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How to Compete in a Pageant Following a Tragedy

Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas 2013, made headlines when she chose not to cover up her tattoo on the Miss America stage. Photo: theblaze.com
Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas 2013, made headlines when she chose not to cover up her tattoo on the Miss America stage. Photo: theblaze.com

In the last few months, our world has faced a number of tragedies – some natural and others human-induced.

We have experienced hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, car accidents, shipwrecks, terrorist attacks, protests, mass shootings, gang violence, domestic violence, disease diagnoses, miscarriages, divorces, breakups, bankruptcies and job losses.

Each day brings a new tragedy, but it also brings new hope and possibilities.

Three weeks ago, the United States lost 58 of its own in the largest mass shooting in modern US history (59 including the gunman).

That Sunday night, I was scrolling through Facebook when a friend from 5th grade posted about the shooting. Just a few hours before were photos of her and another friend from high school at the concert. Not long after, the 11 o’clock news began reporting on the incident. At this point, the count was just two dead. Thankfully, my friends were safe.

But this was not the only time in my life I have been faced with a tragedy and uncertainty. The eerie feeling I got while watching the news took me back to 2001 when I was staring at the TV screen waiting for my Dad to call. He was on a flight out of Virginia on September 11, 2001. Twenty-two years in the Army and I had never wanted the phone to ring as badly as I did that morning. It did ring, but to this day I can’t stand hearing the phone ring.

Almost a year to the day later, I was babysitting three kids the night their dad was shot and killed. Just four months before, he was cheering me on in my very first pageant. The night after the pageant, he was yelling to the neighborhood in a boisterous shout like he did every Sunday cheering on the Packers that I should have won and that I would get them next year – and I did.

I drove past the spot where he was killed every morning to school; the street was stained for the longest time. I’d even change lanes when I got to that spot. I still drive past it to this day. But I never want anyone to know the feeling I had watching those kids sleep that night knowing their Dad wasn’t coming home. The feeling of taking the phone away from his son who knows something is wrong but I can’t tell him what it is or that it’ll be okay.

Unfortunately, many people had the same feeling over the last few weeks.

In 2005, my high school journalism teacher was killed in a car accident. She had the newspaper sponsor me in the pageant my second year for a  behind-the-scenes story. She challenged me as a writer. I found out later she bragged about me to other teachers. So when she passed away, I sat in the hall outside our classroom in tears. She was no longer the adviser, but I was the only one on staff she had been an adviser for.

I became a teacher and challenged my students just like she did me: “You’ll hate me for it now but you’ll understand later.” As we produced a special edition of the school paper for her, there was one story that often came up. The year before, her family had lost their home in a wildfire, and while cleaning up, she found a stack of her students’ papers and still graded them even though people said she didn’t have to. She insisted, “They did the work, they deserve the grade.” To this day, I still picture the look on her daughter’s face leaving her funeral. It took me until my last Miss America local in 2011 to not burst into tears when asked, “Who, other than a member of your family, do you look up to and why?” Instead, the judges were crying (and yes I cried writing this).

In 2013, I was subbing at a high school 10 miles from the Moore tornado in Oklahoma. Quite a few teachers lived in Moore and they left to get to their families while I stayed in the basement with the kids. We watched the news on my cell phone; one kid, familiar with the area, tracked it and helped us know where it was in relation to us. We watched until the signal cut out and we waited. We didn’t know if it would turn. We didn’t know what it would do. The next morning I woke up to a completely different Oklahoma and watched it rebuild over the next three years.

For some reason, following a tragedy, I find myself back on the stage. I competed in my first pageant in 2002, won my teen pageant in 2003, took 2nd runner-up, became 1st runner-up and then took over as queen in 2005. In November 2013, I competed for Miss Oklahoma USA 2014. On Monday morning, following the attack in Las Vegas, I mailed in an application for a local pageant.

Coincidental, yes. But there’s something about being in the wake of a tragedy that somehow opens our eyes to realize we don’t have forever, so why not do what we want to do today?

I will admit, getting on stage and competing is tough following a tragedy. It’s like the scene in Top Gun when the engines lock up after going through the jet wash. It’s major turbulence. But you can get through it. You can do this. You have to get back into the air if you want to soar.

10 Tips to Compete in a Pageant Following a Tragedy

1. Watch the news.

It’s great to know what’s going on, of course. We should be aware of what’s going on in the world. Not only are we asked about current events in pageants, but being aware of more than just what is up in your life makes us good global citizens. (Read: What Are the Best Resources to Use to Study Current Events?)

breaking news pageant planet

2. Turn off the news.

Today the news is 24/7 between television stations, radio and social media. So, turn it off. Yes, see the breaking news, but do yourself and your sanity a favor and turn it off. Let the story develop. Let the reporters find out what is going on and get their facts straight before you get yourself all worked up over false reports and allegations.

The day following Vegas there were mixed reports involving the death of Tom Petty. It was being reported that he was dead before it was ever confirmed and many early reports were taken down because it hadn’t been confirmed.

News used to be key hours of the day, not all the time, so the story could develop and facts could get sorted. Much of what we hear in the preliminary reports as stories are developing on the investigative side is sensationalism.

Be aware of the news but don’t submerge yourself into it; you’ll drown in an emotional pool if you stay tuned in. (Read: 3 Things You Need to Know When Studying Current Events for Interview)

Photo: Hebrewpod101

3. Escape

Do something else other than watch the news and be on social media.

While the story developed last weekend, I watched Frasier on Netflix. Yes, my mind was off and I couldn’t focus on anything in particular, but just watching something from a time when things weren’t so bleak was nice. 90’s shows tend to provide that for me.

You can also read, write, listen to music, go to the gym, take a bubble bath, play video games or anything that will help you relax and get away. (Read: 10 Things Every Pageant Girl Does at the Gym)

escape post it note graphic pageant planet

4. Talk to someone.

In August 2015, I went to the doctor for what would eventually be determined to be an allergic reaction to the mouthwash I had been using (yes, that is possible). Before this was deciphered, I was talking to my doctor about the year I had had. He looked at me an asked, “Have you thought about seeing a psychologist?” I just stared at him and asked why. He said, “You could have PTSD from it.”

PTSD? I hadn’t been to war. I was teaching.

He explained PTSD wasn’t just exclusive to the military but any traumatic event. I told him I’d be fine, I just needed to get hired again. The athlete mentality of, “I just need to get back in the game,” was overpowering. A week later I was rehired and began at my new school. It wasn’t until I was in the position that I realized he might have been right.

I wouldn’t leave my kids alone in the classroom to even go hang something up on the wall outside of it because the year before just turning around a fight could break out. The assistant principal, who filled in at my old school the year before for a week, was telling us about a “fight” that took place the day before among the 5th graders. At the mention of “fight,” my facial expression changed and my heart rate quickened. Recognizing this he immediately said, “No, no, a [school name] fight.” “What is a [school name] fight?” I asked. “They were arguing over who the best Pokemon was,” he replied.

That was it, no fists being thrown, just a louder-than-it-should-have-been disagreement.

I couldn’t look at the T-shirt from the year before without a rush of hesitation as my new school had the same theme as my past school. I didn’t want to wear our school shirt because it looked so similar to the one the year before. I couldn’t look at my old class photo without it inducing anxiety. My teacher bag sat in the same spot and I didn’t touch it until Spring Break 2016. I used a different one.

Yes, I probably should have called my doctor and asked for a referral to see someone. I almost picked up the phone multiple times to do it, but I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to admit I needed help getting over it. I had gotten over plenty before, I thought.

Don’t be embarrassed, though. It’s okay; counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists are here for you.

Talk with a friend you can confide in if you feel more comfortable. There are even national hotlines you can call so you don’t even have to meet someone face to face. There are also apps and social media groups if writing is more your speed.

But, don’t ever feel less than if you need to speak with someone. Figuring out how to talk about it and being comfortable talking about it is a major step in being able to move forward. It took me six years to stop crying in interview over one question; that doesn’t have to be you. (Read: Pageant Question About Who You Talk t When You Are Upset)

Photo: theodysseyonline.com
Photo: theodysseyonline.com

5. Do something therapeutic.

While you try to sort out what to do, do something.

Don’t just sit and mull over it all.

Color, read, watch movies, go for a run, do yoga; do whatever it is you do when you feel anxious about anything and need to do something to keep yourself busy while you wait.

Me? I write.

Following the death of my neighbor and my teacher I wrote. I wrote a lot. If not on paper at first, then I thought about it while in the shower when everything is silent.

Last Monday night, I was holding my head under the faucet washing my hair when much of this article came to fruition. Now, when I stood back up, much of it ran right back out of my head.

I’ll admit, getting my feelings out of my head and onto paper is the hardest and most frustrating part. But somehow, once it is, there is an immediate calm. It still took me a week to finish writing, not wanting to think about it. But, part of me knew it was needed. (Read: How to Relax During Pageant Weekend)

Be patient; grief and understanding is a process. Let it develop and go through the motions.

take time to do what makes you happy pageant planet

6. Do your research.

It is very easy in tragedy to want to blame and to assign blame quickly on anyone and anything you are able to. It’s part of the recovery.

We want to know why. We want our questions answered. But I caution you: it is very easy, while still healing, to become overly emotional and rant when asked a question in an interview or on stage.

However, if you do your research, you will be able to form a compassionate answer in the chaos.

Remember, you are a queen. Imagine if the Queen of England, in the shadow of a tragedy, were to explode on camera in an uproar instead of in a calm, cool and collected manner. Like her, no matter how small your title, you are to be a voice of reason. A level-headed conscious in a world of hot heads. A stone pillar who doesn’t allow any force to bend her, natural or otherwise.

Be armed with every fact, figure and truth available to you to answer the questions posed to you. Be sure to have an opinion and ability to take a side and a stand no matter how unfavorable it may be. Stay true to you. (Read: How to Answer “In Your Opinion” Questions in Pageant Interview)

There is no weapon as sharp as a tongue and no picture of true leadership quite as clear as your actions depict.

keep calm and do your research pageant planet

7. Be alone.

Often following a tragedy, we have a lot of people around us. People offering condolences, suggestions, well-wishes and just their presence. But unless you can be comfortable alone, you can never be comfortable with someone else.

Turn off the lights/try to, and when that’s scary, turn off the sound and just be in the silence with your thoughts. Weigh everything you’ve heard. Put it all together without radio interference from others around.

You may just need the time to sleep and that’s okay. Take all the time you need in the solitude. You’ll be better for it and feel refreshed once you’re able to make heads or tails of what has happened. You need to process it. (Read: How to React if You Don’t Make Pageant Finals)

there is solitude in healing pageant planet

7. Cry.

Yes, cry.

Crying is a good thing. I’m not always a crier. It takes me a long time to cry when something happens. During an event, I immediately do what I can to make others comfortable. Others come first; I’ll deal with me later.

So, if you can’t cry but you feel like you need to, put in a movie that is sure to do the trick. The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and P.S. I Love You will no doubt get me every single time! Sometimes a commercial will do it too. The Clydesdales bowing at New York City or the “Don’t drink and drive because your dog won’t understand why you didn’t come home” ones will have me grabbing tissues, and military homecoming videos also always get to me.

Crying is natural, so just like talking to someone, don’t be embarrassed. Let it out. It’s okay. (Read: Is Crying In Interview Okay?)

a strong person pageant planet

8. Find the helpers/be a helper.

There is a wonderful quote from Mr. Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

And how true.

We’ve seen it on the television. We hear the stories of heroism.

Following the 2013 Moore tornado, I heard on the radio heading to work the next day a woman say, “I just want a warm cup of coffee.” That simple luxury, that every morning ritual for so many people, had been taken from her. At lunch, I walked across the street and bought 10 $5 Starbucks gift cards. After work, I went to Target and purchased scent-free laundry supplies, activity books and games and donated it all to the dorms at the University of Oklahoma who had taken people in.

Hearing what I had done, my Dad deposited $200 into my bank account, “To continue the good I was doing.” A few days later, I got an email from a coworker about a church looking for donations of XL+ clothing. I went to Wal-Mart and then drove to the church through the rubble. They had plenty of clothing in other sizes that had been donated, so when I opened the back of my car and they saw the bags, they were in tears. I also picked up batteries for search and rescue, dog food and a fan for an animal shelter.

When it comes to 9/11, I remember the firefighters and police officers covered in dust.

When I think of the Boston Marathon bombing, I remember the people carrying the injured to safety.

When I think of the Pulse Night Club, I picture the people helping the injured.

When I remember Moore, I remember all the people who went out to help and the OU Football team playing with the kids in their front yards with piles of debris on the street to be picked up and disposed of.

When I picture the hurricanes of this summer, I picture the people in boats, helping their neighbors and animals to safety.

I can’t donate blood, but I can donate my time and my resources to help someone in need and that is what so many people do in the aftermath of a tragedy. Remember that and be that.

In the wake of a tragedy, you just might find your platform or something you can be equally passionate about. Imagine if Malala allowed her tragedy to silence her. Would we know her today?

“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi once said. (Read: How to Turn Your Passion Into A Successful Pageant Platform)

when I was a boy mr rogers pageant planet

9. Watch the news, now.

In the season one finale of The West Wing, the President’s motorcade is fired upon. In episodes one and two of season two, we learn that Josh Lyman, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, has been critically wounded. Ironically, I had just re-watched these episodes over the weekend of the Las Vegas shooting and in them, while briefing the White House Press Corps, Press Secretary C.J. Craig reads off the names of other gun violence victims throughout the country the same night as the shooting.

It’s easy to get tunnel vision in a tragedy, but remember, other things, other events and other tragedies took place. While one may have a broader impact, no one incident should be made less significant when in conversation with others who may have been affected.

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” (Read: Pageant Questions About the Nicest Thing Someone Has Ever Done for You)

Photo: womenosophy.com
Photo: womenosophy.com

10. Forgive.

The hardest thing in the world is to forgive.

“Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace,” said Jonathan Lockwood Huie.

If you continue to question, dwell and allow yourself to be wrapped up in the tragedy, you will forever be pushed down and consumed like Te’Ka in Moana after her heart was taken by Maui.

Instead, forgive, move forward and find happiness. Don’t allow the actions of one to keep you from enjoying moments with many.

This year, despite the hurt I had experienced in 2014-2015, I purchased $100 in school supplies for the school I taught at my first year. Additionally, I donated $50 to my co-teacher I worked closely with that first year for her DonorsChoose project; after all, our second graders from then are now her 5th graders! I still believe in the mission they are striving to make come true, and even though I was unable to be there to see it come to fruition, a few people I worked with while there are still fighting for it and have seen the changes. But for a long time, I was Te’Ka when just thinking of teaching. But thanks to the experiences I have had since, I have my heart back and am much more like Tefiti now. (Read: 6 Things to do When You Age Out of Pageants)

forgive others pageant planet


I am not a mental health professional in any way, but I certainly hope that my experiences and the steps I take when faced with a tragedy can help you through yours even in just a small way. It’s one day and one step at a time – just like our journey to the crown. (Read: The Most Comprehensive Pageant Checklist and Training Timeline on the Planet)

Going Forward

Tragedies are hard to overcome. Just look how long Shakespeare’s tragedies have lasted. They’ve even been made into Disney movies (with much happier spins, but Hakuna Matata).

We don’t know why bad things happen or why they always seem to happen to good people, but we can find positives in them.

When my grandmother died, I went with my grandpa to the store to buy beer for the after funeral get-together with the family. At 10 years old I asked, “Why do we always have beer at parties?” He said, “This isn’t really a party…” Then he paused and smiled and said, “Well, I guess it kind of is…Because we’re celebrating.” That was the first time he had smiled in over a week. The next day, following the service, back at the house, my entire family was smiling. They were laughing, telling stories, drinking and yes, they were crying. But they were all happy tears. They weren’t remembering my grandmother sick and in the hospital; they were remembering her for all the good times they had had with her.

It is always darkest before the dawn. Be patient and wait for the light. In the meantime, remember the good, find the helpers, be a helper and weather the storm together. You don’t have to steer the ship to port alone.

We can’t alter the past, and today is a gift. But tomorrow is the future and it’s ours to make of it what we wish. change the future pageant planet Stay strong and dream big.

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