The fact that Tamara Jacobs, the image consultant I interviewed for the article above, had been a judge for the Miss America pageant several years ago was of particular interest to me. I am the current Miss New Jersey and competed in the Miss America pageant this past September in Atlantic City. Spoiler alert — for those of you who didn’t get around to watching it: I didn’t win.
But I wondered if Jacobs had any insight to offer based on the beauty pageant experience. Jacobs said that the judge’s chair told her and her fellow judges two things that had stuck with her:
1.) Pick the woman who is already the woman she wants to be. We don’t have the time or budget to develop works in progress.
2.) Don’t pick the most beautiful woman. Pick the woman who is the most animated and can connect. Energy is infectious and if she doesn’t have it, it can’t be caught.
Neither one of these things really surprised me or made me rethink my own Miss America preparations and strategies — neither one of which I had much of. I had only competed in one pageant before Miss New Jersey, and that was the local title I had to win to be eligible for the state pageant.
Raised in Forrest City, Arkansas, where my father is an accountant and my mom raised me and my older brother (a math and computer science major at the University of Arkansas), I was well aware of beauty competitions growing up — pageants are really huge down there. But my mom discouraged me from entering because she felt I had other interests to pursue.
One of those interests was youth literacy. At one point our school district was given an F by the state. I started a monthly story time at the Boys and Girls Club and a drive to donate more than 1,000 books to a children’s library. I also started a “Birthday Book” program for poor children from ages 5 to 10. Kids who were registered in a Christmas-time Toys for Tots campaign got a book on their birthday.
In 2010 I enrolled at Princeton University, but after two years I realized I had no sense of community outside of the “Orange Bubble.” I started competing in pageants because I wanted to be able to get into classrooms and libraries to read with children and share that passion. Parents: you will be comforted to know that teachers are very reluctant to let total strangers near their students. But I found that the crown functioned as a sort of magical free admission ticket to classrooms and libraries across the state.
Another thing I found, in addition to what the judge’s chair told Jacobs, was that the crown isn’t automatically given to the smartest contestant either. Having no pageant experience, it was perhaps miraculous that I won a local title at all, especially considering the heinous yellow silk ruffled suit I wore for my interview.
In preparing for Miss New Jersey, I realized that I would need not only a new interview dress, but a little polish. I was highly skilled at reciting my resume and selling myself and my credentials in college interviews, and yet I didn’t understand why this didn’t translate well in pageant interviews.
I did a single mock interview with my local director before the Miss New Jersey pageant and left the podium in tears. She told me I came across as a cold, rehearsed robot. In the pageant world, this is perhaps the worst offense. It even has a name: being a “Pageant Patty.” I didn’t understand how I could be a Pageant Patty without ever having competed in pageants before. In fact, before my director’s criticism, I had been proud of my ability to fire back answers quickly, articulately, and seamlessly. And yet, there’s something about being seamless that also comes across as plastic.
I was distraught. I immediately ordered multiple joke books, and several books on charisma as well. It was an overreaction, but I learned a valuable lesson: being smart and pretty does not make you relatable, or necessarily likable. Those things were two-dimensional. They meant that you looked good on paper, but not much else.
Sure, I got a few good jokes from my research (What did the fish say when he ran into the wall? Dam!), but more important was the realization that when competing for a pageant — or applying for a job — being impressive is not as endearing as being likable and relatable, and the importance of being likable is often overlooked.
You have to be both — authoritative and amicable — at the same time. You have to make people believe that you know what you’re talking about, without being condescending. It’s a delicate balance, but if you can strike it you’ll realize that people will respect you, and also like you — and if you want to be an effective leader, you need people to do both.
In my line of “work,” I have to be able to answer questions on politics and current events posed by local dignitaries and business leaders, but I also have to be able to answer questions from five-year-olds like “Do you sleep in your crown?” (yes) and “Do you live in a castle?” (have you seen the Princeton campus?). I have a unique job, but the idea that to be competitive in today’s job market and world, you have to be amicable as well as authoritative, is advice that can benefit anyone.
— Cara McCollum
McCollum is majoring in English at Princeton University and is considering a career in broadcast journalism and writing. She is taking this year off to concentrate on Miss New Jersey duties. She has written for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, the Oxford American Magazine, and U.S. 1.