Feature writing: Road to the pageant crown

Please go to my home page to find links to my work in other genres ~ Paula Wethington

After arriving at The Monroe News, I started reporting on Miss Monroe County Pageant appearances and show previews. I had very little knowledge about the Miss America Organization; as I grew up in a community where the pageant struggled to gain interest and only one of my friends had ever entered.

But now I was living in a city where the pageant had nearly 50 years of history and a Miss America title among its alumni.

In 2007, I pitched the angle of what happens “behind the scenes” as I had realized there is much more to picking a Miss America representative than what happens during the stage show. I stuck to my pitch despite efforts of coworkers – including a photography intern – to talk me into a “follow one person through her journey” narrative. I wanted this story to tell itself, rather than approach it with preconceived notions.

During the three months between signups and competition night, I attended dance lessons, talked to contestants about fashions, interviewed long-time volunteers about the pageant’s local history, and watched while the contestants learned the format of the judge’s interviews.

On the night of the pageant show, I was backstage. Another reporter handled the deadline reporting.

The “Road to the Crown” project ended up as one of my favorite feature projects. In addition to this narrative that was the mainbar on our Sunday Living section, I wrote a sidebar about the judge’s interview process and some breakout facts. I also posted a story of a conversation I had backstage on our reporter blog.  A personality profile another reporter wrote about the winner was the front page feature in the newspaper that day.

The pageant staff and volunteers were thrilled with how the project turned out and still remember it. In fact, they remarked to an editor in 2016 about “the year a reporter spent an entire week with us!”

I’d actually spent much of my summer with them!

— Paula Wethington

The Road to the Crown

Long hours, dedication lead up to Miss Monroe County title

The Monroe News August 2007
The Monroe News, Aug. 19, 2007

Weeks before Miss Monroe County 2007 Rachel L. McCleery stood in the stage lights Aug. 11 to receive the four-pointed crown, she and 12 other women were competing for the status and scholarships the glittery award represents.

But you’d never know they were competing against each other as they applauded and cheered during the rehearsals and meetings at Monroe County Community College and earlier this summer at Peg Harris Dance Studio.

“I was surprised as to how helpful the girls would be,” said Miss McCleery, a first-time participant, during rehearsals.

But that atmosphere is no surprise to those who have long been involved with the Miss America preliminary. It’s a tradition they’re proud of. During the weeks leading up to the event, the contestants have been known to coach each other for a talent solo, offer their own earrings and shoes to their competitors and help the junior division pageant girls get dressed to go on stage.

“That’s the way the pageant system works for us. I think the girls are quite spoiled here,” said Tammy LaDuke, mother of contestant Tiffanie M. LaDuke, 22, of Monroe.

One night, Miss LaDuke held up two hangers holding black cocktail dresses and asked for help deciding which one to wear. Several contestants, board members and moms gave opinions.

“I bought this for $21,” she announced of their favorite.

Another night, Mary Ann Wertenberger of Dundee pointed at her daughter, Elizabeth, 18, who was talking to other contestants in the studio hallway.

“These girls will be friends forever,” Mrs. Wertenberger said. “They all remember and support each other.”

Those who have competed in other pageants, including Teresa A. Stewart, 22, of Monroe, say such comraderie behind the scenes is unusual for a contest where thousands of scholarship dollars are at stake.

Scholarships and service

But the Miss Monroe County Scholarship Pageant is said to be not a typical pageant – even among those affiliated with the Miss America Organization. It plays to sold-out crowds, sets records for fundraising efforts and sends women to the Miss Michigan contest with resumes that include more than 100 public appearances.

Miss McCleery’s first appearance, although not queen yet, was the 2007 Monroe County Fair, when all of the contestants rode a parade float.

“When you win here, you have a year of service,” said Laura A. Serpetti, 23, of Newport.

Most notably, for the past seven years, each contestant has received scholarship money. This year, every young woman who stood on the stage on pageant night earned at least $500 in cash scholarships.

Even those who were not finalists could earn more scholarship money for special categories. For example, Miss Serpetti won additional cash awards for Swimsuit, Evening Gown and Most Program Advertising Sold.

Emily A. Bowman, 23, of Monroe, was shocked on pageant night to learn she had won the Community Service Award, the non-finalist Talent Award, the Go Get ‘Em Tiger Award and Miss Congeniality Award. All bring cash awards.

This is her last year of eligibility for Miss Monroe, but Miss Bowman shed no tears.

“I have walked away with the best experience of my life,” she said.

Building on its reputation

How and why has the local program done so well in recent years?

Those who are involved shared different thoughts, including a core group of volunteers who have many years of experience and the legacy of Monroe’s Miss America 1988, Kaye Lani Rafko Wilson, who serves as co-executive director.

But circumstances in recent years show that success breeds success – the more women who enter, the more publicity the organization gets in the community, the better the scholarship money, the more effort that a queen will put into her year of service, and so forth.

“There’s no other program like this,” Miss Bowman said. “Monroe County sets the bar for what every pageant should be like.”

Tracy Oberleiter, pageant treasurer and a volunteer when the Monroe Jaycees ran the program, remembered several years when the pageant could recruit only a handful of women.

Finding contestants is not a problem anymore. A record 20 women stood on the stage in 2004.

One of the reasons for increased participation, Mr. Oberleiter said, is the interest of women who themselves, their sisters or their friends who grew up participating in the younger divisions of Miss Monroe County.

The local pageant created its junior contests in 1994 – long before those winners could advance to a state pageant. And the high school-age contestants now have their own national contest in Miss America Outstanding Teen, with rules that mirror what takes place at the Miss America level.

Miss Wertenberger is one of those alumnae. She won titles in the pageant’s younger divisions and was named second runner-up in her first attempt this year competing for Miss Monroe County.

Emily E. Cousino, 22, of Ottawa Lake, who placed third runner-up, also is an experienced contestant with a recent attempt at Miss Ohio. She has one more year of eligibility in Miss Monroe County and promised to be back in the field in 2008.

But rookies can do well, as Miss McCleery proved Aug. 11.

Another rookie: this year’s first runner-up, Nichole E. Hall, 22, of Monroe.

Miss Hall said she never gave pageants much thought until two years ago when her friends talked about the program. With her years of ballet training, she figured she had a talent act and signed up. She was second runner-up in 2006.

“Just try it,” Miss Hall would say to anybody who’s considering entering. “I would have told you it’s not for me. I always use to say ‘I am not a pageant girl.'”

Weeks of work

The class of 2007 started with 16 women in May, but the field later dropped to 13.

During orientation meetings, the contestants learned about rehearsals, wardrobe specifications, judging guidelines, platform requirements, pageant and after-glow party ticket sales and the program advertising sales campaign.

Production rehearsals started June 19 at Peg Harris Dance Studio.

Sundresses, capri pants, dressy tops, high-heeled shoes and full-face makeup were expected so contestants could get used to dressing the part.

Look over here, that’s where the judges will sit. Smile at the audience (even though that wall is a mirror). Turn to the right, your other right. This is where the microphone stand will be. Remember who is inspiring you to reach for the crown.

“Nobody knows how hard this is,” said Natalie L. Masserant, 19, of Newport, fourth runner-up.

The time preparing for the pageant has to be scheduled between family vacations, community service projects and jobs.

Many of them, like Miss Bowman, keep day planners or binders to track the deadlines, paperwork, appointments and instructions for pageant.

Through it all, the girls encouraged each other to keep up good attitudes. “There’s no cattines here,” was often said by contestants during rehearsals and backstage.

Two days before pageant night, the contestants met for the technical rehearsal at MCCC.

The lighting and stage crew learned their cues. The master of ceremonies’ script was in final re-write stage. Talent costume pieces and plastic shoe boxes were piled up near auditorium seats, because contestants had not moved into their dressing room yet.

Miss Monroe County 2006 Melissa Cousino and Dione Oerther, co-exeutive director for the pageant, sat at the edge of the stage and called the contestants to the first two rows of seats.

Ms. Oerther spoke quietly, with the manner of a coach talking to her team or a mom talking to her daughters:

“You’ve practiced. You’ve rehearsed. You’ve done everything you need to do,” Ms. Oerther said. “I don’t know who’s going to win. It’s five people’s opinions.”

Then she asked them all, regardless of how disappointed they would be about not winning, to congratulate the queen personally on pageant night.

“If you just had the crown on your head, wouldn’t you want that?” she asked.

After a few minutes, pageant volunteer Allen Russell took over with another round of stage instructions. Stand here at the blue tape. You go that way when the line splits, you go that way.

“Okay, let’s take it from the top,” Mr. Russell shouted.

The drums and pop music beat of Beyonce’s version of “One Night Only” played on the sound system. A spotlight shone on Miss Cousino. Behind her, a curtain opened to show the 13 women who hoped to replace her. The chorus line members stepped in time in black high heels across the stage for their introductions.

“I’ve got one night only, one night only, that’s all I have  to spare…”