More than a pretty dress

Caitlyn Nichols

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The Miss America Organization aims to connect young women with their communities and other organizations. (Ryan Smith)

Scholarship, success, personal style, and service are the four points comprising the crowns of Miss America and the other royalty included in the Miss America Organization.

With the recent crowning of Abigail Laing as Miss Weber County 2020, examining experiences of women whose lives have been changed by the organization can help bystanders see what goes on in the organization.

Since 1921, the Miss America Organization, not to be confused with the Miss USA competition run by the Miss Universe Organization, has stated their mission is to help young women between the ages of 17 and 25 find success through social impact, scholarships and personal confidence.

The Miss America Organization gives the women involved an opportunity to learn to speak in front of an audience and use their talents to make changes in their community. It provides them with a platform and resources needed to get help their community.

Though she was just recently crowned Miss Weber County 2020, Laing, from Pleasant View, Utah, is not new to the Miss America Organization. This is her seventh competition: she has previously competed for Miss Weber County, Miss North Ogden, Miss Zion and Miss Utah. She has held the titles of Miss North Ogden 2018 and Miss Zion 2019.

Laing described one of the hurdles she has to overcome in competing as her own mindset.

“I put a lot of expectation on myself of ‘This is what I’ve achieved so far, and what happens if I don’t win this title? What is that going to say about me? What are people going to think about me?’ and I really got into my head before the competition,” Laing said. “Then I just had to remind myself what Miss America is about and intrinsically remind myself why I do this.”

Every candidate chooses something in the community for improvement, outreach or looks for solutions for a social problem and then presents their ideas onstage. Previously known as a “platform,” this presentation of ideas for societal change is now called a “social impact initiative.”

Laing’s social impact initiative is called “The Gift of Life – Pass it On” and it was inspired by her father, who selflessly donated a kidney to her dying cousin four years ago.

With about 120,000 people across the states on a waiting list to receive an organ transplant, and almost every individual having the potential to save up to nine lives through organ and tissue donation, Laing said this program is meant to spread awareness and inspire others throughout the community to become organ donors.

Besides allowing her to pursue an education debt-free through scholarships, Laing said that the Miss America Organization and her experiences have impacted her life by helping her become a different and better person. She knows her core values and utilizes them.

“I don’t do this for the recognition; I don’t do this for what people think of me,” Laing said. “I do this because of the benefits it gives to other people, and the lives that I’m able to change, and the smiles I’m able to bring to others’ faces regardless if I have the title or not.”

Unlike Laing, Stacey Morrell, a candidate for Miss Weber County 2020 from Eden, Utah, was competing in a pageant for the first time. Her love for adventure is what caused her friends to suggest running for the title, and she was excited for the new experience. As she learned more about the competition, she quickly became impressed by the organization behind the scenes of the glamorous onstage presentations.

“(Miss Weber County) is meant to represent the values of her community and the positive qualities that all young women can represent,” Morrell said.

For Morrell, this experience has been an opportunity to grow, test her potential and reach new heights. It has increased her experience with marketing, by searching for donations and funding, and has taught her new ways to use social media. And, like Laing, she also feels that her confidence has grown.

“My favorite part of the organization is watching these candidates, these young women, change and watch how they become more empowered to be more active and vocal about standing in the community,” said Patrick Poce, director for the Miss Weber County Scholarship Pageant for Miss Utah and Miss America. “How they come out of their shell and have to do something that is, you know, not just an ordinary, daily routine type thing. I like to see their growth.”

In 2018, the Miss America Organization announced a new focus on letting the voices of the girls be heard. The organization made a new decision to stop judging the competitors on outward appearances, and removed the swimsuit portion of all of its competitions. The organization calls this new format “Miss America 2.0.” The change from “platform” to “social impact initiative” was also a part of Miss America 2.0.

“Miss America is more known for being focused on personal values, personal quality, rather than just the veneer of beauty that fades,” Morrell said. “They do care about the poise, the eloquence, the mind of the person… It’s more about what you’re made of than what it looks like you’re made of.”

However, Laing actually mourns the loss of the swimsuit portion of the competition. While she recognized that it was difficult to walk the stage half-dressed – and especially awkward with your dad and grandma watching – she said that that portion instilled in the contestants a confidence to stand in front of the mirror and just love and be comfortable with themselves.

“It was that level of self-confidence that nobody could talk me into; it’s something that I had to intrinsically find,” Laing said. “More girls feel like they can compete in Miss America now, with the elimination of swimsuit, than before, but I just feel like there’s just that extra confidence element lost.”

Poce said that Laing, as Miss Weber County 2020, will spend the next year with her two attendants being an advocate for Weber County and attending its events, raising awareness and funding for the Children’s Miracle Network and advocating her social impact initiative.

There are three tiers to the Miss America Organization competitions: city/county, state and national. At the end of her reign, Laing will be eligible to compete for the title of Miss Utah 2021, the winner of which will then be able to continue her social impact initiative and will be eligible for the Miss America 2022 pageant.

“I am already looking forward to my duties this year – traveling, meeting new people and getting the word out about my social impact initiative,” Laing said.