Miss America contestants loving Atlantic City, and the feeling is mutual

Miss Georgia Carly Mathis is announced as the preliminary swimsuit winner on the third night of the Miss America competition on Sept. 12. Photos by Steve Smith, www.stevephotographysmith.com.

Miss Georgia Carly Mathis is announced as the preliminary swimsuit winner on the third night of the Miss America competition on Sept. 12. Photos by Steve Smith, www.stevephotographysmith.com.

As Miss America Mallory Hagan prepares to end her 8-month reign and crown her successor, Miss America week is in full swing, with the preliminary competitions complete, and the highly-anticipated finals ahead, in the organization’s triumphant return to it’s traditional roots – both in September, and back in Atlantic City at Boardwalk Hall, where it was from 1921 through 2004.

The contestants said that Atlantic City has “rolled out the red carpet” for them, and there was definitely a sense of the tradition that seemed to pick up where it left off in 2004. Many of the contestants said they were treated like royalty, and that Atlantic City has sprung to life in many ways during their stay.

Miss Missouri Shelby Ringdahl rocks the runway.

Miss Missouri Shelby Ringdahl rocks the runway.

Miss New York Nina Davuluri said that having the pageant close to home was certainly easy for her, but AC has been incredibly welcoming.

Miss Puerto Rico Shenti Lauren performs an African Folkloric Dance.

Miss Puerto Rico Shenti Lauren performs an African Folkloric Dance.

“There’s been a lot of personal attention. They treat us like celebrities,” Davuluri said.

Miss Connecticut Kaitlyn Tarpey said that while there are 53 contestants, each one of them has been treated like Miss America.

Miss Massachusetts Amanda Narciso pauses on the runway in her evening gown.

Miss Massachusetts Amanda Narciso pauses on the runway in her evening gown.

“It’s so cool,” Tarpey said. “Atlantic City has been so receptive, supportive and gung ho about the organization’s comeback. I’m so humbled and proud to be part of this class, because it is so special.”

Miss Rhode Island Jessica Marfeo said the contestants saw a lot of the city, including local landmarks, and there is definitely a sense of Miss America being “home.”

Miss Florida Myrrhanda Jones became a crowd favorite, winning a talent preliminary with two torn ligaments in her knee.

Miss Florida Myrrhanda Jones became a crowd favorite, winning a talent preliminary with two torn ligaments in her knee.

“It feels like this is where Miss America belongs,” Marfeo said. “The people here are so welcoming and generous. It’s amazing how much they care about this organization, and how they’ve embraced us with open arms.”

Miss Virgin Islands Ashley Massiah.

Miss Virgin Islands Ashley Massiah.

“Atlantic City has been electric with excitement for us,” said Miss District of Columbia Bindhu Pamarthi. “Everywhere we go, people are excited and taking pictures of us with their phones.”

Miss Pennsylvania Annie Rosellini (who is from the Pittsburgh area) said the best part about a pageant back in Atlantic City is that a large number of her family and friends will be attending, including at the parade.

“It’s a seven-hour ride, but only a one-hour flight,” Rosellini said. “I’m hoping a lot of people from PA will be there cheering. I feel like in Vegas, the pageant wasn’t exactly cherished. Here, it’s THE big thing going on.”

“Atlantic City is really a dream come true,” said Miss Virgin Islands Ashley Massiah. “This is a one in a million experience.”

“We’ll stay here as long as they want us here,” said Miss Virginia Desiree Williams.

As the judges look for the next Miss America, the contestants’ best sense of what qualities the next national titleholder should have are those possessed by Hagan, including a bigger focus on education.

“I think what Mallory has done this year has really paved the way for the future,” Rosellini said.

“She’ll have to be an intelligent, compassionate and driven individual,” Parmathi said.

“This year is all about being classic,” Tarpey said, “and I think that is going to be reflected in the girl who wins.”

Also, having two sets of judges – one group for preliminaries, and another set for the competition finals – provides a different dynamic, as the second judges will only see what the contestants bring to the stage on live television.

“It’s a fresh set of eyes that are going to come in, and based on swimsuit, eliminate some of us from the top 15,” Parmathi said. “It’s like it starts off as a traditional pageant, but then is more of a beauty pageant on the last night.”

“No matter what the prelim judges see,” Williams said, “ultimately, it will come down to the final ballot on Sunday night, and what impresses them.”

Many said Hagan really paved the way for the next Miss America.

Tarpey said the work with STEM and education in general will be an even big part of the job of Miss America 2014.

“I think they want someone fresh,” Russo said, “who is good at connecting with social media, and with different brands. Although Miss America is relevant to us, we need to make it more relevant to the world.”

“They want someone who can be real, but be professional,” Narciso said. “They want someone who can take the brand farther. They don’t want a stereotypical pageant girl. Someone who is present day, on trend, knowledgeable, talented and beautiful. We have 53 Miss Americas here.”

One contestant who is clearly not of that mold is Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, who made headlines across the country by unabashedly baring her tattoos in the Tuesday night Swimsuit preliminary.

“Whether I win or lose, or make the top 15, I know that I did what I came here to do, which is to change people’s perceptions,” Vail said. “I’m pretty much just being myself.”

Vail said her tattoos are of the Army Dental insignia (on her back), in tribute to her father’s occupation, and the one on her torso is the Serenity Prayer.

“The words say it all,” she said. “’Grant me peace to accept things I can’t change, and to change things I can.’ I think I’m doing that right now.”

Vail added that her on-stage question, in which she touted the fact that she didn’t cover her tattoos, was the high point of her competition.

“I’m known for being blunt,” she said. “I don’t fake anything. I don’t add sugar to anything. When I said I had tattoos and was in the military, and there was applause, that was the high point.”

Miss South Dakota Tessa Dee and Miss Rhode Island Jessica Marfeo are all smiles at the Quality of Life press conference.

Miss South Dakota Tessa Dee and Miss Rhode Island Jessica Marfeo are all smiles at the Quality of Life press conference.

During and right after prelims, the contestants all said they were feeling good about their performances so far, and didn’t see any end of that in sight.

Tarpey said she was well-prepared, but didn’t realize until pageant week how important mental strength was.

“It’s more important than anything else,” Tarpey said. “You don’t know how much you are tested until you get here. We’re sleeping 4-5 hours per night, and performing all day in heels. If you don’t have the mental strength to tell yourself you can do it, you will not succeed.”

“Having a runway back in Atlantic City is insane,” Davuluri said. “It’s huge. I seriously felt like a Victoria’s Secret model walking out on that runway.”

“I’m confident,” said Miss Massachusetts Amanda Narciso. “I have no choice but to represent and rock it out, so I’m excited.”

Miss New Hampshire Samantha Russo won the first preliminary night’s talent competition.

“That was really unexpected, because I think my group is really strong on talent,” she said. “If this is as good as it gets, this is really good. I’m excited [for the rest of the competition] and I am excited to end it with evening gown. That’s my idea of the perfect order of things.”

Miss Connecticut Kaitlyn Tarpey dazzled the crowd with her Irish Dance.

Miss Connecticut Kaitlyn Tarpey dazzled the crowd with her Irish Dance.

Williams played piano, which she studied as a child, but said she has been out of practice until recently.

“When I’ve competed and played piano, I’ve never walked off and thought I had a great performance, but I really felt good about my performance the other night,” Williams said.

While each Miss America class forms close bonds, the “homecoming” of Miss America may be making this year’s group even closer.

“We’re getting very close,” Rosellini said. “You don’t think in two weeks that would happen, but when you’re together 24 hours a day, it does.”

“It doesn’t feel like we’re at the Miss America pageant,” said Massiah. “It feels like we’re sisters, regular family, at home, and just hanging around with each other.”

Tarpey said the contestants were really pumping each other up before interviews.

“We were doing push-ups together,” she said, “dancing, singing, and praying together. It’s really nice to feel surrounded by educated, talented, ambitious girls. It’s hard to meet these girls, and not want to be the best you can be, and to represent them.”

Miss Virgina Desi Williams said she was very happy with her talent performance.

Miss Virgina Desi Williams said she was very happy with her talent performance.

Narciso said there are several “sub groups” or “families” of contestants, as many subsets of the pool are in different hotels, and share different facilities during their stay.

“I have my make-up table group, and my Jitney [transportation bus] crew, and my hotel crew, which are all amazing,” Narciso said. “There are these little groups of girls you really get to know.”

Davuluri said she had heard of the “sisterhood” taking shape for each class of contestants, but was a little skeptical about how true that was.

“It’s been amazing,” Davuluri said. “It’s something you don’t understand until you are in this position. You find your bridesmaids here. It’s so true.”

Davuluri said a bathroom break caused her to miss a pre-preliminary prayer circle with some of the contestants, but Miss Arkansas Amy Crain and Miss Illinois Brittany Smith (with whom she has become close) came to her rescue, forming a smaller prayer circle just before show time.

Miss Minnesota Rebecca Yeh and Miss Oklahoma Kelsey Griswold at the press conference after their preliminary award wins.

Miss Minnesota Rebecca Yeh and Miss Oklahoma Kelsey Griswold at the press conference after their preliminary award wins.

“Those are the experiences we are going to remember,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s like this every year,” said Miss Ohio Heather Wells, about the spirit of cooperation and lack of even the smallest bit of cattiness. She added that she is extremely grateful to have met the other 52.

“I want to find out who all the state judges are, thank every one, and say, ‘hey, you nailed it with every one of us.’” Wells said.

“All the contestants are very helpful and friendly,” Marfeo said. “It’s nice to have that vibe in the dressing room. There is no pressure or nastiness going on. We’re all here for the same reason.”

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