Chelsea Vuong ’20 is thrilled to be living in Hollis Hall for her freshman year. The dorm’s spacious double rooms provide ample space for her to practice walking in figure eights, she explains. Sometimes, when she has the room to herself, she props two full-length mirrors against the wall and watches herself strut.
Vuong is preparing to walk in venues grander than her makeshift Hollis catwalk. Since she was 12, she has competed in several beauty pageants in her home state of California and, since she came to Harvard, in Massachusetts.
Last week, Vuong was crowned Miss Middlesex County, beaming at a crowd of 300 in a YMCA auditorium in Stoughton, Mass. Now, she’s eyeing the Miss Massachusetts title, which she will compete for in July. If she wins at the state level, she will be on track to compete on the Miss America stage.
Vuong has left some pageants with a crown, others empty-handed. (Her victory at Middlesex County came after a loss at the Miss Boston pageant in February.) Regardless of outcome, there is something of a formula to each show.
In offstage and onstage interviews, she brandishes her knowledge of current events and promotes her platform: empowering homeless youth. For the talent portion of the pageant, she plays classical music—often Chopin—on the piano. For the “swim” and “evening” categories, she models the requisite attire while walking in a figure-eight shape onstage.
“For swimsuit, they’re looking to see how healthy you are, to see if you’re toned, to see if you are exuding confidence even if you are just in a bikini,” Vuong explains. “For evening, it’s about elegance and grace.”
If she wins over the judges, Vuong stands to win thousands of dollars in scholarship money. The Miss Massachusetts title touts a $10,000 prize. The national crown comes with $50,000.
But the competitions are not without their costs. Evening gowns can be priced upward of $1,000. When Vuong competed in local pageants in California, her parents covered travel expenses for driving across the state. Now thousands of miles away from home, Vuong occasionally flies back to California to practice interview questions with Crystal Lee, her mentor and a former runner-up for the Miss America title.
“It’s time-consuming, but it teaches her something she cannot learn from school,” says Vuong’s mother, who signed her up for the Junior Miss Solano County pageant, Vuong’s first, seven years ago. “I really do think it’s worth it.”
On a day-to-day basis, pageant preparation mandates a certain number of lifestyle changes. Vuong begins readying herself for pageants up to four months in advance. She aims to practice piano for an hour and a half each day in Harvard’s music building—but she’s been less fastidious about it since winning the Middlesex title.
Vuong works out regularly, cuts carbs out of her diet, and constrains her daily calorie intake because she “can’t eat certain things” when preparing to model swimsuits. Her Annenberg meal of choice consists of lettuce, chicken, fruit, and water. As she emphasizes repeatedly in our interview, however, securing the crown is about more than just looking good.
“I have to be very on top of my news—I’m constantly reading about the economy, politics, any murders or anything,” Vuong says of her preparation for pageant interviews. In the Miss Boston competition, she was asked to name ways to “erase all homelessness” and found herself unequipped to answer.
“In pageants, there’s still that stereotype where you need to be that perfect person, even if, realistically, there isn’t a simple answer,” she admits.
Although she says that preparation is “stressful,” Vuong insists that pageants offer unparalleled opportunities for confidence-building, travel, and making friends. Titleholders usually make regular appearances at community events and fundraise for local causes.
The broader conversation surrounding beauty pageants, however, is less rosy—and mired in contentious debate.
In a 2014 episode of “Last Week Tonight,” for example, satirical news anchor John Oliver lambasted the Miss America Organization for exaggerating the amounts of scholarship money winners receive. He also critiqued the pageant for promoting values he deemed archaic, emphasizing that contestants must certify that they have never been married or pregnant in order to compete.
“Last Sunday, one of the weirdest annual events on television happened yet again,” Oliver said in the episode, pointing to the visual contrast between a fully-clothed male host and the line of bikini-clad women behind him. “It was very difficult not to think, how the f*** is this still happening?”
Oliver’s criticisms are hardly new. In 1968, the New York Radical Women, a feminist activist group, staged a “No More Miss America!” protest in Atlantic City, throwing high heels and bras into a symbolic “Freedom Trash Can.” In their manifesto, the Radical Women decried the “ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.”
Still, Vuong and others in the pageant circuit maintain that the tradition is an empowering one. Lee says the contestants who win titles embody “the ideals of a modern woman.”
“The thing that people don’t know is that Miss America is about empowering women to get a higher education, to support community causes, and most importantly, to give college students scholarship money,” Vuong says. “It’s more than just walking around in a swimsuit.”
Vuong is careful to draw distinctions between the Miss America pageant and the Miss USA pageant, the latter of which was formerly owned by President Donald Trump.
“The reason I didn’t compete for Miss USA instead of Miss America is because I was very hesitant toward Trump
and the way he ran that organization. He was looking for the tallest girl, the skinniest girl, the girl who looked the prettiest,” Vuong says. “With Miss America, it’s about the girl next door: the girl you can always talk to, the girl you can rely on, the girl who wants to make a difference.”
The Miss USA pageant consists of a two-minute interview, swimsuit modeling, and eveningwear modeling. Miss America contestants have to raise $100 for charity before competing, sail through a 10-minute offstage interview, nail an onstage interview question—and then model swimsuits and eveningwear.
In the search for America’s top “girl next door,” the swimsuit and evening categories are justified by somewhat phrenological explanations. From a quick figure eight walk on stage, Lee says, judges “get a feel for a person’s personality, the choices she makes,” and whether she “lives a healthy lifestyle.” Echoing her mentor, Vuong says a contestant’s bikini body attests to her “willingness to make sacrifices” and “willpower.”
“Pageants are a way to do something different,” she says. “I see it as a more fun way to get scholarship money.”
Although she attributes her confidence to her experiences onstage, Vuong says she was initially hesitant to tell her peers at Harvard about her most time-consuming extracurricular. She feared that people would make assumptions about her career as a “pageant girl.”
“The stereotype is that you are super cocky, you’re only about yourself, you want to look pretty all the time and have a crown,” she says. But Vuong has big dreams beyond sashes, bouquets of roses, and the Miss America stage.
After she competes in the Miss Massachusetts contest, Vuong plans to steel herself for another kind of pageantry, one that is perhaps more familiar to her Harvard peers: the investment banking recruitment process.
“I love finance: Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan,” Vuong says. She has a 400-page guide to investment banking that she plans to tackle once the Massachusetts competition is over. “The more I talk about it, the more I realize I should accept the fact that I am a pageant girl, that I should stand up to it, so I can prove people wrong.”