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Artist Profile: Miss America Madison Marsh on Serving the Nation in Boots and a Crown

Madison I.R. Marsh donned yet another hat this January — the Miss America crown.
Madison I.R. Marsh donned yet another hat this January — the Miss America crown. By Courtesy of Houston McCullough
By Marin E. Gray, Crimson Staff Writer

A 2023 Air Force Academy graduate with a degree in physics, current student at the Harvard Kennedy School, 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force, and graduate intern at Harvard Medical School, Madison I.R. Marsh donned yet another hat this January — the Miss America crown. Marsh is the first active-duty military member to be crowned Miss America and the second Miss Colorado to secure the national title.

Despite stereotypes that threaten to confine her as either a Harvard student, military member, or a pageant queen, Marsh hopes to prove that her identities are far from mutually exclusive. Marsh spoke with The Harvard Crimson about what it means to be Miss America in 2024.

“I can serve as a 2nd Lieutenant, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that I can also be Miss America. They actually build each other,” March said.

Miss America 2024 is just as multifaceted as the women she inspires, and Marsh sees her multiple backgrounds as enabling her to be a better leader, as she represents the diverse women in America.

“I’m the first active duty military member — and that obviously comes with a lot of stereotypes, both on the pageant side and being in the military,” Marsh said. “Being in both of those roles at once hopefully opens up doors for other women.”

Marsh sees a particularly productive overlap between these roles in her work with the Whitney Marsh Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to pancreatic cancer research and awareness she founded in honor of her mother, who died of the disease in 2018.

“By being Miss America, I’ve gotten to go share my mom’s story on national television. I’m getting to work with some of the largest pancreatic cancer nonprofits in the country,” Marsh said.

Miss America has also added a new partnership with the American Heart Association in support of their Go Red for Women initiative, which works to improve women’s heart health. As Marsh honors her mom through research for early detection of pancreatic cancer, she noted that she also gets to recognize her mom’s active lifestyle as she works with the American Heart Association.

“I get to have the American Heart Association work alongside me not only on the military front, but also [for] pancreatic cancer to honor my mom — to honor the strength and passion and drive that she had to continue working out even when times were tough,” she said.

In service of the new partnership with the American Heart Association, the Miss America program recently reinstated a fitness segment within the competition. To Marsh, this new addition is yet another empowering convergence between her military and Miss America roles.

“For the military, obviously, our fitness isn’t about looking good. It’s about being prepared to take care of people that serve alongside us,” Marsh said. “Being able to share that message as Miss America is really important.”

Just as Marsh embodies the modern role of Miss America 2024, the competition itself is now a far cry from its beauty pageant origins a century ago.

“The Miss America opportunity is all about intelligence, passion, service, leadership — those are the first things that I think, far before I ever think of what a woman looks like,” Marsh said.

As the organization has adapted to contemporary relevance, the fitness competition wasn’t the only addition to the Miss America national stage this year — for the first time, contestants were given the option to deliver a “HER Story” during the talent portion.

“They wanted to add in a piece for storytelling, because they understand not every woman can play an instrument or sing. And there’s obviously an art in storytelling — that’s what has kept a lot of our history alive,” Marsh said. “They wanted to afford that to every young woman, so people weren't getting left out of scholarships because they couldn't do some of those more conventional talents.”

Marsh performed a powerful HER Story speech for her talent, recounting the fears and lessons from her first solo flight as a pilot at the age of 16.

“Whether I’m seated in the cockpit or standing in my crown, I know the sky is not the limit,” she said in her performance.

While Marsh dedicated her talent speech to the skills she’s built through her experiences in the military, she also expressed her gratitude for those she’s gained from the Miss America experience.

“The biggest part of the job is that they really want to give you the skills to prepare you for the next phase of your life,” Marsh said. “Being a title holder, whether it be local or being Miss America, shouldn’t be the best year or best experience of your life.”

Marsh plans to apply her experiences with community service, leadership, and public speaking from the program to her future endeavors beyond the crown. She also earned $70,000 in scholarships toward her educational pursuits during her time with Miss America, which is now one of the largest providers of scholarship dollars to young women in the nation.

Yet even as she serves as a role model as Miss America or soars through the sky as a pilot, Marsh remains grounded.

“You don’t really change much once you win, or at least you shouldn’t. I guess I was expecting to wake up the next morning and feel different, and I didn’t. And I guess that was a good sign that I have my head on straight,” she said.

For the remainder of her year as Miss America, Madison I.R Marsh plans to focus on service, promoting her cause of pancreatic cancer awareness with the Whitney Marsh Foundation and through Miss America’s philanthropic partnerships.

“A big part of my year is obviously serving in my uniform, but also teaching service members how to serve outside of it,” Marsh said. “To go and look deeply into our communities and be able to lift up others.”

—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at marin.gray@thecrimson.com.

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