An Open Letter to 17-Year-Old Pageant “Girl” Me

Let me preface this by saying if someone would have told me six years ago when I began competing in the Miss America Organization that I would be blessed with multiple titles, change my career plans from sports medicine to broadcasting, and secure job opportunities as a result of titles I would win within this scholarship program I probably would have laughed.  Yet, the fact of the matter is all of those things are true and much of where I am and who I am today, I owe to the influence of the Miss America Organization, Miss Wisconsin Scholarship Program, and the incredibly influential people I’ve had the opportunity to meet along the way.  Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to compete in the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen program, there wasn’t one in my small town and I wasn’t familiar with the teen portion.  I was, however familiar with the “Miss” program after watching women compete in the local, Miss Wisconsin Rapids pageant which is precisely where my journey began.

The point of this reflective post and letter is to help other young women find comfort, support, and inspiration in the unknown.  Sharing pieces of my journey, I hope, will help you realize that, “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Dear 17-year-old pageant “girl” me,

It’s exciting, I know.  You’ve watched young women compete in your hometown pageant, Miss Wisconsin Rapids Area for years and now it’s finally your turn to perform on that stage.  You’ve purchased a yellow, thick strapped, belted swimsuit from Venus that you will wear a couple other times for competition before realizing it’s not the style many other women competing wear and consequently you’ll opt for something more updated.  You have a borrowed blue dress from the local pageant closet that is slightly too short and also slightly outdated, but it’s your favorite color at the time and sparkly so you go with it…after all, who doesn’t love a fancy outfit you don’t have to pay for?  P.S. Borrowing and lending clothing items will help your bank account (and your parents’ bank account) greatly in the future.

Brush your curls out more, don’t leave those ringlets brush aside your face…you look like Shirley Temple.  Don’t leave your tight curls, brush them out to loose waves, be comfortable with switching up your parts and hairstyles.  Also, there’s no need to fret, at some point over the next four to five years you will (thankfully) learn how to properly do your make-up, to contour your face, and create a smokey eye look with an overwhelming eye shadow pallete.  As you grow older, YouTube videos and pageant peers will help show you how to properly contour your make-up, style your hair differently, and create a killer smokey.

I know your mindset right now, I’ve been there and I’ve learned from it.   You think you have a grasp of the values and beliefs the Miss America Organization is founded on and that you could whole heartedly take on the job of a local or even state titleholder, but you have absolutely no idea.  More importantly, you think you know who you are, what you value and belief, and the things you want out of life-reality check, you don’t (You probably think I’m wrong and rude for telling you these things which is yet another blatant sign of your immaturity and need for a broader view of the world around you. Sorry, not sorry).   I know it sounds a tad overbearing for me to say that, but it’s the truth.  First off, your confidence and poise on stage and off stage for private interview will gradually develop and strengthen.  Over the course of your journey you will gain a deeper sense of self and a greater perspective on life.  Your desire, passion, and skill sets will broaden and you will continuously become a better version of yourself with each new pageant experience you take on-allow yourself to change, it’s a good thing.The truth is, you are not as invincible, knowledgeable, and mature as you may think.  Over the next six years as you finish high school, go to college, and secure your first full-time job you will emotionally and mentally grow beyond your wildest beliefs-embrace the change.  You will go on to compete in two “open” pageants, Miss Fox River Valley and Miss Seven Rivers and feel like a very small fish in an ocean.  You will not place and feel rather defeated not knowing what you’re doing wrong, I’m here to tell you not to worry.  Things will work out how they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to.  Pay attention to older women who have walked in your heels, ask them questions, learn from them-they are your greatest asset within this organization.  On your fourth attempt at this whole titleholder gig you’ll secure the job of Miss La Crosse/Oktoberfest 2012-an opportunity that will forever change your life.

You will go on and represent the region as Miss Seven Rivers 2014 and then take on the position of Miss Madison Capital-City 2015.   Although both jobs will present a number of similarities being the fact they are locals within the Miss Wisconsin Scholarship Program, both experiences will be extremely different.  Whole heartedly love every individual you have the pleasure of meeting through your volunteer efforts, accept constructive criticism from those in the “pageant world” that you establish relationships with, and take lots of pictures of the unique opportunities you have the chance to experience, they will turn into precious memories you’ll cherish forever.  Next, you will compete in Miss Wisconsin Central, another open pageant with an opportunity to compete at Miss Wisconsin a fourth time and you won’t place.  You will feel an immense amount of frustration, sadness, and hopelessness.  However, in this moment, remember that you never “lose” within this program-you either win or you don’t win.  In times like this where you don’t walk away with the crown and sash, God is teaching you an important lesson and it’s crucial that you pay attention to what He is trying to tell you.  In my personal opinion, with any goal you set out to achieve in life, you learn a lot more from the times you “don’t win” from the times that you do.  A few weeks following that pageant you will compete for the position of Miss Harbor Cities 2016 and capture the title.  Feelings of nervousness, uneasiness, and that consumed you in the morning will dissipate as you hear your name called for a fourth local title within the Miss America Organization.  At this point, the seemingly baby, 17-year-old version of yourself that you once thought could take on the world and slay the pageant realm is a version of you that remains in the past.  You now have the maturity, self-awareness, community consciousness, and knowledge to realize that you were rather naive in the past and have gradually transformed into an extremely driven, compassionate, and selfless woman you are today thanks largely to the influence of the Miss America Organization.  It is only now, after all of your involvement that you are able to reflect back on your journey and fully realize that the first three years when you competed at Miss Wisconsin and placed as a Top 11 Semi-Finalist served as stepping stones and a chance to gain an understanding of who “Tianna Vanderhei” is and what your pageant brand is.  Your fourth year at Miss Wisconsin representing the Manitowoc and Two Rivers area as Miss Harbor Cities is when you finally break into the Top 5 Finalists for the very first time.  You will be in a state of shock, relief, gratitude, and calmness when your name is called, knowing your shift in preparations paid off.  

It is only now, after the trials and tribulations that you can look back and laugh at all those hardships along the way and be thankful for how far you’ve come over the years.  One of your favorite quotes, “Everything happens for a reason,” holds a much more powerful meaning now under a different life outlook.  You stand firmly by the fact that God’s timing is everything and what is meant to be will always find a way, embracing comfort in the journey that’s led you down the path you’re on today.


23-Year-Old Pageant Girl who’s entering her final year of eligibility with a full, thankful heart for all the bumps along the way and lessons learned.

I encourage each and every one of you young women embarking on a journey within the Miss America organization or anything in life to take my advice.  Take my lessons, my failures, and my successes and internalize them, personalize them.  You too will go through some obstacles that are unexpected, know they will serve a purpose to mold you into the individual God intended you to be.  It’s hard to see that in the moment, but I promise you years down the road you will reflect back and be thankful for every single one of those experiences because it led you to exactly where you needed to be.

“You don’t have forever to create an impressionable moment, but you possess the ability to create many impressionable moments that will last forever.”   -Tianna Vanderhei


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