The 2021 Miss New York and Miss New York’s Outstanding Teen Competitions will be held at historic Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill May 28-30. Here, a prominent Westchester business executive and former Miss New Jersey shares her reflections on the world of beauty pageants from a bygone era.
Elizabeth Bracken-Thompson is a partner at Thompson & Bender, a leading communications, PR and marketing firm in the region, based in Briarcliff Manor. She sits on several boards, including Business Council of Westchester, and is married to Geoffrey Thompson, also a partner in the agency.
I was involved in the Miss America Scholarship Pageants from 1971-1975.
It was all quite by accident. Without my knowledge, my name had been entered in the Miss Westchester Pageant by a well-meaning friend from my hometown of Eastchester.
At first, I was against the whole idea, not least because of the term “beauty pageant.” I lacked confidence and was extremely shy. The thought of parading in a bathing suit in front of an audience was completely distasteful to me.
Nevertheless, my loving mother urged me to attend an initial meeting with the Miss Westchester leadership. I’ll never forget her words of support as we entered the room — “Just listen.”
Suddenly, there I was sitting in a circle of about 25 young women, and right in the center was the current Miss Westchester, Kathryn Karlsrud, with her sparkling crown and sash. She had gone on to become Miss New York, and made it all the way to the top 10 Miss America finalists.
I remember being awestruck by her confidence, maturity, friendliness, and her words of encouragement to all of us: “You will never regret entering.” She called it one of the most rewarding experiences of her young life.
It was then that I learned the Miss America Pageant was a scholarship program more than a beauty pageant. Every winner was awarded scholarship money towards their college education.
To my amazement, I won the Miss Westchedster competition, receiving scholarship money, and a chance to compete for the title of Miss New York.
That set me off on my multi-year pageant adventure. Encouraged by the prospect of more scholarship money, I later entered the Miss Rockland County pageant, won the title, and was named second runner-up to Miss New York. Subsequently, I won Miss Bergen County and Miss New Jersey, competing in the nationally televised 1975 Miss America competition, live from the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Among my fellow contestants was actress-to-be Delta Burke (Miss Florida).
Girls of my generation were not permitted to compete in most high school sports or other male-dominated activities. The Miss America system taught me the true meaning of competition and the importance of character and goal setting.
I lost some of my shyness, had a chance to showcase my talent, and meet some wonderful, smart, and talented young women, who were all in college or college bound.
The scholarship money I won helped fund my college education. The lessons I learned from the pageants served as a solid foundation for my academic career, and set me on the right path for my professional career.
The Miss America program taught me beauty comes from within a person and shines through their talent and their personality. Basic truisms that have helped lead me through life were formed during my “pageant” years — how to handle winning and losing gracefully, the importance of preparation and self-discipline, and how hard work can pay huge rewards.
Kathryn Karlsrud was right. The competitions were a wonderful, life-changing experience that I never did regret.