Toeing the tiara line

Why compete in a beauty pageant? Miss City By the Bay explains

Erika Ari Alexandra, 2012 Miss California aspirant

BEAUTY Miss City by the Bay wants one thing to be clear: the Miss California USA 2012 competition is not about clogging, trained pigeons, or sparkly pink batons. Erika Ari Alexandra will be among those representing San Francisco in this year's pageant, but she doesn't need to break out any vaudeville to routine compete. "Special talents are for Miss America pageants. In Miss USA, our community service is our special talent," Alexandra says.

The 23-year old Vallejo woman also insists that the competition isn't just about looks. "It's not just a physical thing," she says. "It's about celebrating all the aspects of beauty — looking at our minds and our hearts and our souls."

At 5 feet, 11 inches and 128 pounds, with flowing locks that complement her svelte frame, this catwalk queen isn't challenging any conventional notions of what looks good. Although this is the first time she'll compete, she's had pageants on her mind since she was young.

"I always saw myself as someone who would be able to use my talent on a larger scale. When I was little, I watched [pageants] on TV and thought 'I could do that,'" the San Francisco State University communications major and aspiring model says.

Alexandra explains that her goal is to gain notoriety and use it as a platform to inspire inner-city youth. She has volunteered for the Mayor's Youth Employment and Education Program and currently works with the Bayview YMCA as a youth and adult tutor. For Alexandra, role-modeling and model-modeling go hand in hand: she hopes the competition will give her the opportunity to "develop a real voice and support what I care about."

If this all sounds like it's toeing the pageant line, it could be worth noting that the Miss USA organization itself — which is owned by Donald Trump and includes the state titles as well as Miss Universe — doesn't specify charity as a prerequisite for donning heels and walking down the runway. Women are rated in just three categories: evening gown, a three-minute personal interview, and of course — swimsuit.

Between now and November's competition, Miss California USA contestants will spend their time fundraising, courting sponsors, and campaigning. According to the organization's website, the goal is to make enough money to cover the $1,700 entry fee — money that recruiter Erik DeSando says covers production costs for the organization. Contestants also solicit sponsors for additional goods and services such as tanning, hair, makeup, manicures — even ball gowns.

Though the organization encourages this type of fundraising, it's technically not required of entrants, and no part of the competition regulates how contestants handle money they do raise. They're equally free to pay out of pocket, or pocket extra donations.

Which means that any contestant who uses her affiliation with Miss USA to save the whales, rather than paint her nails, has gone beyond her pageant-related duties.

Although there's no paperwork to prove it, the consensus is that plenty of contestants secure sponsors who not only fund sparkly bikinis but a bevy of charitable causes. Some women even choose to compete under titles like Miss Muscular Dystrophy or Miss California Innocence Project to raise awareness for these causes. Most Miss California competitors, like Alexandra, claim a title based on a city, county, or landmark.

One might well ask: if contestants truly care about the causes liberally sprinkled over their resumes, why don't they dispense with the pageantry and dedicate themselves to saving the rainforest or promoting animal welfare?

Erik DeSando, who counsels contestants from California to New York City, says that his competitors have used the pageant not only to raise thousands of dollars, but to effectively create a "personal brand" with clout.

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