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By Eric Sean Weld   Date: 5/5/09 Bookmark and Share

Two Smithies Compete for Miss America Title

Though often disparaged as objectifying women, beauty pageants have inspired confidence—and some soul-searching—in two Smith students who will soon vie for state crowns that would guarantee their spots in national competition.

Helen Hua ’10

Gretchen Hahn ’09

Helen Hua ’10, who recently won the crown of Miss Pioneer Valley, is preparing for a run in the Miss Massachusetts pageant in July. Gretchen Hahn ’09, also known as Miss North Haven after winning the Connecticut regional pageant, will vie for Miss Connecticut in June.

If they win their respective contests, the women will be invited to compete in the high-profile Miss America pageant.

“I consider myself a feminist,” said Hua, who won the first pageant in which she competed—a rare achievement. “Sometimes I say, ‘How can I allow myself to do this?’ But I am thinking about feminism through this whole thing. Feminism is about women doing what they want to do—and this should not be on the list of things women cannot do if they’re feminists.”

The pageant experience speaks directly to Hua’s academic interests as an American studies major focusing on the Asian-American experience. Hua, a Chinese immigrant who became an American citizen on September 11, 2001, noted that minority candidates are rare in the Miss America competition.

“It’s intense competing in these pageants,” attested Hua. “It involves a lot of different issues. I feel like these pageants go to the core of women’s insecurities about themselves—acknowledging issues of attractiveness. You have to be very centered with who you are—and I think competing in pageants has helped me with that.”

Preparing for the pageants alone requires a commitment of time and finances as well as an open mind.

For the Miss Massachusetts pageant on July 11, Hua must purchase a new gown, bathing suit, a suit for the interview segment, and an outfit in case she makes the top five. She works out, refrains from eating salt the week before the pageant and doesn’t drink cola (“They make you retain water”), and practices her flute for the talent portion.

Helen Hua reacts to winning Miss Pioneer Valley. (Hua's photos by Tony Crowley.)

“Competing in pageants, and preparing for a crown has been one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life,” admits Hahn. “I have grown so much as an individual since I started competing.”

Hahn, who serves as president for the Smith College Republicans, has aspirations for public office in her home state and sees the pageants as a way to open doors, meet people and gain exposure.

“My confidence has skyrocketed since I started competing,” she said. She recalls recently having to give an impromptu speech for the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans. “For a moment I was nervous, but then I remembered: I have been grilled by judges, I have been asked on-stage questions in front of crowds, and I have paraded in a bikini under stage lights for hundreds of people—this speech will be a piece of cake!”

Competing in a pageant isn’t all glamour, both women will tell you, and may result in precarious circumstances at times.

“There have definitely been moments like, ‘I’m here putting glue on my butt so my bathing suit will stay on—what am I doing with my life?’” says Hua.

For these women, the reasons for competing in pageants are both practical and educational. Hua and Hahn cited the scholarships available to winners, and both took away several hundred dollars from their regional wins.

As they enter the intense stages of preparation for statewide pageants, Hahn and Hua remain aware of the educational path they’ve taken to get there.

“We are a different breed of woman here at Smith, and I think we are the kind of girl that the Miss America organization is starting to turn to,” said Hahn. “We represent the strong, independent, unafraid-to-speak-her-mind, proud-of-being-a-woman girl—a fresh face that the organization is looking for.”

Hua agreed. “Maybe it is time for us to have our first Chinese-American Miss America,” she said.

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