Gina Marinelli is the editorial assistant at Refinery29. Before that, she interned for Refinery29, and before that, she just read it every day.
I signed up for my first pageant on a whim and entirely voluntarily (I was of legal age, this is not an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras). I knew nothing about posing in evening gowns or answering hypothetical questions pulled from fishbowls or butt glue (yes, it's a real thing). I did however, have lots of performance experience from years of school plays and dance recitals, a bit of curiosity, and a dress hanging in my closet that fit the occasion.
"With only a couple weeks to prepare, I placed as first runner-up my first time out of the gate. I can vouch that it wasn’t all big hair and even bigger plastered-on smiles. I entered a local branch of the Miss America pageant system which actually required its contestants to write essays, speak intelligently, and have some kind of talent. It was fun! And — big picture — it earned me scholarship money.
Still a newbie, I placed as first runner-up again a few months later in a second local pageant. But this time, upon hanging up my hot pink gown for the year, I found out that I would actually have to uphold my runner-up duties. I was going to succeed the crown from the original winner — not due to any Vanessa Williams-style scandals; she’d just won a bigger title.
"I was crowned Miss Empire Rose 2007. A four-point, rhinestone-encrusted, mega-blinged tiara pinned to the top of my head made it official.
"Sharing that I’m a former 'beauty queen' (P.S. I don’t really care for that phrase) is not exactly the first thing I tell people about myself — just ask a couple of my fellow coworkers who found out about my little sparkly secret by way of the internet. It’s more the 'about-me' fun fact I share when I get to know people, or something that my Facebook friends can find if they use the new timeline feature. I’m certainly not ashamed or embarrassed, but I do understand that there can be a stigma attached — a stigma that I prefer neither to encourage nor disregard. Nevertheless, my pageant past is a small piece of who I am, and a special one at that — involving both good memories and some tough lessons that had nothing to do with beauty.
"Years after having passed the title to the next girl, it just comes down to the crown. As a lover of all things big and sparkly, I must say, it still makes for the best accessory — but just for my bookcase. It came housed in a baby-blue, satin-lined, engraved wooden box, however I keep it placed on top and sitting comfortably next to a stack of books, DVDs, and picture frames in my bedroom.
"While the crown is only a symbol of something I’ve accomplished, it was never about being the ideal pageant girl. I can look at it and be reminded of how I learned to set my hair in hot rollers, use duct tape as a bra (Ask any pageant girl: It hurts, but it definitely works, in a bind.), and got a few moments to shine on stage. I never considered myself to be the kind of girl who fit the pageant mold, yet the crown serves as a reminder that at one point I could at least bend, if not break it just a smidge.
"Full disclosure: I did compete in one more pageant after handing over my one-and-only title. I didn’t win. I didn’t place as a runner-up. But, I did take home a scholarship for an essay I wrote on my personal pageant platform: Go Green. It’s no crystal headpiece, but it felt just as good."