Miss Stafford Pageant Builds Skills, Confidence, Relationships

By VICTORIA FORD | Apr 24, 2019

Manahawkin — The word “pageant” has long conjured fairly predictable imagery: pretty young girls wearing fancy dresses and megawatt smiles. But the mission of the Miss Stafford Pageant – a tradition of the annual Founder’s Day celebration since 1964 – is to cultivate confident, productive young women who care about each other and the community.

Until the early 1990s, contestants paraded down Main Street in high heels and swimsuits, according to Jessica Austin Higgins, pageant director of the last 13 years. When Higgins herself was old enough to participate, the swimsuit portion was replaced by “casual wear,” but the pageant was still all about good looks and bright smiles.

By 2006 when she moved back to Stafford and got involved in the pageant in a leadership capacity, “some significant changes had started to take shape,” she explained. Organizers Ashley Austin and Rose Mercadante were shifting the focus from pretty faces to public service. An essay-writing component asked the girls to write a short, open-ended piece on their character, goals, hopes, hobbies and volunteerism. The essays helped the judges get to know the girls more deeply than they could in just a few nerve-addled moments on stage. Then the essays became factored into the girls’ overall scores.

“It seemed like a great idea to come away from scoring and rating young women based solely on their outer appearance,” Higgins said. “In addition, the onstage question came away from ‘Describe your favorite date and why’ to ‘What types of problems are facing young people today, and how does that affect you?’ and ‘What makes you a good role model for your peers?’ The idea was to attract a larger variety of young ladies to the pageant, especially since society in general has adopted a more ‘girl power’ attitude.”

The question of whether such a pageant is still socially relevant is one Higgins encounters regularly on Facebook from parents and critics who “don’t understand, nor do they want to; they would rather criticize and in some ways even vilify the pageant.”

“Our goals are to promote good morale and citizenship throughout Stafford Township and beyond,” she explained. The pageant enables young women to develop public speaking skills and to meet local dignitaries (the judges) and town officials; to practice critical thinking about their impact on the community and role within it; to express their ideas to a captive audience; and to make new friends. Higgins said building relationships with people and the community is increasingly important as society becomes more individualistic.

“The (contestants) have used the opportunity to step outside their comfort zone and show their family, friends, and community a part of themselves perhaps they weren’t even sure existed,” Higgins said.

The current Miss Stafford is Southern Regional High School sophomore Maddy Brown, a runner, lacrosse and field hockey player, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and avid in-the-shower singer and dancer. She’s also on the junior ROTC drill team. After high school, she wants either to study biochemistry in college or to attend West Point and become an officer in the U.S. Army.

Brown said she was dazzled at a young age by the “the sparkly dresses and the beautiful girls on stage, just being themselves.”

She entered and won the Little Miss Stafford pageant in 2010. After that, she set her sights on Miss Stafford.

Winning the title has meant everything to her, and she counts it as one of the most amazing experiences of her life. “I’ve done so many things that make me step out of my comfort zone, like indoor skydiving, tasting raw conch, and many other things,” she said, “but Miss Stafford was definitely the best one.”

At the initial pageant planning meeting, the contestants and their parents read together and agree to adhere to a code of conduct and set of expectations: participation should reflect positively on the township and self; bullying of any kind will not be tolerated; age-appropriate language and behavior are required. Violations could result in dismissal. (Thankfully, violations have not been an issue, Higgins said, but in the early days of social media, prior to the code of conduct, online bullying was a concern.)

Higgins has watched young women blossom and grow, seen introverts spread their wings and class clowns learn humility. They showcase their inner beauty and learn about themselves in the process, traits of self-awareness, courage, kindness, generosity.

In her role as director, Higgins encourages participants to be genuine and to be their authentic selves – “not to try to be better than the girl next to you, but to be better than the girl you were yesterday. Help when and where you can. Be honest with yourself and others. Share kindness. Stand up for yourself. Explore the world around you and be curious. Learn. Have an opinion. Create goals. Never stop dreaming.”

The girls support and root for one another, Higgins said. “Most say, immediately following the pageant, if they are still eligible they will be back next year. And many do come back, year after year. I have gotten to know them, follow their lives, share their joys and celebrate our unique friendships.” They send pictures of their newborns, invitations to their weddings, college graduations, or simply check in to see how she’s doing.

More often than not, Higgins is asked by outsiders how the pageant concept does or does not conflict with feminist values. She said she identifies as a feminist, “in the sense that when we are all treated as equals, with respect and as equally capable, then everyone succeeds.”

“Empowered women empower others, including men. Empowered women won’t stand for the abuses we see against women, children and men across the globe. We won’t be pushed back, or knocked down, or allow others to be, either. We will showcase our strengths and speak our minds. We will learn from our mistakes and get back up. We will walk across a stage in front of our entire town and show everyone how fierce we are. We will smile, be direct, make eye contact, give a firm handshake and be confident in the choices we make for ourselves.

“That’s my philosophy, anyhow, and if I can help share that with young women in Stafford, regardless of politics, race, religion or sexual identity, then YES.”

Other local pageants, such as those associated with the VFW and Ocean County Fair, have disappeared, Higgins said, due to lack of interest and participation, failure to evolve with the times, poor reputation, and/or an unwillingness on the part of the public “to see the value in celebrating young women in this way.”

Higgins’ message to all young women who dare to dream of earning the Miss Stafford crown: “You are super. You are amazing. You are valid, and strong, and a warrior!”

As far as the types of people drawn to pageantry pursuits go, “some I have met over the years are ‘pageant girls,’ meaning they enter any pageant for scholarship or just because they love dressing up. Others enter Miss Stafford, and only Miss Stafford, for different reasons – maybe because their friends are doing it, maybe because their friends said they wouldn’t do it, maybe because a parent said they wouldn’t, or because they thought they couldn’t. Some do it to have something unusual to put on their college applications. Some genuinely are looking to initiate change in their community, or they just like being in parades, or any other multitude of reasons.”

When Brown first signed up for the pageant, she said, she lacked self-confidence and felt as if she were a “weirdo.” The pageant helped her to find comfort in being herself.

“Of the billions of people on the planet, there’s only one me,” she said. “Winning Miss Stafford showed me that being the Maddy Brown I really am, not who people want me to be, is more than enough.”

The most challenging part of wearing the crown, she said, is meeting the bar set by the previous title holders, all of whom “made a huge impact on our community, and I appreciated everything they did. I had to make my reign unique, to make it my own.” The most rewarding aspect, she said, was attending the township events, such as the Christmas tree lighting and holiday parades.

The current Junior Miss Stafford is Abigail Krill. She didn’t win the first time she participated, when it was the Little Miss Stafford pageant, but her determination never faltered. “When I found out that there was going to be a Junior Miss Stafford, I decided that I wanted try to be the very first Junior Miss Stafford,” she said. “And I won.”

As Junior Miss, Krill has been a part of multiple parades and tree lightings, a ribbon cutting ceremony and other community events. “I even got to give back to the people in my community by organizing a fundraiser for the food bank. That was a lot of work, but it was worth it.”

Her advice to future contestants is “to be yourself, be kind to one another, and be confident in yourself. I would tell them that if they don’t win, don’t give up, come try it again next year. It’s so much fun.”

The girls get together in the weeks leading up to the contest for social and service activities, plus rehearsal.

“This pageant means so much to me,” Krill said. “Everyone was really friendly ,and it was a very positive experience. We all rooted each other on, and it was so exciting to be part of Founder’s Day.”

Higgins said she works hard “to make it a memorable experience for all of the contestants” and that she truly hopes each young lady and her family knows “I have tried my best to make it fun and fair.”

Miss Stafford 2018 Maddy Brown has some advice for would-be contestants or anyone who is even semi-interested.

“Do it, even if you’re ‘just thinking about it.’ Don’t hesitate; don’t second guess yourself. The memories you make with the other contestants are so strong and 100 percent worth it.

“When you write your essays and answer your onstage question, say what you truly think, not what the audience wants to hear.

“Be yourself. There is nothing more beautiful than a confident, yet humble, young lady.

“Don’t be afraid to come to me and ask me a billion questions if you’re nervous, because everyone knows I love to talk, and I’d jump on any opportunity to help a friend!

“Take advantage of this opportunity you have – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

“Most important, respect the judges, respect your co-contestants, and respect yourself.

“At the end of the day, no matter how the day ends, don’t forget your smile!”

Eligible contestants must be year-round residents of Stafford between the ages of 15 and 19. Junior Miss is between 9 and 12 years old and does not have to write an essay. A biography sheet collects basic information such as hair and eye color, hobbies, extracurricular activities and goals for the Mistress of Ceremonies, Judy Brenna, to share with the audience and judges onstage while the contestants show off their casual and formal ensembles.

To keep the pageant affordable, contestants are urged to wear apparel they already own or can borrow or buy secondhand, Higgins said. The event is all-inclusive and does not discriminate on the basis of socioeconomic background, race, religion, or sexual identity.

The free application process begins by calling 609-709-7756 or emailing missstaffordpageant@yahoo.com with name, date of birth, grade, and contact information. Applicants will be notified of meeting dates and provided with information to review.

— Victoria Ford


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