. “I didn’t have that free time yet, so I had to utilize what I was given and be just as prepared as they were.”
It’s all about flexibility before, during and after the pageant. In Magoto’s case, this meant questioning if she was a bad titleholder because she was not doing the same amount of work her predecessors had done. In order to make it to all of her appearances, she lived out of her car, essentially, for her year with the crown. She often needed to fill her fuel tank in the middle of the night after events ended, resulting in “lots of creepy nights at the gas station in a dress and a crown and purse.”
The “visual, eye-candy experiences” were frustrating, but events with substance filled the gaps.
“It’s just so much more than standing on stage and looking pretty because what a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s a year of service,” Magoto says. “Once that crown is placed on your head, you’re stepping out of your own world and you’re traveling and you are volunteering and you are helping others. A lot of people think it’s a very self-centered hobby, when if you’re in the right system, it’s the complete opposite.”
In fact, pageant coaches suggest women in pageantry delete their titles from their résumé at some point in their lives if other accolades are more current. Magoto says the CEO of Miss America recommends it should fall off eventually, as it is considered a stepping stone to bigger and better things, not an “end-all, be-all.”
When it comes down to it, pageantry is about personal enjoyment. It’s not “Toddlers & Tiaras,” it’s not “Little Miss Perfect” and it’s definitely not “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” Although the exaggerated side of the industry is out there, it’s part of the minority, according to all four pageant women. In fact, Saculla and Koester say National American Miss does not allow girls under the age of 13 to wear makeup of any kind. If caught wearing lip gloss or clear mascara, they are eliminated from the competition.
“I think about where I was when I was 14 and I did my first pageant; I was so clueless, but I had so much fun,” Saculla says. “That’s really what it’s about. It was never [about] being the prettiest girl or the skinniest girl. It was just about creating a better version of myself each time I competed, as cheesy as that sounds. I want other girls to have that same feeling and opportunity.”
As a matter of fact, Saculla’s mother, Cheryl, was the one who encouraged her daughters to compete in the first place. Presented as an “old-fashioned charm school-type thing,” National American Miss was the perfect way to break Hallie and her sister further out of their “rather not be seen than seen” mentality, Cheryl says. The pageant was addressed more as a communication campaign as opposed to a glitz and glam outlet. It embraced philanthropy rather than vanity.
“I was delighted as a parent, and I was really wholeheartedly believing that it was a worthwhile endeavor, just like any parent would in a sports arena or in a speech and debate pursuit or anything you do with your kid at that age,” Cheryl says. “To pursue something good is what I felt this was a part of, and I still feel that way. And the sad part is, I feel like it’s terribly misrepresented.”
After watching Saculla present at the Youngstown State University’s Annual Reading Conference, Cheryl was convinced pageantry could hold its own in the world of extracurriculars. Saculla read to her grandparents, read at church and was now addressing an audience of 700 about the importance of letters on a page. Often, Cheryl says, competition judges wanted to know about these things: “Did you collect books for underprivileged children? What did you do to show your patriotism? How did you inspire others?”
Pageantry is not for the faint of heart. Not only do competitors need to present themselves as inspirational on stage, but Cheryl claims they are inspirational in the back wings, too. Women with disabilities, women of differing ethnicities and women of alternating body types were all present, and yet, there remained a sensitivity to every difference. Cheryl says pageantry erased the in-crowd, too-this-or-too-that mentality.
“There are these kinds of mantras that they share; one of them is ‘I’m fearfully and wonderfully made,’ and that’s direct from Scripture,” Cheryl says. “A lot of this you can take to a faith-based place in your life, just knowing that you were made for a purpose beyond your own and you were made for service and you were made to get the goodness that shines from within you to others. And it sounds corny and cheesy, but it goes a long way.”
Kelly Powell is the managing editor, contact her at email@example.com.
“Breaking Down the Crown is the Fall 2017 issue’s cover story, on stands Tuesday, Nov. 28.
Clarification: The version of this story that ran in the print issue included an information box explaining that our cover model was photographed without makeup. While this is true, a few distracting skin imperfections were removed from photographs during the production process.