Kaiti Purse has the sash. She has the dresses, the blonde hair, the smiles, and yes, even the crown. She stands on floats and waves all the way down the pageant route. She knows how to stand with one foot at 10 o’clock and the other at 1 o’clock so her body looks optimally streamlined. She attends city events, ribbon cuttings, parades, service projects, and does it with a smile that would put Miss Congeniality to shame.
Purse is the current face of the Miss Provo pageant. But she is also the brains, talent and community-oriented representative of an organization that for years has been trying to break away from the stereotype of beauty pageant, model contracting competitions.
The stereotypes are strong. Zac Stout, an exercise science major from California, described a “typical” pageant girl very concisely. “She’s tall, skinny, beautiful.”
Unknowingly, Nikki Robinson, a pre-graphic design major from West Point, agreed.
“Just really skinny tall blonde girls that like pink,” Robinson said. “That’s probably a little over-dramatic. I don’t think that necessarily has to be it, but stereotypically that’s what comes to mind.”
Two of the most common stereotypes of pageant girls are a focus on physical beauty, and the expectation of unintelligent answers when interview time comes.
Many criticisms of pageants revolve around an emphasis on the physical aspect of the program. Anna Gleave, a public health major from Littleton, Colo., felt the balance was uneven.
“They call them scholarship programs, but in reality there’s too much focus on the beauty aspect of it,” Gleave said.
Jones pointed out the rationale behind keeping the beauty part of the competition.
“Part of being well rounded is taking care of yourself physically,” she said.
Specific criticisms include the topic of tanning, especially spray tans. Gleave said she would be more interested in seeing pageants without the use of spray tans.
Jones offered an explanation that tanning is used not only for appearances but for the very practical matter of being seen on stage.
“Because the stage lights are so intense, usually it washes you out, so that’s why girls always get the spray tans,” Jones said. “It’s just to help, kind of like stage makeup in a play. You have to make everything a little bit darker so that you look better on stage.”
But the stereotype came from somewhere, and looking around at competitions, Jones knows where.
“A lot of girls will compete in pageants to say ‘I’m the most beautiful,’ or ‘I’m the most talented,'” Jones said. “Unfortunately, you get a lot of people that are competing trying to prove something to either themselves, someone else, or trying to defeat the system. Some of the stereotypes come from girls who are just trying to prove they are the prettiest.”
Some stereotypes are undeniable but amusing. Gluing swimsuits? It’s true. According to Purse, it is the only way to keep the suit from sliding around while walking onstage.
“We glue, we tug, we even duct tape to make it all look perfect on stage,” she said.
Of greater concern to Jones and Purse is the “dumb pageant girl” stereotype. There are several tracks a pageant competitor can choose from, including Miss USA, a competition which culminates in a modeling contract, and Miss America, a heavily academic competition that rewards winners with a scholarship to continue their education. The blurring of the two into a stereotype of girls giving dumb answers does not please Purse.
“It’s probably my least favorite,” Purse said. “Especially in the Miss America pageant, where the focus is on service and scholarship, and one of the heaviest things you are judged on is interviewing skills, it’s not something you can fake. A lot of these young women are very bright and hardworking. Those who critique should consider the difficulty of being asked a question on stage and answering with poise and intelligence.”
Purse went on to explain that the most famous YouTube videos that perpetuate the stereotypes are from the Miss USA competition.
Jones said Miss America competitors must prove to be well-rounded, and does not see the competitions as interchangeable.
“Your score weighs heavily on your grades, your community service hours, your personal interview and a two-minute memorized speech that you deliver onstage,” Jones said. “There’s no way in heck I would put all that work into a competition if I didn’t win scholarship money, because a modeling contract means nothing to me.”