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On January 30th, a new Miss America will be crowned. She will be the 89th woman chosen.  It has been said that other pageants look for a model, but the Miss America Pageant looks for a role model.

The women who become Miss America are so much more than the stereotype. They have a dream and the drive to achieve it. Disciplined about doing what it takes to reach their goals, their passion, persistence and resilience push them past obstacles and help them deal with adversity.   These women turn out to be not just pretty, but pretty smart!

For my award-winning book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas, I met with twenty-two of them in their homes, at their offices or over lunch, in places like Memphis, Denver, Louisville, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, St. Petersburg and New York

In person, they shatter the “it’s only a beauty contest” perception with their intelligence, thoughtfulness, poise and eloquence. As Frank Deford, the award-winning Sports Illustrated writer and four-time Miss America judge, says in his book, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America, “No matter how many times it happens, the press finds itself surprised every time a beauty pageant winner is something other than a classic dumb blond.”

The Pageant, started in 1921, evolved from just a beauty contest into one that strives to provide opportunities for young women to stretch themselves in many directions. In 1945, Bess Meyerson was the first Miss America to receive a scholarship. As today’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women in the world through both the national, state and local chapters – over $45 million of in-kind scholarships in 2009 – it requires that the contestants be competent, curvaceous and directed, even though others may disparage the role.

Many people don’t see beyond the swimsuit competition. They think you can’t be beautiful and smart. This complicated mix of beauty and brains has always been a contradiction in American society, which often dismisses the possibility of being both. It takes guts, creativity, endurance, lots of plain hard work and a fire in the belly to achieve that pinnacle of femaleness.  Contrary to popular opinion, the Miss America Organization had a liberal feminist agenda years before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The Miss America Organization promoted higher education for women starting in the 1940s when women in aprons were more the norm than women in business suits. Tens of thousands of young women, who participated in the pageant system at the local, state and national level, have acquired the means to get a college education and have enhanced their skills.

Mostly small town girls with big hearts and big dreams, they see the Pageant as an opportunity to actualize a larger vision for themselves. Being Miss America provides them with a platform to achieve their dreams of a higher education, access to a broad audience to promote a social cause and exposure to people who could help them get where they wanted to go. Rarely is the crown an end in itself. And, as for smart, most of them were or become graduates of the finest colleges and universities in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Skidmore and Virginia Polytechnic University. Their ranks include magna cum laude graduates and Rhodes Scholar finalists. In 1974, a law student crowned a Ph.D. candidate. And then, they go on to make a difference.   They serve as role models for all of us.

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Don’t let someone who doesn’t share your vision for your future have the final say.   When you are pursuing a dream and a goal, you will be presented with so many different opinions about how to get there, your head will swim.

A special report in Fourpoints Magazine aimed at contestants in the upcoming 2010 Miss America Pageant  stresses the importance of understanding who you are and of always being true to yourself, regardless of the advice and opinions of others. 

Sometimes we make assumptions about the expectations of others and try  to mold ourself to those expectations.  Then we discover that our assumtions were wrong.  When you follow your heart and trust your instincts you will usually come out ahead.  At the very least your sense of self will be strengthened.  When you are true to yourself, you feel validated and whole, not torn apart by the conflicting advice of others.

Though many misconstrue the intent of the Miss America Pageant, believing that if focuses predominantly on physical attractiveness, in truth, the judges are looking for that young woman who exemplifies a broad range of skills and personality traits.  As the FourPoints article explains, the job description for Miss America describes a woman charged with the responsibility of representing the best of contemporary womanhood – one who is comfortable in all kinds of settings with all kinds of people, who is someone worth looking up to and that has the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.  That’s a daunting task for anyone, let alone a young woman between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four.

A lot of beautiful women vie for the crown each year.  So why not crown them all?  So the judges look for those inner qualities of poise, confidence, intelligence and heart-based charm, all of which override mere physical attractiveness.  When they spot a contestant who shines with integrity and honors who she is, she could be wearing a flour sack and they will add her to their list of finalists.

Authenticity is the most effective cosmetic you can wear.  When you are true to yourself you honor everyone who you make contact with.  Remember that there is more than one right answer about how to achieve your dreams and you are the most important opinion maker when deciding which one is the best one for you.

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