Miss Hilton Head Island Teen contestant Nicole Arnold of Hilton Head took the stage at the Seahawk Cultural Center two weeks ago and did something I’d never seen before.
As her talent.
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Now, I am not new to pageants. I watched them with my sisters, my mom and my aunt growing up, but I did it for the dresses and the glittery jewelry — and the popcorn my mother would make for us.
Or rather, for the melted butter and salt on top of the popcorn.
The talent portion of the pageant was boring to me then. You can’t draw “their talent” in the margins of your notebooks and pretend it makes you a budding fashion designer.
Puffy gowns with bows, though? I was all over that.
So I am admittedly out of the loop when it comes to what’s trending in the pageant world.
This is why when the stagehands rolled out a drop cloth, an easel, spray paint cans and a garbage can lid right before Contestant No. 1’s performance that Saturday evening, I got giddy.
A garbage can lid? Whatever in the world is about to happen at this pageant? It doesn’t matter. I already support it.
Backstage, there were girls in tap shoes and with batons and in dance paws … there was even a girl dressed in hula gear.
I expected to hear singing and see emotional dances, the kind that come with the “don’t push me backward, I just found out I’m dying” facial expressions that are aimed at some invisible force above and accompanied by a stumble and outstretched arms.
I didn’t see that coming. But it’s a thing.
“She did that in the (Hilton Head Island) high school pageant a week before,” said Harry Culpepper, executive director of the Miss Hilton Head Island Scholarship Pageant, a preliminary contest in the Miss America brand, which took place Jan. 30. “A girl did it at state for two years and made top 10.”
I looked it up later and saw video of a Miss Kansas contestant talking about her fast art, a Miss California contestant painting a glittering Marilyn Monroe, and a Miss University of West Alabama contestant speeding her way through a 90-second portrait of Jesus.
I had no idea this goes on.
Count this among the many things someone wouldn’t know about pageants unless they were in the pageant world — or unless they were dead serious about winning a crown.
Which some are.
In 2015, Miss Hilton Head Island Kate McKinney and pageant organizers were criticized because McKinney was from Columbia, which is decidedly not local.
“Aren’t the girls on Hilton Head good enough to win this contest?” readers of The Island Packet wanted to know. “Shouldn’t the girls representing this area be from here?”
When the winners of this year’s contests were announced, which included two new titles and therefore double the opportunity to win, readers again asked: Um, what about our local girls?
It is a fair question. I, too, always assumed that pageant winners were like elected officials in that they must live in the locality they represent.
But this isn’t how it works.
Pageant hopefuls can compete in any local competition across the state no matter where they live, Culpepper said. And the ones who are serious about winning do.
Competing in pageants across the state not only increases the chances of maybe eventually winning a crown and getting to go on to the Miss South Carolina contest, it gives contestants much-needed experience so that it isn’t so scary the next time or the time after that.
Jacklyn Dicks, a former Miss Florida who lives in Beaufort, sits on the Miss Hilton Head Island Organization committee and emceed the pageant this year.
Dicks remembers how clueless she was when she first began competing.
She’s not kidding, either — she once spilled water on the judges.
“You learn from each other,” Dicks said of talking to other contestants. “I didn’t even know about butt glue, you know? The stuff to hold your bathing suit in place?”
Speed-painting I did not know about — but butt glue? Butt glue I had heard of before. (And also hemorrhoid cream to take care of eye-puffs, which I am so very close to trying.)
Beyond the open-competition rules, there just aren’t a whole lot of girls locally who have wanted to compete, pageant organizers have said in answer to the criticism.
Until this year, that is.
“This was the most we’ve ever had,” Culpepper said happily the night before the pageant.
More than half of the 17 contestants this year were from Hilton Head or Bluffton.
There were four titles and four runners-up up for grabs. Only one of those honors went to someone local, though: Emily Workman of Hilton Head, who was second-runner up in the teen contest.
Is this a slight?
What it takes to win
The morning after the local pageant, all four winners gathered for photos, brunch and to find out what to expect in the next four months leading up to the Miss South Carolina pageant in June.
There will be daily messages from Jeremy Culpepper, also an executive director of the local organization. There is the fundraising, appearances, discussions about talent and wardrobe, eating plans, fitness plans, charity work and mock interviews. They will work on their skills and perfect their platforms.
In other words, they will need to treat this like a job.
The Culpeppers — and the girls — expect all four to place in state.
They’re not just doing this for their health.
On the night of the pageant and from the audience, I correctly picked the crown winners. They are Miss Hilton Head Island Anna Brown, 22, of Greer; Miss Coastal Islands Suzi Roberts, 22, of Pawleys Island; Miss Hilton Head Island Teen Payton Lang, 16, of Lexington; and Miss Coastal Islands Carolina Hopkins, 15, of Greer.
I chose them because it clearly wasn’t their first time at this hairspray rodeo. All four were poised, precise and fully engaged. All four seemed like they knew what they were doing every second they were on stage.
Hopkins even introduced herself to the audience by belting out “I AM Contestant Number Four Caroline Elizabeth Hopkins” with a few poses thrown in for good measure. Whereas the other contests simply said “Contestant Number X. My name is this.” and smiled.
This isn’t to say that the rest of the contestant were also-rans.
The local girls, in particular, were impressive. This was new to them and nerve-wracking. Backstage they looked like their hearts were beating out of their chests. On stage, though, they came off as confident and charismatic.
Many of them had caught the “pageant bug” by earlier participating in the high school contest, Harry Culpepper said.
Elizabeth Kenyon of Hilton Head gave a hilarious performance as a stalker leaving yet another phone message for a guy she likes. Hannah Weitzel of Bluffton wowed with a song she wrote and that is off her album. Arnold’s speed-painting performance was a delight to watch (She painted a moon! I think it was a moon!). And Workman seriously deserves a full scholarship for being able to get through “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” without passing out from the spray-paint fumes, an unforeseen consequence of thinking outside the pageant box.
“I think (local) interest (in this pageant) is slowly growing,” Harry said. “The longer we keep doing this pageant, the more the community and girls have gotten involved. I think we’ll see more girls intentionally preparing for it in the future.”
At the end of the day, though, he just hopes everyone had fun.
“We try really hard to make those girls feel special,” Harry said. “Our whole motive from the beginning has been if they didn’ win our pageant that they had amazing experience and that it helped make them better.”