I’ve been around and involved in the pageant industry since the mid-to-late 1980s. I’ve seen us evolve from an industry that historically nearly exclusively celebrated beauty and scholarly pursuits to one that has broadened its reach to become a platform to drive women’s empowerment, environmental consciousness, body positivity, inclusivity, diversity and a host of other critically important socioeconomic and geopolitical issues that affect not only women, but everyone. And one thing I’ve found true throughout all of this? Judging hasn’t changed much. Sure, the categories of competition have kept pace with changing pop culture over the years to include categories beyond interview, swimwear, evening gown and onstage question to platform/cause and other “of the moment” categories previously unknown. But fundamentally, judges judge on a few core elements. In this industry I’ve served as a pageant owner, a state director, a national director, a host, a coach and yes… as a judge. Having judged more than 50 local, state, national and international pageants for systems including Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss World America, Miss Universe, Miss Globe and others what has always held true for me is that fundamentally we judge for three things: relatability, character, and qualification. What do I mean? Of course, we’re judging a contestant’s ability to articulate and communicate during interview or on-stage Q&A. Of course, we’re judging a contestant’s physical fitness in swimwear. Of course, we’re judging a contestant’s poise and carriage. When it comes to that on-stage talk/chat/Q&A portion of the competition, of course we want to hear somebody who can speak with conviction and convince us she’s the right woman for the job. But what underlies all of that for me? What do I look for?
Regardless of the type of pageant I’m judging—whether it’s a pure ‘beauty’ pageant, a scholarship competition, a pageant for models, a humanitarian or cause platform pageant—I am fundamentally looking for the woman who convinces me that she is the most sincere, genuine and connected to the purpose of the pageant she’s competing in. If she’s competing to win a university scholarship—is she able to show me how fundamentally her life or the lives of others are changed if she wins? Do I “buy” it? Do I “believe” her? Is she “credible?” If she’s competing to win a beauty pageant—is she the most beautiful to me and can I see that beauty radiate from the inside and outward. There is no shortage of beautiful young women competing in pageants all over the world, but what about my winner’s beauty stands out? How does she rise above all the other “pretty faces” and “poised figures” to show me that she’s the one? If I’m judging a cause or platform pageant, who am I convinced is truly able to be the brand ambassador for that pageant? Who do I “believe” truly “believes” herself in why she’s there and what her purpose as the winner will ultimately be? I look for who I believe fits the criteria inside and out, and that colors my judging process throughout all facets of competition. And I think that is critical for all judges—consistency.
Consistency of Qualities
I’ve served on panels where judges have shifted gears on who they favor or advance based on a single stumble or misstep by a competitor. And that is where I think we make mistakes as judges. In my opinion, you have to look at the most consistently relatable contestant. The contestant who has most consistently demonstrated that she has character and integrity to be the brand, and importantly, the contestant who has consistently shown that she is the most qualified for the job. The most relatable, strongest character and best qualified won’t be perfect, they may stumble in gown; they may pose awkwardly in swimsuit; they may have responded in interview to a three part question with a two part answer; they may have stopped, restarted or taken a beat during on-stage question and answer, but… were they the most consistent in those three key areas of: relatability, character, and qualification?
That’s the baseline I use for everyone that I judge. The interview winner who falters in other areas of competition is never my winner. The standout in swimsuit who couldn’t thread a cohesive sentence together in interview doesn’t get my nod. The runway model with the Naomi Campbell walk and a gown that cost her or her sponsors five figures but who showed up sloppy in swimwear or weak in interview; won’t get the call from me. I need to feel that you are a connector and can get people to listen to what you have to say. I have to know that your character shines through by virtue of how I see you interact with your peers, pageant staff, judges and just regular folks who have nothing to give you—including a winning score. I need to be clear that you are the most qualified to do the job not just because you tell me you are, but because you have a body of work, of life experience and a way of being that conveys nobody is better suited than you for me to choose today. I need to know that the pageant you seek to win is a brand you are not only willing and able to represent but that you are capable of helping grow, advance and progress. How about you? What do you look for?