Take a look around — over your shoulder at a party, in front of the Berkeley organic salad bar or ahead of you in line for the keg at DKE may very well lurk a real, live beauty queen.
On a campus more focused on John Calvin than Calvin Klein, where the color red elicits thoughts of an English paper gone awry rather than luscious lips, interest in beauty pageants is Calista Flockhart-slim.
But flocking to New Haven from all regions South — and from nearby Stratford — five beauty queens-turned-Elis have quietly cut loose their dollar-driven, down-home pageant ambitions.
In comparison to her Bible-belt home state of Mississippi, Lauren Curtis ’05 said Yale lacks one important Southern tradition — competitions for who is “prettier.” A former Junior Miss Mississippi, she said beauty pageants are an important part of the Southern lifestyle.
“They’re enormous in the South,” she said. “In Mississippi alone you can win preliminaries through your school, county and city.”
Some young ladies train full-time in preparation for important pageants, making careers out of beauty contests.
“It was like ‘Miss Congeniality,'” said Whitney Seibel ’06, a former semifinalist in the Miss Kansas competition. “Some of them made it into an occupation and they were very hardcore about it. There was a little girl, 5 feet tall, decked out in a huge gown and she looked like a little child. It was kind of creepy.”
Curtis said some pageant contestants were groomed for the competition lifestyle, something she said she would not consider doing.
“For some people, they have training all the time,” Curtis said. “It’s their largest commitment outside of school — it’s all they do. I could never do it.”
Many of Yale’s former beauty pageant winners, including Curtis, participated in the America’s Junior Miss program, which weighs academics and scholarship more heavily than traditional programs.
“It’s more than about just looks,” said Erin Pettigrew ’05, former Junior Miss Kentucky and second runner-up in the Junior Miss America pageant. “The goal is to pick a good representative — the American girl at a turning point in her life.”
All five former beauty queens were attracted to the pageants less for the modeling and more for the money — winners can win tens of thousands of scholarship dollars.
“It really wasn’t a big deal for me. It was one thing I did because I knew I was going to an expensive school and I wanted to get ahead financially,” Curtis said.
Pettigrew’s national placement won her $40,000, which she used to pay for her freshman year of tuition. Kersten Stevens ’06, from Stratford, won the Miss Connecticut pageant in the 2000 Hal Jackson Talented Teens International competition. When she advanced to the international competition, she was first runner-up, collecting $3,000. But she said she is not interested in participating in any other beauty pageants.
“Since then I’ve been approached on three to four occasions for Miss America-type competitions, but I haven’t wanted to do one yet,” Stevens said. “I don’t feel like walking in bathing suits.”
‘Not that ditzy’
When she arrived at Yale as a freshman last year, Seibel did not brag about her beauty pageant past. In fact, she made an effort not to mention it.
“[People] usually laugh and think it’s funny,” Seibel said. “People Google me and say ‘what is this.'”
Pettigrew has also found that Yalies are likely to poke fun of former beauty pageant queens, eliciting the common stereotype of ditzy, well-endowed blondes — not Yale material.
“They get the wrong idea at first,” Pettigrew said. “They think everyone is superficial and the answer is no. It’s a really positive experience, but usually it’s best not to say anything at all.”
Most people often get the wrong impression about beauty pageants, said Lauren Rogers ’05, former Junior Miss Texas. She highlights that all the contestants in her pageant were “pretty smart” and “not that ditzy.” Since academics are very important in the Junior Miss program, many of the girls were planning to enroll in top colleges.
“The standard for the intelligence was very high, although they did try to present us as your typical, ditzy 18-year-old girls,” Rogers said. “They wanted us to say something cute about ourselves and we all ended up sounding really ditzy.”
Beauty pageant contests require contestants to perform dance numbers, talents and give a “poised” interview. But for Stevens, the most dreadful part of the competition was “the walk.”
“I didn’t win international because of my walk — that was my weakness,” said Stevens, who trained with a former Mrs. America to perfect her walk prior to the international comeptition. “You have to walk straight but relaxed, and you had to do turns.”
A perfect walk can make for a perfect beauty pageant contestant. But so can a poised interview, highlighting one’s “morals and values.”
“They really want you to be a nice young lady,” Rogers said. “Sometimes I see [the other Yalie beauty pageant contestants] at parties and I’ll be drinking a beer and they’ll go ‘that’s not very junior missy.'”
Yankee come home
At Yale, removed from the beauty pageant frenzy in the South, Curtis said the atmosphere is much more refreshing.
“I’m not a big fan of it because I think they promote an odd kind of competitiveness,” she said. “It’s out of your control. It seems strange to be competing over who’s prettier.”
For Pettigrew, competing in the national pageant was the first time she was able to meet many people like herself outside of her Lexington, Ky., hometown.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “It was nice to meet so many people who were so driven, which was expounded upon when I got to Yale where everyone is so goal-driven.”
And while some pageant contestants are overly ambitious, the stigma of cutthroat competition among the young ladies is just not true, the Yale beauty queens said.
“Somebody will go home the winner,” Pettigrew said. “And everybody else will go home with just a happy experience.”