Miss America vs. Miss USA-What's the difference?

One of the questions I am most commonly asked is to explain the difference between the Miss Universe/USA Organization and the Miss America Organization. Many outside of the world of pageants have never paid close enough attention to realize that the two televised pageants were not one in the same. Admittedly, until around six years ago, I’m not sure I could have articulated the difference, so I usually try to keep my explanation simple, as I will do here.

Performing my talent at the Miss Virginia 2013 Pageant.

Performing my talent at the Miss Virginia 2013 Pageant.

The most distinct difference between the two pageants is that the Miss America Organization requires that each contestant compete in a talent portion of competition, which is not a category of competition in the Miss Universe/USA Organization. As Miss Virginia, I performed on the piano for this phase of competition.

Other than talent, the phases of competition are the same: personal interview (though the length of the interview differs), lifestyle and fitness in swimsuit, evening gown, and on stage question. The other notable difference is the age range of the competitors. The upper age limit in the Miss America Organization is 24 (at the time of the national competition), while the upper age limit in the Miss Universe/USA Organization is 28.

Notice the perfect face and hair that  IS  Olivia Culpo

Notice the perfect face and hair that IS Olivia Culpo

Now, I have to discuss the unwritten subtlties that distinguish one pageant from the other. While this year the Miss USA competition over-emphasized its desire to be 'more than beauty,' the pageant has traditionally been about three key characteristics:  face, body, and hair (in that order). Essentially, in the Trump-era of Miss USA, the organization was in search of a smoking hot chick!

On the other hand, Miss America does not have to be beautiful, but rather just "attractive." The minimum aesthetic appearance of Miss America was once described to me as, "you can squint your eyes, turn your head sideways, and see a semblance of beauty."  In other words, Miss America does not have to turn heads. The Miss America Organization often refers to its winner as the girl next door, which sometimes translates to plain. Other times, you may have to squint to recognize aesthetic appeal, forcing judges to emphasize a contestant's accolades or personality. 

Miss USA winners are (generally speaking) taller, thinner, and more glamorous, while the traditional Miss America is generally more educated and conservative.

As the third woman of color in history to wear both state titles and compete at both the Miss USA and Miss America Pageants, I can say that the two experiences were completely different, but both equally rewarding.  

Competing in swimsuit at Miss America in 2013

Competing in swimsuit at Miss America in 2013

Competing at Miss USA in 2016

Competing at Miss USA in 2016

The Miss USA experience was arguably more glamorous; days consisted of filming for social media, photo shoots, and pounds of hair and make up.  Looking great at all times was essential, and rehearsal was often more of a fashion show than a choreography rehearsal.  Meals were spent on Snapchat to share our perfectly-tamed hair and strategically-planned outfits with the world. Evenings were spent initiating Facebook live chats and uploading photos from the day's activities.

In contrast, it was common to see contestants wearing sweatshirts and tennis shoes to a rehearsal at Miss America.  Although tension was still high, I felt significantly less pressured to keep color on my lips and a camera-ready face at all times. Evenings were spent chatting with other contestants with makeup removed and hair in ponytails.

Miss America crown- value unknown

Miss America crown- value unknown

Miss USA Crown, valued at over $200,000

Miss USA Crown, valued at over $200,000

But ultimately, the biggest contrast between one organization and the other is the name (and the crown). At its core, each system is designed to encourage women to feel empowered and empower one another. After the pageant, I have strong friendships from both organizations (read my previous blog for more detail).  My Miss America and Miss USA sisters are the first ladies I approach for advice; from career, to relationships, to politics, to the all-important outfit emergencies, I know my girls have my back.

I do not believe one organization is superior to the other and, from experience, can honestly say that both systems offer a great opportunity for women to challenge themselves to rise to their highest potential. In preparing for pageants, I have excelled more physically, emotionally, and professionally than I believe I would have otherwise.

It is an honor to have the opportunity to represent the Commonwealth of Virginia not just once, but twice.

Being crowned Miss Virginia 2013

Being crowned Miss Virginia 2013

Being crowned Miss Virginia USA 2016

Being crowned Miss Virginia USA 2016