A funny thing happened on the way to the pageant

When it comes to competing in Miss America 2015, winning the crown is only half the battle. As Hayley Lewis puts it, “it’s a job, not a title.”

Until recently, Lewis and her friend Megan Swanson were two rising seniors at Belmont. Now, they are Miss Tennessee and Miss Nebraska, each representing her home state and university in the upcoming pageant.

Both Swanson and Lewis say attending Belmont helped prepare them for the Miss America pageant. The campus environment in particular was helpful in taking a chance and competing in the pageant, Swanson says.

“The amount of creative and entrepreneurial people at Belmont is a big part of what inspires me. I’m really thankful for the environment and relationships at Belmont because they’re great for those looking to follow their passions,” Swanson said.

For Lewis, Belmont is the place where she learned the leadership skills and respect for diversity necessary for a competition like Miss America. In her time as a student, Lewis served as vice president of the Beltones and the philanthropy chair for Phi Mu.

“Belmont catapulted me into this role. It gave me the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to lead,” said Lewis.

Because of their status as state representatives, Swanson and Lewis are taking the year off from school to make appearances across their home states and prepare for the pageant. It’s kept them busy, to say the least.

Both are preparing to appear on national television. Both are engaged in rigorous fitness workouts. And, true to Belmont form, both are singing for the pageant’s talent section.

But there’s one key detail that puts the jewel in the crown of this pageant.

Contrary to popular belief, Miss America is not just about the glamor, glitz and good looks of the contestants. Evening gowns and swimsuits aside, the young ladies competing are expected to be knowledgeable and well-spoken during a 10-minute interview session with the judges. No questions are off limits.

In fact, Swanson says, the interview constitutes the most critical part of the pageant since the job of Miss America is to be a spokeswoman.

“The pageant is 99 percent interview and 1 percent everything else,” she said. “It’s not about you, it’s about believing what you say. You’re the spokesperson for your platform.”

For this key section of the pageant, each contestant is required to have a platform for which she advocates. According to the Miss America Organization’s website, this is part of Miss America’s tradition of “empowering young women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum in which to express their opinions, talent and intelligence.”

For Swanson, it’s about building confidence from the inside out.

The Omaha, Neb. native is competing with the platform of Total Body Wellness: Spirit, Soul and Body. The idea behind her platform is every person can fulfill their purpose in life by building a foundation of spiritual wellness and gaining physical wellness as a result, Swanson says.

“Whether you’re a male or a female, you were created for a unique purpose,” Swanson said.

This personal philosophy helped Swanson through a difficult period in her life and ultimately influenced her platform, she says.

During her freshman year at Belmont, Swanson had a hard time with the transition into college life. To cope with these changes, she says she began to eat for comfort, which caused her to gain an unhealthy amount of weight coupled with a serious drop in self-confidence.

“The one thing that was trying to control me was what I was doing for comfort,” Swanson said.

By ultimately achieving spiritual wellness and self-confidence within herself, Swanson managed to get back to a healthy weight and made it her goal to help others in a similar manner.

Swanson describes herself as a person of faith and says focusing on wellness of the spirit is what keeps her going as Miss America approaches.

“It’s been a faith endeavor and a walk with the Lord. A year ago I was afraid to stand up and talk for five minutes in church. Now I have no problem speaking for 30 minutes in front of thousands of people and I can use these skills in helping others,” she said.

Personal experience is the main influence behind Lewis’ platform as well. She is competing with Children’s Miracle Network as her platform, which is also the sponsored charity of the Miss America Organization and of Phi Mu.

When she was 4 years old, the future Miss Tennessee suffered a broken arm and was rushed to the hospital. After X-rays came in, the doctors told Lewis’ parents serious damage was done to growth plates in her arm, and she needed surgery immediately.

There was only one problem; Lewis’ parents did not have the money for the emergency surgery. Then they learned of the hospital’s affiliation with CMN, and everything changed for the better, Lewis says.

Children’s Miracle Network covered the cost of the surgery, and subsequently earned a special place in Lewis’ heart.

“My family got to walk away from the hospital debt free,” said Lewis.

Since winning Miss Tennessee, Lewis says her experience with CMN keeps her motivated through the constant traveling and the constant preparations for the Miss America pageant. Aside from advocating for her personal platform, Lewis is also a spokeswoman for Tennessee’s Character Education curriculum as part of her job as Miss Tennessee.

Shedding light on these organizations and the children, she says, is far more rewarding than anything else that happens.

“I have to remember I’m a role model 24 hours a day. As Hayley I can go into a hospital and just be myself, but as Miss Tennessee I can go in and talk to these kids and have them believe me when I tell them they’re special,” Lewis said. “I get to be the voice for children who cannot speak for themselves.”

Regardless of their personal platform, the pageant’s winner becomes a spokeswoman for Children’s Miracle Network. The new Miss America will spend the next year traveling nationally and internationally while speaking for CMN at all her appearances, Lewis says.

“There’s a lot of commitment and time management involved, but in the process, you become an important advocate in raising awareness worldwide,” said Lewis.

The post-pageant year of travel is when Miss America’s real journey begins, says Jeanette Morelan. In 2009, Morelan won Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, the sister pageant to Miss America.

“The most important part is the 364 days you don’t have the pageant,” Morelan said. “It’s a journey of self-discovery. You’re trying to bring joy to as many people as possible, but at the same time you yourself are being transformed.”

Lewis says the most common misconception about Miss America is that it’s a game of which contestant can be the cattiest. But, she says, this idea is purely a stereotype.

In reality, the contestants form a sisterhood.

“They’re the only other people who understand what it feels like to be critiqued 24/7. We might as well build each other up since we’ve all made this far,” Lewis said.

Everyone who enters the pageant is a talented, driven and smart woman, Morelan says. Whether or not you get the crown, each person walks away from their experience changed for the better thanks to the bonds they form with other contestants, she says.

“You go into it with a simple idea of what the pageant is, but when you leave, it’s something that stays with you forever,” Morelan said.

While there’s no getting around the enormity of Miss America, it is critical for the contestants to keep themselves from being overwhelmed by the competition ahead, Swanson says. Seeing and meeting so many people with state pride makes the challenge of preparing fun and enjoyable, she says.

“These girls are amazing, the cream of the crop,” Swanson said. “We’re nervous, but we’re ready for it.”

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