This column was originally published Feb. 4, 2015
If you think talking about religion and politics is contentious, try having a conversation about beauty pageants, especially if the winner isn't from the town on her sash.
This past Saturday night, Kate McKinney -- who is from Columbia, by way of Denver -- was crowned Miss Hilton Head Island 2015 in front of a crowd of hundreds at the Seahawk Cultural Center at the high school.
The next day she posted on her Facebook page: "Thank you all for your overwhelmingly positive reception of my new title as Miss Hilton Head Island 2015. ... I'm so thankful to walk away not only with new friends, but also with a new family found in the Hilton Head Island community."
Her new family welcomed her with open ... mouths.
"Columbia woman wins Miss Hilton Head? HHHMMMMM ..... let me sit and think about that for a minute.....," said Gary Anderson on The Island Packet's Facebook page (12 people liked this).
"How can a Columbia woman be Miss Hilton Head?," asked Linda Keller (7 likes).
"What a joke....Maybe they travel to say New Jersey next and become Miss New Jersey....really...SMH," said Pete Cormican (3 likes).
"We should (have) had Kate Upton represent us. How does it feel to lie to the public," asked Kenneth C. Cain (0 likes)
Really, guys? He was suggesting Kate Upton. No likes?.
The headline "Columbia woman wins Miss Hilton Head Island" was shocking to people who, up until this point, had assumed that Miss Hilton Head Island was, you know, from Hilton Head.
"It just struck me as funny," said Mark Brittman, who has lived on Hilton Head for 22 years and is quick to point out he "is not a pageant person." Brittman emailed the Packet on Wednesday because he was still puzzled by the incongruity. "Are there not enough qualified contestants?"
In fact, there aren't. At least not yet. But Harry Culpepper, who along with Jeremy Culpepper has run the local Miss America-affiliated pageants for the past four years, is hoping that interest grows among possible contestants on Hilton Head.
That aside, this is a common practice, he said. "It is more typical to not be from the town you represent."
It is perhaps interesting to note here that Hilton Head Island -- perhaps more than any other municipality in South Carolina -- is made up of residents who are from somewhere else. In fact, "people from somewhere else" is sort of our thing. If there were to be a Facts About South Carolina Towns Pageant, we should win Miss Congenial every year, right? "Welcome to Hilton Head"? "Buy some HHI stickers"? "Tell other people about us"? Ring a bell?
There are a lot of reasons not to like pageants, sure. And John Oliver's tear-apart of the scholarship program aspect of Miss America recently added another one. "Rules on contestant residency," though, is perhaps the least of these.
I spoke with Miss Hilton Head Island 2015 on Wednesday. She is the associate director/associate producer of Classical Music from ETVradio (you can listen to her at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday on 89.3 FM WSCI). And she's not messing around. She is not someone who speaks in exclamation points.
"I've thought about it extensively. I read all the comments," she said. "At first my feelings were hurt, but I get it."
She doesn't plan to let it change anything, though. She wants to become Miss South Carolina, not only to represent Hilton Head but to highlight Project Opera Camp, an outreach program that uses opera for social change. She started the program and just won a $20,000 grant through the University of South Carolina, her alma mater.
"I see this title as a way to become an honorary Hilton Head Islander," she said. "I have an obligation to represent the town and to educate myself on all aspects of it. I plan to be down there regularly."
Harry Culpepper has thought about how having a winner from the island might make a difference in what he and Jeremy have set out to bring to the island, their home of seven years.
"In all honesty ... I don't think anything would be different. It shouldn't be about where a girl is from. In our opinion that's kind of biased, being exclusive instead of inclusive."
Oh dear. There was just that one thing ...
"Well, obviously people in the community would not be upset with us."
When Mark Brittman learned that McKinney's win was within not only the guidelines of the pageant, but a common practice, he offered his support to the Columbia woman.
"I wish her well," he said. "Let her have a good reign. And good luck in Miss South Carolina."