Courtesy of Kaylin Mahal Smith

The Yale-Harvard Football Game was not the only competition keeping spectators on their toes last week. From Nov. 19 to 27, Kaylin Mahal Smith ’25 was one of hundreds of women at a different kind of competition: the National American Miss pageant, or NAM.

The national-level pageant — which featured a week of trials, performances and last-minute dressing room crazes — was the culmination of months of hard work spent during the summer preparing for state-level programs and competitions. With the state contestants vying for the national title of their respective age groups, both tension and camaraderie ran high at the Hyatt Regency Orlando where the competitions were held. Smith, who is the 2022 National American Miss Connecticut, was part of the cohort with women aged 19 to 24.

“If you had asked me five years ago if I wanted to join a pageant, I would’ve rolled my eyes and laughed,” said Smith, whose piano performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie saw her taking first place for the Talent optional category. “Back then when I thought about pageantry, I associated it with frivolity and negative stereotypes.”

Smith’s first pageant experience as a junior in high school proved otherwise, however, and continues to chart her love for these competitions today. Beyond being an engine for confidence, public speaking skills and socioemotional growth, pageantry helped her figure out her place in the world and the type of contributions that she will make to others, according to Smith.

The preliminary judging categories for this year’s NAM Nationals were: 25 percent formal wear, 25 percent personal introduction, 25 percent interview , 15 percent resume and 10 percent community service project. 

Following preliminaries, judges selected 12 women from each cohort to repeat their personal introductions on stage and then a final five competed for the title by answering an on-stage question. Participants also had the option to enlist in other optional contests that did not impact their scores, which included Runway Model Search, Top Model Search, Casual Wear Modeling, Photogenic, Actress, Talent and Spokesmodel, among others.

Where she expected to find drama queens and a hyperfocus on winning the crown, Smith encountered an “uplifting sisterhood” rich with interpersonal support and encouragement. This past week was more than a competition, she said — it was also a testament to the incredible strength of women across backgrounds and disciplines. The stage bustled with cultural, racial, academic and social diversity, and for many participants, their platforms and talents were an opportunity to tell important stories.

Smith remembered meeting a contestant who utilized her platform to advocate for women’s education in developing countries, another who did not let her mental disorder get in the way of pursuing her dreams and still another who was a sexual assault survivor who aspires to one day enact change to protect women through legislative policymaking.

Maria-Teresa Duvall, the international project and development coordinator for The Pageant Powerhouse program that oversees National American Miss and International Junior Miss, noted that the most rewarding part of her job is seeing young women grow and go on to achieve great successes in all realms.

Past titleholders, many of whom Duvall said attribute their ability to communicate confidently to their time with The Powerhouse, have become Rhodes Scholars and joined Teach for America, holding careers in medicine, entertainment, education, law and more.

“We call ourselves the NAMily — family except with the N instead of the F,” said Kari Mazurek, the mother of 13-year-old Hamden Middle School seventh grader and NAM Nationals preteen contestant Ariel Mazurek. “We have friends, because of pageantry, throughout the world.”

Mazurek will never forget the time when her daughter’s dress needed steaming and multiple parents immediately jumped to help them.

They recommended their own personal steamers and one even offered to drive her to a store to get the job done on the spot. Zipper breaks are frequent, but so are helping hands and the willingness of families to lift each other up, she said.

Still, the stakes are high for competitors, and with them inevitable nerves.

In that vein, Ariel, who has been with NAM for eight years since she was five, has a piece of advice that takes the form of a personal mantra she frequently repeats to herself during contests.

“Don’t let fear overrun you,” Ariel said in an interview with the News, recalling how she found comfort before a round by calling her friends. “[Let] your confidence shine through on stage.”

As for Smith, a hurdle that came with pageantry was the need to balance preparation with schoolwork as well as certain inescapable financial costs, but she urged younger aspiring princesses and queens to purchase second-hand dresses, learn how to do their own hair and makeup and find sponsors to mitigate some of these costs. 

Nonetheless, the pageant experience is one that she does not hesitate to recommend to others and one that she looks forward to her own continued participation in in the future.

“When I entered college, I felt like I missed my opportunity at pageantry,” Smith said. “But then in the spring of my first year, I decided to go for it anyway. You only live once and I didn’t want to have any regrets.”

More information about the 2022 NAM Nationals competitions can be found on their official website.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!