Iowans give the behind-the-scenes scoop on pageant life.
Behind the brief stage moments, the bright white smiles and the sparkling crowns that accompany most pageants are months of preparation in hopes of a title that will lead to a paid college education, a modeling contract or another career opportunity.
Pageant contestants say today’s competitions go beyond what’s on the surface.
“This gets you ready for real life when you want to score that real-life job,” says Kelly Brown, the owner of KPC Pageant Coaching in Des Moines. “It forces the girls to get to know themselves on a deeper level than a surface level, to deal with and talk about topics they might not be comfortable with, to jump into a conversation and know facts and statistics, to be able to learn about oneself.”
Judges want a woman who has significant intelligence and is a role model, says Emmy Cuvelier, 23, originally from Collins.
“I think there’s a misconception that pageant girls don’t have a lot of depth or intelligence, but when you go into that interview room, they’re firing questions at you about your political views, your personal life, your goals,” says Cuvelier, who was Miss Central Iowa, Miss Polk County, first runner-up in Miss Iowa and Miss Iowa USA, and most recently first runner-up in Miss World California.
In Iowa last month, the first two young women were crowned in pageants that will qualify them for the 2020 Miss Iowa competition.
Coach provides guidance to contestants
Brown has prepared girls and young women to compete in pageants for 17 years. She herself competed in pageants in her youth as a small-town girl. She didn’t have a professional to help her behind the scenes but learned a lot as she continued to win, which is why she created her business.
More goes into a pageant than most realize. There is an interview component and an on-stage question that require strong communication skills, and there’s an element to stage presence that must be well-executed, says Brown, who has coached girls who have placed in the top four at Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and International Junior Miss, as well as those who have received modeling contracts.
“When you get on stage, you have to know your body and how to work it,” she explains. “Some girls are choosing the wrong poses and wardrobe. You want to get rid of the distractions and the quirky things you do with your hands or your face.”
Cuvelier, who now lives and works in Burbank, California, says her first pageant experience was eye-opening. She felt unprepared because she didn’t consult with a coach. She won the talent portion of the contest but did not place. She had bought a swimsuit, heels and an interview outfit and wore an old prom dress as her evening gown.
“I didn’t really know what to expect or how to prepare for it,” she recalls. “I had never really seen a pageant other than Miss America on television, so I didn’t know the behind the scenes that went into it.”
Pageants can be costly, and the stakes are high with scholarships and modeling contracts on the line, which is why knowing how to present oneself on stage and to judges is even more important.
“Some girls have no clue what they’re doing and need the basics,” Brown says. “Some could win Miss USA.”
Brown worked with Pyper Jo Cirksena, 11, of Norwalk to help her prepare for the Miss Junior Iowa contest. She received the title in July among a competition pool of 20 girls.
Because Pyper was new to pageants, Brown advised on finding a solid talent. Pyper had been performing contemporary dance for years but had a new piece choreographed for the pageant. Brown helped her prepare for the interview, learn how to walk on stage and with her clothing choices.
“I thought, if she’s going to do this much work with her talent, I want her to have the best opportunity with the other areas,” Pyper’s mom, Renee, says.
Pageant requires financial commitment; payout can be huge
Brown received enough scholarships to nearly pay for all of her college education from competing in pageants.
Each pageant is different, but in the Miss America program, the top five contestants receive a scholarship. In other competitions, it can be the top 15 contestants. Some will receive tens of thousands of dollars. Cash prizes of $1,000 to $4,000 also are given out at some pageants.
While the payout can be appealing, the expense of a pageant can add up quickly. Brown has had contestants win with a $100 investment because they rented or borrowed all of their wardrobe and did their own hair and makeup. Others will spend $10,000 with one-on-one coaching, new clothing, travel and more.
Brown recommends contestants look at the prize package of a pageant before they invest their money.
“You don’t want to invest everything and win unless there’s a big prize,” she says. “If you win those big titles, your college is paid for.”
The Cirksena family paid about $900 for Brown’s services. They also paid the pageant entry fee and about $450 for clothing. Pyper borrowed a dress from Brown, who says she has a wardrobe of clothing she allows clients to borrow. Renee says there will be future clothing expenses as Pyper attends activities as Miss Junior Iowa.
Preparation starts months in advance
Emmy Cuvelier admits that pageants were her entire life and breath for two years. She spoke at, attended or volunteered at events almost every day, visited area schools and practiced her talent. She worked out twice a day — once with a trainer in Des Moines and then again at home in Ames, where she was attending Iowa State University at the time.
“It has been a lot of work but has been so great for my self-discipline and goal-setting,” she says.
Brown recommends contestants begin to prepare at least three months in advance. Initially, they’ll begin to build their brand and learn how to carry their body, walk on stage and pose for the best camera angles.
Then comes mock interviews, putting together a wardrobe and perfecting a talent for those who compete in the Miss America system of pageantry. Brown says most women can find a talent, whether it’s to perform a monologue, dance, sing, play an instrument, roller skate or even speed paint or perform ventriloquism.
“My suggestion is to dig deep if you think you don’t have a talent,” she says. “You might need to get out of your comfort zone. You’ll need to put in the work and perfect it. You need to rock it.”
Miss Iowa Emily Tinsman, 22, a Drake University graduate, has participated in music programs and as a vocalist since she was a young child. She took music lessons in college and trained in classical music to develop opera as her talent. She takes weekly lessons, sings daily, and is proactive in keeping her voice and her body healthy. She’s met and talked with past Miss Iowas to help prepare herself for the national competition.
In preparation for Miss America, she’s stayed up to date on current events and prepared for her interview.
One of the keys is to “make sure you fully know yourself, are being as personable as possible and are finding ways to connect to different people: liberals, conservatives, those who are involved with pageants, those who aren’t, businesspeople. You need to be able to connect with all of them,” Tinsman says.
The Miss Iowa competition has five areas of scoring:
Talent, 30 percent
Interview, 25 percent
On-stage question, 20 percent
Evening wear, 15 percent
Lifestyle and fitness, 10 percent
Contestants must be between the ages of 18 and 25 and have a platform that has relevance in their community or society at large and is something they deeply care about.
The Miss Iowa competition no longer has a swimsuit contest component.
“There’s more focus on your intelligence as opposed to how you look,” Tinsman says.
Tinsman didn’t have a coach for her first two local pageants, but once she qualified for Miss Iowa, she wanted to up her game, so a coach prepared her for the interview portion so she felt more confident and was better able to convey what she wanted to say in a concise message to the judges. Because she is Miss Iowa, she receives free coaching in preparation for the Miss America pageant. She’ll have her gown paid for, and her hair and makeup will be done by sponsors.
For girls or women who do not have a strong talent, they can choose to compete in the Miss USA system where there is no talent portion of the competition. The Miss Iowa USA and Teen USA pageants are October.
Pyper practiced her talent five times a week, worked on potential interview questions and met with Brown almost weekly leading up to the pageant.
“I was so happy I started crying,” she says. “It was a great experience because I had such a fun time doing it, and I won after all of the hard work. It made me happy.”
Competition opens doors for the future, college
Winning the title of Miss Iowa earlier this summer has given Tinsman the opportunity to advocate for her platform of arts education advocacy.
A music major, Tinsman travels the state almost daily and makes public appearances at schools, the Iowa Capitol and with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., where she’ll talk about arts advocacy. She received a job offer from Des Moines Public Schools but was required to resign while she holds the crown. She’ll compete in the Miss America pageant in December.
After her reign is up, Tinsman hopes to become a schoolteacher and eventually attend graduate school in order to become a school administrator.
Initially, Tinsman was drawn to pageants because of the scholarship opportunities. She won her first title in 2017, Miss Cedar Valley. The following year, she was crowned Miss Eastern Iowa and Miss Wild Rose.
Through her time as Miss Iowa, Tinsman has accumulated $15,000 in scholarships, which will pay for her student loans and give her money toward graduate school. She hopes to receive more scholarships at the Miss America pageant.
“It’s pretty awesome to have,” she says of the scholarships. “You get the experience, but you also get the schooling and education aspect.”
Miss Iowa also has given Tinsman a place to live while she’s the title holder and a vehicle to travel in across the state. If she’s making a public appearance based on her personal platform or for a community event or another non-Miss America national platform event, she is paid by the entity putting on the event.
Pageant preparation gives women confidence and excellent communication skills, which Brown says has helped her contestants go on to apply for and receive job offers along with rave reviews on their interview skills.
Tinsman says that was the case for her. She received four job offers and credits her time competing in pageants as preparing her for the job interview process.
“A lot of times when girls compete in the Miss Iowa or Miss America program, they develop more confidence and better sense of self, not just for competing in pageants, but getting jobs or interviews,” she says.
Through her volunteer work, Cuvelier discovered her passion for working with children in need. She’s raised more than $15,000 for children with critical illnesses through her Princess Party fundraisers in which she dresses as the Ariel character. She’s currently pursuing a career in acting, singing and performance and owns two small businesses.
“I have some really exciting filming opportunities coming up that I can’t wait to dive into,” she says.
Cuvelier also will compete for the title of Miss World America this fall after being appointed state title holder in California.
Pyper says competing in Miss Junior Iowa has given her more confidence, especially when she had to speak in a microphone on stage and answer judges’
Her family likes that the pageant was focused on personality and talent and wanted the girls to look their age with minimal makeup and natural hair.
“A lot of people think it’s based on your looks, but it’s not,” Renee says. “A lot of people think they have the cutest kid and they’ll do well, but you have to do the work.”
Pyper won the talent and interview portions of the pageant.
Pageant day brings excitement, nerves
Tinsman was able to meet her fellow Miss America contestants at an event this summer.
“I’m fully ready to have a great experience with these great women around the country,” she says.
When she takes the stage on Dec. 19, much of the work will have happened behind the scenes and off camera during three days of competition. On that night, the women introduce themselves and their state, and then the top 15 women will be announced. Tinsman says she hopes her name is called or that she wins the talent or interview portions of the pageant.
If the behind-the-scenes is anything like the Miss Iowa competition, some women will be chatty and act as if everything is perfect. Others will be in their zone with ear buds in and a meditative gaze.
“It’s a unique vibe because everyone wants it so badly,” Tinsman says.
“Before the pageant, you will see lots of laughter, smiles and joking from the contestants, but when the competition is about the begin, everyone seems to keep to themselves more,” she says. “It’s not that anyone becomes catty. We
are just getting into our best headspace.”
Once the preliminary competition is over, the real competition kicks in.
Some women will feel pressure and be nervous and anxious.
“It’s a very emotionally draining experience sometimes,” Tinsman says.
“You go into the week being confident with what you have to present and being confident with who you are. That’s the best outcome. Whether you win or lose, only one person can win. Mentally, you have to have end goals that are
beyond Miss Iowa.” ♦