Cara Mund (formerly Miss North Dakota 2017; now Miss America 2018) performs in the talent portion during the final night of the 2018 Miss America competition. Photo: Tim Hawk for NJ.com
Once upon a time in my MAO days, I performed what could be considered a “nontraditional” talent. I spun flag. While Arizona had a Miss Twirling Athlete title, we also had a lot of baton twirlers. A few even went on to Miss America, and Miss Arizona 2016 is a baton twirler! Even though I can sing, and have been told I sound like a Disney Princess when I do, I have never been formally trained. We were told that judges can tell the girls who have been trained from those who haven’t, so we should pick a talent that we were technically sound in. Additionally, I was trying to stand out in a sea of singers and dancers. I also didn’t want to be judged on something I loved doing for fun.
In fact, despite multiple compliments from directors, I often went running off the stage in the pageants I did sing at. I performed in front of thousands of fans weekly spinning flag, but never did I sing in front of them and it scared me to death to sing in front of the small audiences and judges at our pageants. It was years of “what ifs” and after taking some time off from MAO that I returned for my final pageant of eligibility in California. I decided to spin flag. Again, to separate myself from the competition. But with the wrong music cut during rehearsal and having to perform off stage so I wouldn’t take out the lights, I contemplated switching my talent to singing hours before the show. However, I had discussed my routine with the judges during my interview so I went against my better judgment, spun flag, and walked away from MAO asking myself, “what if?” Now, I see nontraditional talents popping up all over social media. On one hand, I am jumping for joy. Finally, the girls who may not have been dancing since they were three years old or had professional voice coaches have a shot to stand out. On the other, I wonder if the true skill and talent it takes to perform these nontraditional talents is fairly judged. I also wonder, still, what does the pageant want? Do they want someone truly unique and a talent that is entertaining and exceptional? Or do they want something they can market for appearances?
Pageantry is a business, they need to make money, in order to do that, you as the titleholder need to be marketable and one way to market yourself is through your talent. Singers are easier to market for appearances because they can sing the National Anthem just about anywhere. You can perform favorite songs with kids at events. You can guest-perform in plays and symphonies. There is little to no need for choreography rehearsal; you can rehearse with an MP3 player while traveling in the hotel. You can even wear whatever outfit pageant sponsors provide, from a ball gown to a sportswear outfit, or jeans and a team jersey. Dancers would need rehearsal space, they would potentially need a choreographer, they would need rehearsal time, and they would need costumes.
Additionally, their style of dance may depend on their marketability and their skill to perform various styles. Twirlers struggle because of space. Most of us can spin with our eyes closed and while carrying on a conversation. Unfortunately, our ability to perform our talent depends on how high the ceiling is. We’ve had to perform off stage and even outside during local pageants. Lighting can become an issue, too. We can’t perform in the dark and equipment can get lost in stage lighting. Instrumentalists, while their talent is often appreciated with many cuts to the music programs in public education, traveling with an instrument isn’t always convenient. While many venues could potentially have a piano, other instruments would have to be traveled with and taken care of. Unlike singing, where you can turn the volume of your voice down to rehearse a song, an instrument doesn’t always have this luxury, making on the road rehearsal a bit of a challenge.
Laura Der, Miss Greenbrier Valley 2016, made history during the Miss West Virginia Pageant as she played a sport for her talent. Photo: Country Charm Photography
What Are They Looking For?
In Miss America, talent is worth the largest percentage of your score (30%-35% depending on the competition setup). What is hard to find online as what they are looking for in talent. While pages on the areas of competition describe the types of talent that can be performed, the judging criteria isn’t there. I dug deeper. On the Miss California Outstanding Teen Local Judging criteria page, talent scoring is described as, “Scoring is based on contestant’s skill and personality, interpretive ability, technical skill level, stage presence and the totality of all elements, including costume, props, voice, use of body and choreography.”
The Miss New York Organization describes the scoring at the state completion as, “Judges will look for a combination of skill, excitement and entertainment value. (30% total score)” They go on, “The Scoop: Artistic ability takes discipline and dedication. Both skills are vital to any woman's professional life. Performance also lets us see your ability to express yourself in a heightened form. Expression and communication are key skills for any Miss New York.” Basically, they are looking for the entertainment value, the overall effect. Keep in mind, teens don’t do as many appearances as the Miss contestants do, so Miss contestants often have to think about the marketability of their talent, not just the entertainment value. (Read: Is Technical Skill or Entertainment Value More Important in Pageant Talent?)
Here’s the positive. As I said before, I have seen nontraditional talents coming to the forefront in recent years. Your state and division will play a role in how well this works. Smaller states or states with more progressive tendencies could fare well for nontraditional talents.
Speed painting has seen a recent surge in pageant world. Just search for it on YouTube. Miss Tustin 2014, Emma Foss, won the talent award at Miss California 2014 for her speed painting when she was just 17-years-old.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UxelG6NY1E Speedpainter Jessica Haas competed in both MAO Texas as Miss Texarkana 2012 and MAO Tennessee as Miss Collierville 2013 and Miss Henderson County 2014.
Miss America’s Outstanding Teen 2015, Allie Nault, was a baton twirler.
A Miss University of Oklahoma 2016, Sarah Harris, is also the University of Oklahoma's Feature Twirler. She twirled for her talent and won Rookie Talent, Overall Talent and 4th Runner-up at Miss Oklahoma 2016. Myrrhanda Jones, Miss Florida 2013, won preliminary talent and 3rd Runner-up to Miss America 2014 despite tearing her ACL and MCL during rehearsals. She wore a bedazzled knee brace and flats during the Miss America 2014 telecast. Arizona has sent multiple baton twirlers to Miss America, including Katherine Kennedy (2004), Savanna Troupe (2009) and Katelyn Niemiec (2016, Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen 2009). Miss Minnesota 2015, Rachel Latuff, performed a ribbon dance routine.
Miss Alabama 2015, Meg McGuffin, performed a dance to the soundtrack of The Matrix in a contemporary en pointe dance routine and placed 4th Runner-up at Miss America 2016. Miss New York 2013, Nina Davulari, was crowned Miss America 2015 after her Bollywood Dance.
Miss Puerto Rico 2015, Destiny Velez, played drums. Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen 2015, Jessi Gradillas won preliminary talent and 3rd Runner-up at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen 2016 with her vocal/guitar talent.
Miss Colorado 2015, Kelley Johnson, wowed the world with her monologue and placed 2nd Runner-up at Miss America 2016. Miss Arizona 1964, Vonda Kay Van Dyke, won the Miss America 1965 crown with a ventriloquism performance. Miss Ohio 2014, Mackenzie Bart, was also a ventriloquist. She won the preliminary talent award and placed in the Top 10 at Miss America 2015.
Out of the Box
Miss Vermont, Alayna Westcom, created “elephant toothpaste” in her Miss Frizzle-esq science presentation talent. Miss California's Outstanding Teen 2016, Jenna Tower, performed a roller-skating disco routine to "Car Wash." Laura Der, Miss Greenbrier Valley 2016, performed a volleyball routine at Miss West Virginia 2016. Laura shared her thoughts on the Miss Greenbrier Valley Scholarship Organization Facebook page.
"I am a firm believer in adventure. I say pursue what sets your soul on fire, and never take no for an answer. I am only one voice, but I have a strong voice, and I am a Girl on Fire. In June, I competed for the title of Miss West Virginia. And although I walked away without a shiny hat on my head, my purpose never faltered. I made history that weekend, becoming the first woman to ever play a sport for a Miss America talent. Change is hard. And it doesn’t happen overnight. But it takes one person to step out and stand up, and I had the opportunity to do that. Five years from now, ten years from now, a change in perception is going to happen. Because I had to courage to do it first. My talent video went viral, and I received comments from young women and parents from all over the country. A little girl watched my video and said 'Mom, I can do that too.' And to me, that is worth infinitely more than a crown ever could. I was able to impact more young women and empower them to face the change, to understand they are not defined by what others think they should or should not be, and to break down the barriers of what people say they cannot do. Things I never needed a title or crown to do. And the moment you see here is one I will never forget as long as I live.During my final walk, I carried a volleyball with me. There were 40 contestants backstage cheering/screaming support for me, and I received an overwhelming response from the crowd. I didn't do this for me, I did it for them. To the little girl with the glove on your hand or the cleats on your feet, you can be Miss America too."
Click here to watch her performance. Miss Del City 2016 and The Pageant Planet’s Queen of Fitness, Victoria Jameson, did an aerial silks performance at Miss Oklahoma 2016. You can watch the video here.
While many talents have been unique and have gotten girls to the state competitions, the top performances as Miss America are often still the traditional feel but may have nontraditional elements.
Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014 and Kira Kasantsev, Miss America 2015 both brought nontraditional elements to their traditional pieces. While Kira did sing, her unique choice of a red plastic cup as her accompanying instrument made her stand out from the crowd of other singers. Nina’s bright, traditional costume with her cultural dance stood her out among the other traditional dancers. Kira was photographed throughout her reign playing with kids with a cup in hand and Betty Cantrell, Miss America 2016, has performed, “Let It Go,” so many times during her reign that I’m sure no parent envies her one bit. But her powerful voice and solid technique makes it possible for her to be able to transform into Elsa the second a child asks. Kelley Johnson, Miss Colorado 2015, became the relatable contestant in the group with her monologue. America wanted to know more about the tall, blond nurse and her onstage question answer made her even more loved by the audience last September.
While Miss USA doesn’t have a talent portion, Miss USA 2015, Nia Sanchez, was often seen barefooted teaching self-defense during her appearances. She is a martial artist. So when you are deciding, should I go all out or play it safe, consider your brand. Is this you? Can you make this something and share it with the world? Figure out a way to spin your talent just as you would you platform. How does this talent help elevate the title, the pageant, and you? If it doesn’t do anything for those brands, then pick something different. Make sure it speaks to exactly who you are and what you stand for, that way, crown or no crown, you can walk off that stage with your head held high and not look back and say, “what if?”
Her tip is: "Remember you are fearfully and wonderfully made.”Learn More