San Francisco Miss Teen 2012“Judge a teen beauty pageant?” I asked myself. “Could I really do such a thing?” I have long been a critic of such shameless acts of self-promotion but as an image consultant, I am always looking for new learning experiences and what better way to get into the heads of young women and girls than to participate in judging them I reasoned. I quickly discovered that this was a “pageant with purpose” and perusing the Miss Teen San Francisco 2012 website gave me a deeper insight into what it means to the girls who participate in this particular pageant. I watched the videos posted of the winners from past contests, they seemed so genuinely real, not the fake-like pageant robots I had been expecting. More importantly, they expressed how self-confident they became because of their pageant experience.

So I signed on and hightailed it down to South San Francisco for the first day of interviewing. The day of interviews was to be followed by a day of pageants, fashion shows and live, on stage interviews with the contestants. First, I had to meet the other judges and our judge coordinator Jennifer!

To say I was impressed with her and the other judges would be a bit of an understatement. These judges included photographers, business owners, hair technicians, makeup artists, youth pastors and body painter - and me - a certified image consultant! We were a very qualified team indeed to judge the merits of these girls who were quickly lining up to begin the interview process with us.

Alex (my co-judge) and I were assigned the junior-teens (age group 13 to 15) and were sent off to begin the first of fifty 3-minute interviews. Alex and I had never done anything like this before and I prepared myself with a list of short questions to ask each contestant. As each girl came in for their one-on-one with us we looked for the qualities Jen had told us to look for 1) Poise, 2) Composure and 3) General Atmosphere (presence and strong non-verbal communication). What a fun time we had.

The girls impressed us immensely but three minutes just did not seem long enough to get to know them. We heard of high accomplishments - swimmers, sports stars, musical prodigies, star students and on it went. It was clear to me that these girls were about much more than external beauty. And, although many of them were very pretty indeed, we were instructed to look for sparks of personality instead of focusing on looks. I must admit that judging on a scale of 1 (lowest and least impressive) to 20 (most impressive) on poise, composure and general atmosphere was difficult to do!

And exhilarating! Interviewing fifty very interesting and enthusiastic girls gave me such a thrill. I was excited at the prospect of seeing them on the stage and could hardly wait to get to the next venue. The next day, in the warm sunshine, I made my way to Chabot College, the setting the three more rounds of judging - Casual Wear - where contestants are judged on their interpretation of personality (or hobby) through casual dress, their walk and their non-verbal communication style (poise, eye contact, posture, smile to name just a few). Formal Wear - the girls could dress to the nines and would have to answer a question posed to them by “Lee” - the wonderful master of ceremonies.

However, before all that could happen, we judges had a meeting with Susie - the pageant coordinator (and, I found out, a pro at these pageants) and all around nice lady! She explained how things would be working and put us all at ease. We found our places at the judges table (a bit intimidating, as we were right below the stage and with our backs to the audience). A good thing, I thought, since I did not want to make eye contact with Moms whose daughters were not chosen!

Then the show began - 600 parents sitting in the audience and over 181 young women presenting themselves (many for the very first time) on stage for review!

First up were the Junior Pre-Teens. These girls were ages 7 to 9. Talk about adorable. One girl donned her ballet outfit; another dressed in her soccer uniform. They were cute beyond belief and I found myself laughing with joy just watching them walk across the stage, some full of confidence, others painfully shy and moving as quickly as they could to get out of the spotlight.

Next came the slightly more confident Pre-Teen girls, the 10 to 12 year olds. I noticed girls dressed as boxers, ballet dancers and gymnasts! The next group on stage was the even more confident Junior Teens (13 to 15 year old) with more composure and grace. One girl impressed me by walking across the stage and back entirely on Pointe in her ballet shoes!

Finally, the very confident, slightly over dressed Teens (16 to 19 year old) group took their place on stage. Here we saw fashion mixes and funky accessories, playful and whimsical outfits that had style signatures! These girls were the most confident of all the age groups but still a few were painfully shy. One girl clutched a bible as she walked the stage and one clutched pom-poms! Overall an impressive mix of personalities and looks.

My program stated that next up was “Formal Wear - a chance for the your ladies to show how beautiful they really are” - and thus began a gorgeous parade of formal evening gowns and high heels (except for the younger group who stuck to flats mostly). I have never seen so many towering heels on stage ever. I was afraid they might trip and fall but they all maintained their composure! Again, the different age groups came out to be scored and judged and once again, I was treated to such entertaining personalities. It was becoming harder to judge each one since they all seemed so interesting to me. Each contestant had to answer the questions - what do you want to be when you grow up, and why? One young woman answered, “When I grow up I want to be a singer, because as a singer you can sing about what matters to you. It’s all about me!” she said and the whole audience laughed loud and long! As they, say “out of the mouths of babes” (comes the most unintentionally entertaining words).

Then it was time for us judges to get serious and pick our top ten from the age group we were assigned. This was hard. I liked so many of the girls and trying to decide which one to favor over the others really came down to General Atmosphere (an all around charm). Alex and I shared comments and talked about whom we felt really exemplified and embodied this element and still, we had a hard time choosing our top ten.

Once all judges’ top ten selections were complete, the girls were asked back to the stage to answer one final question from a sealed envelope. Once more, we were treated to the most charming answers ever. As each girl finished her session, a loud roar from parents and friends erupted in the audience behind us!

I thought this thrilling evening would never come to an end. I was really enjoying the pageant and seeing the girls in their beauty, seeing their confident smiles, poses and walks. Then we were asked to score our final choices. For me it was hard to decide between two girls in my assigned age category - they both were extremely charming, well spoken, poised, intelligent and impressive. I could not help but reflect on the fact that when I was their age I, in no way, was doing as much extra-curricular activity as they were. One girl at the top of my list had a music scholarship set up at Stanford. She was a classic jazz saxophonist at 15!

With a drum roll (well, not really, but in my mind) the runners up were ready to be announced. Susie went running for stage right and I could see a wall of three foot high trophies in front of her - ah, the trophies! Red enameled pillars topped with a gold urn topped with a winged woman, arms outstretched and held high in victory.

If nerves could speak what they would have said by looking at us judges, all of us were holding our collective breath. The curtains parted, raised, and standing before us in all their dressed up beauty stood 181 young women in their finest. It truly was an awe-inspiring moment. Then the four runners up from each age group were announced and as they made their way stage front to take their bow, receive their sash and pageant award they stood still, shining and smiling, happy and relieved. Now it was time for the place to erupt in applause and cheers as parents, overwhelmed with joy at the victories, screamed words of love and encouragement. I did feel badly for the girls who didn’t make the final top five, but, they know as I know, that they are still winners having they made it through their first pageant and taking a significant step toward higher self-esteem.

Making my way back stage for photographs, I was immediately struck by how confident the winners looked. I thought, “These are not the same girls I met yesterday.” It seemed to me they had changed overnight. And that is what these new experiences are all about; empowering young girls to go for it, to feel confident with who they are, giving them the message that it is not about looks but about authenticity. Yes, they were being judged on their looks; however, we judged them more on what they were like. I liked all of them and I liked the entire process of this “pageant with purpose.” I will never forget it and I know they never will either.

By the way - during the pageant I took an informal count of the reasons the girls gave for “Why I Entered” - here are the very interesting results:

To Gain Confidence - 59

To Make Friends - 51

For the Experience - 34

Performance Experience - 3

Scholarship - 1

To Do My Best - 1

Grace and Poise - 1

Something New - 1

Pageant Experience - 1

To Have Fun - 1

Improve Speaking Skills - 1

Modeling Experience - 1

Build Self Esteem - 1

For Career - 1