Miss AmeriCARA

My relationship with Miss America 2018, Cara Mund (North Dakota), began in September 2015, almost exactly two years before she was crowned.

I was getting ready to teach my first class at Brown (called “Beauty Pageants in American Society”) and before the semester began I reached out to pre-registered students to see if any of them wanted to attend the Miss America 2016 pageant in Atlantic City. Cara was one of the students who signed up. At the first class I learned that she had been North Dakota’s Outstanding Teen in 2011 and that she had already competed at Miss North Dakota.

Three days later we met up in Atlantic City, where we saw Betty Cantrell crowned Miss America 2016– and much more interesting (to me) the return of Vanessa Williams to the Miss America stage.

Bottom picture taken at Miss America 2016 in September 2015, top picture taken at Miss Rhode Island 2016

A few weeks later when Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle came to seminar to talk about her book Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain, Cara was one of the students reporter Steve Klamkin spoke to at the end of class; she was quoted in this article (and stay tuned for more from this interview).

Can you spot the two Miss Americas here?!

For the rest of that academic year I advised Cara as she worked to graduate with Honors from Brown (which is not something most undergraduates do at Brown given the increased workload). When I found out she would be competing at Miss North Dakota that year I wanted to go– I’d never been to North Dakota and I’d never seen someone I personally know compete. I had an amazing journey across the gorgeous state of ND (the Badlands, Medora Musical, and Salem Sue were particular highlights) and was thrilled when Cara did a superb job on the stage at the pageant, where she finished as first runner-up. She swept nearly every category (including the biggies of interview, talent, and platform) and I could see why. Her talent was very strong and she was very charismatic in her on-stage presentation.

With one year of eligibility left, Cara knew she had to give her dream one more shot. After interning in DC for one of her U.S. Senators, she returned home to Bismarck to get ready to compete at Miss North Dakota 2017. Focused on her goal, Cara worked to get ready, giving it everything she had. When she was crowned in June I watched on Facebook Live and screamed while watching in my PJs in bed. Immediately I knew that there was no way I wouldn’t be in Atlantic City this year!

In the meantime, I judged Miss America’s Outstanding Teen in Orlando in July, where my boys got to see Cara during the competition, though I didn’t…

Once the competition concluded we got to meet up and talk about what was to come in September.

All along I felt reasonably confident that she had a very good chance of making Top 15. I knew she was smart, genuine, talented, kind, and had done serious work on her platform. As she headed off to AC Cara seemed to hit her stride. And the whole time she was in NJ she was calm, taking in every moment, excited to compete at Miss America. I knew she performed well in the first two nights of preliminaries, and when I made it for the last night of prelims I saw her absolutely nail her onstage question (about integrating her platform work on Make-a-Wish with the national platform of Children’s Miracle Network hospitals).

She was on some people’s short lists, though I don’t always put much stock in prognostication because no one can see the 10- minute judges’ interview, which is so crucial. That said, several pageant people, especially Executive Directors who I have judged with before, saw her making the cut, which bolstered my confidence.

By Saturday evening I upped my confidence level to 75% (having to do with TV production especially). That said, I was a *wreck* all day Sunday. As I kept reapplying deodorant I reflected that if I was this nervous for Cara, how would I ever survive my kids doing something high stakes. I couldn’t imagine how Cara’s mom felt!

So, based on my pageant knowledge I had her in Top 15 and I knew that if she did make the cut she would make Top 10 because her pageant talent was very strong and it would be on TV. After that though, pre-show, I wasn’t sure. With the separate celebrity panel you just don’t know what can happen (the year Cara went to Miss America with me there was a double prelim winner who didn’t go far in front of the new panel). Once the show started and she came out in the opening production number I did get a chilling premonition that she could win the whole thing. It sounds so silly, but the way she was waving and smiling, and engaging with the audience read as very “Miss America” to me (I didn’t voice this to anyone though, and her aunt sitting next to me said before the live show started that she really thought she was going to take the crown).

The only time I was truly nervous the whole night– I actually texted my husband that I might throw up– was when she wasn’t called until spot #14 into the Top 15. If you can find me in this screen shot my husband took you will get some clue about how excited I was. I was relieved on many levels– most importantly for Cara as this was the fulfillment of a big goal, and for myself that I hadn’t completely misunderstood the system!

I was right that she would do her talent, and because she went third, I had some time to reflect in Convention Hall. Cara’s talent went so well that I then felt sure she would make the Top 7. And new this year was a “personality” question before the cut to Top 5. If that went well I knew the judges would be on her side, that she’d speak well and probably move on to Top 5. Whoa!

I can say sincerely that once Texas was called as fourth runner-up, I knew she’d won. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life to just go nuts screaming and yelling and saying “Oh my God!” over and over again as she was crowned and walked down the runway. Even though I had a raspy voice until the Thursday after, I wouldn’t change a thing.

My husband, who had never watched a pageant before we started dated, watched the whole thing back at home. He even recorded his reaction during crowning, which included, “Wow, this just got real.” After, he launched into his statistical explanation of the cuts, which pretty much sums up our relationship, and which I made him email me: The revelation of information follows a very interesting “U-shaped” pattern at Miss America. The first cut is a very sharp cut – from 51 contestants down to the top 15 – so that (from a naive perspective) the odds are not that great for any given candidate to make it. More than 70% of contestants are eliminated in this first cut. But once a contestant makes the top 15, the fraction of candidates cut in each round shrinks dramatically. Just 20% are cut after swimsuit (3 of 15), 16% after evening gown (2 of 12), 30% after talent (3 of 10), and 28% after the personal question (2 of 7). As a result, a candidate can make it from the top 15 into the top 5 without any great surprise, as each cut is a relatively high probability. “Sure she wont be cut after swimsuit,” you say, since 80% of candidates make it to the next round. So before you know it, a candidate has made the top 5, where once again the odds become much lower, since only 20% of them (1 of 5) wins the crown.

The rest of the details of that evening can be saved for another time, but I finally got to see Cara around 2 am in Miss America’s suite. It really sets in then that a new path is set for the winner for the next year, and beyond (especially when security tells everyone they have thirty minutes and then they’re gone).

I had so much adrenaline that I didn’t sleep until 4:45 am, and then only for a few hours before I made the drive back to Rhode Island. Along the way I spoke with some reporters. Steve Klamkin called and I did this radio interview, which is worth a listen for the last minute, where I guarantee you will get goosebumps if you listen to the old interview he dug up from 2015.

Because I’ve let this experience marinate a bit, I’m less giddy than I was for the first week after (though you can get a sense of that from my social media posts). My feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and relationship hasn’t dimmed at all. I’m loving following Cara’s travels and I can’t wait to welcome her back to Providence at some point this year.

And let’s just say that when I do teach Beauty Pageants in American Society again, I may now have an in with another Miss America… 😉

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