Pageant program goes beyond glitter to stress giving

Megan Rose Thompson, 15, volunteers once a month at Las Vegas Rescue Mission. Her next two weekends in December are booked to help the Las Vegas Great Santa Run and Toys for Tots drive. She also conducts workshops with inner-city youths to help build girls’ self-esteem.

Thompson learned to appreciate benevolence at such a young age through a source that might surprise some folks: pageantry.

She’s part of Team KO, a pageant training group that costs $60 for one-hour sessions to groom girls for the crown-and-sash stage through walk, interview and image tips. But a major component of the girls’ training also focuses on volunteerism. It’s all in an effort to change the image of pageants and the girls who compete in them.

“It’s about making a difference in the community,” says Melissa Arias, Team KO interview coach. “We’re actually trying to build a camaraderie so these girls have a sisterhood behind them.”

Thanks to shows such as “Toddlers & Tiaras,” which produced the polarizing but popular spinoff “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the ideas floating around about pageantry have taken quite the demotion from 30 years ago when the Miss America pageant could compete with Super Bowl ratings.

The perceptions, Thompson says, range from spoiled and vain to dumb and catty. She’s familiar with them because she’s been accused of them. Thompson has been competing in pageants since the age of 6. She joined Team KO to prepare for the upcoming Miss Nevada Teen USA pageant in January despite the backlash pageants have brought on from her high school peers.

Some might even call her pageant participation a form of rebellion.

“Me and a couple girls at my school have come out as pageant girls,” she says. “We don’t care what people think.”

Thompson has her theories about why some students have shunned her for being in pageants. The preconceived notions are one, but she also wonders if kids taught not to be judgmental have targeted her for choosing to be judged – in a swimsuit, no less.

As scholarship-focused as the Miss America Organization is, and as crucial as the interview questions are in the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants, appearance still gets you in the door. To voluntarily participate in something with such an emphasis on a certain high-gloss look has to mean these girls have no depth. Or so the stereotypes go.

Thompson, however, has served enough warm meals to less-fortunate families to realize a true need or tragedy when she sees one.

“It’s a very humbling experience when an adult (at Las Vegas Rescue Mission) asks if you have a small child’s coat and you don’t. And then you go to school and hear kids talking about, ‘Oh my gosh, she has fake UGGs,” says Thompson, referring to the pricey brand-name boots.

It’s gotten to the point, Arias says, where the Team KO girls take all the soaps and toiletries from hotels, when they travel, to bring home to those in need.

Hearing about the less fortunate is much different from seeing their faces, knowing their names and feeling their pain.

When Aaliyah Norman, 17, had her first interaction with a pageant girl, she also had a reality check.

Norman thought pageant girls were all like Miss Teen South Carolina Caitlin Upton whose flubbed 2007 interview answer is still getting hits on YouTube. Norman was ill with Bell’s palsy when Miss Michigan contestant Ashliegh Allen visited her and other patients at St. Rose Dominican Hospital.

“She was so intelligent and caring,” says Norman. “She talked to me for 30 minutes. … The stigmas aren’t real.”

After a knee injury took Norman out of competitive soccer recently, she decided she’d give pageants a try. She will also compete for Miss Nevada Teen USA.

Norman has been training with Team KO and volunteering with the Children’s Miracle Network, which she says has matured her.

“I never realized how expensive the treatments are and how sick the kids are,” she says. “Just helping them smile and raising money to get them better treatments makes you feel good. It makes you thankful, too.”

According to Melanie Thompson, Megan’s mother, there are the do-gooders and there are the crown-chasers of the pageant world. The latter “never show up for community service and never use their crown for good,” she says.

Melanie won’t claim all the negative associations with pageants aren’t valid. She and Megan have been warned in at least one competition not to leave any evening gowns unattended because they “weren’t safe” with the other contestants.

However, her daughter has learned enough to know that “giving back” isn’t exclusive to organized charities. When a pageant contestant recently didn’t have formal shoes to wear with her knee-length cocktail dress, Megan offered her own and went barefoot. Her floor-length gown disguised the good-hearted fashion faux pas.

It all comes back to that sisterhood mantra Team KO teaches.

“They know they might be sitting on a parade float with these girls next month,” says Melanie. “If you don’t have friends backstage, who’s going to spray on your butt glue or help you with your extensions?”

Contact Xazmin Garza at
xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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