Chicago's Marisa Buchheit On Prepping For The Miss America Pageant

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em1Photo: Courtesy of the Illinois Scholarship Assoc. Inc.
Aside from swimsuit body inspiration and a talent show that existing long before reality television, there's another reason to tune into the Miss America pageant this fall. Chicago's own Marisa Buchheit (currently Miss Illinois) is competing for the title. And, speaking of that talent competition, Buchheit wont have a problem considering she's already sung opera numbers all over the globe.

Even though she's got plenty of prep before the big day (Sunday, September 14), the Wicker Park resident took some time out of her busy schedule to talk about her platform, passion for music, and back stage life with a bunch of beauty queens.

Between performances all over Chicago to overseas in churches and castles, you have an incredible musical pedigree as a singer. So, how was it that you got your start in pageants?
“I truly feel that pageants go hand in hand with singing and performing. I was first in pageants while in high school. Since there is a talent portion, it was great opportunity for me to get in front of people and face my fears. I used to be really shy, so it was just a way for me to gain more experience. But, what I found over the years as Miss Chicago and now Miss Illinois, is that people really do embrace the title and the fact that I’m performer. So, I find that I get more gigs and opportunities as a result.”

On the flip side, how did you get your start as an opera singer and classical/crossover soloist?
“It began when I was a little girl when I would perform Spice Girls songs for my mom. So, when I was a bit older — about 12 years-old — my mother realized that I really did enjoy signing, so she signed me up for voice lessons. We found a teacher in my neighborhood who performed in opera houses all over the world, so she actually only allowed me to sing classical music in my lessons — even when I tried to bring a pop song in. Then in high school, I was able to get into the school musicals, so that’s really where I fell in love with the idea of being in a show, rehearsing, and sharing a beautiful message of music with an audience.”

You speak an impressive seven languages. Did you learn them to expand your network for performance opportunities? “It really does have to do with the expression of music that I sing because music is written in so many different languages. So, as an opera singer, it’s very important to be able to switch back and forth between Italian, French, etc. I don’t speak all of the languages fluently. I speak German, a little bit of Italian, and pieces of the other languages. I do make sure that I have a working knowledge so that when I’m singing the song it doesn’t sound fake. It’s a scary moment and I think a lot of singers can relate to that.”

You speak an impressive seven languages. Did you learn them to expand your network for performance opportunities?
“It really does have to do with the expression of music that I sing because music is written in so many different languages. So, as an opera singer, it’s very important to be able to switch back and forth between Italian, French, etc. I don’t speak all of the languages fluently. I speak German, a little bit of Italian, and pieces of the other languages. I do make sure that I have a working knowledge so that when I’m singing the song it doesn’t sound fake. It’s a scary moment and I think a lot of singers can relate to that.”

You've spoken in front of several community leaders and state senators to address the importance of music and fine arts education. What type of progress do you feel has been made thus far?
“I had the opportunity to meet with Illinois state senator John Mulroe from my district, as well as the rest of the senators in the state. While they are compassionate and care about the arts education, it’s not always easy to take action because there’s a whole plate of other issues. Sometimes, the arts just comes last, unfortunately."

"But, one thing that is very encouraging is Illinois congressman Aaron Schock and Oregon congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici co-founded the Congressional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Caucus, an educational system that helps support the message of the arts to young people. They started in February 2013 and have already have 74 congressmen and women on board with them. A lot of organizations and non-profits are also supporting it, so it’s exciting time for STEAM.”

What were some of the biggest accomplishments you made in your role as Miss Chicago?
“I really embraced that title because I love Chicago and think it’s the greatest city on earth. Those were really the times I made a lot of contacts with some of these local representatives and politicians. Also, I presented at a charity fashion show benefitting the Merit School of Music in Chicago, a place that I went when I was in high school. They provide free musical training for over 6,000 students from underserved areas of the city. Going there was what really made me discover my path, so being able to give back to the school that had done so much for me was really monumental.”

You obviously have a crazy busy schedule, so what's downtime like for you?
“At this time it almost feels like downtime doesn’t exist. But, with that said, I live in Wicker Park and many of my favorite spots are right here in the ‘hood. During the daytime I love to go to The Wormhole Coffee Shop. They have awesome coffee. It’s sort-of a hipster vibe and they have vegan doughnuts — as a vegan, that’s a bonus. I also love Native Foods Café nearby. For a Monday night adventure, I enjoy going to Lakeview for musical Mondays at Hydrate and live karaoke at Roscoe’s. Those are my new spots to go with a lot of my opera and non-musical friends.”
embePhoto: Courtesy of the Illinois Scholarship Assoc. Inc.


What do your art and choir students at Josephinum Academy think about your pageant success? Do you feel a responsibility to show young girls that being a beauty queen is about so much more than looks alone?
“Absolutely. And, I think that just with my teaching style and the way we interact with one other that’s very evident to them. I don’t really share anything on the beauty side of things. They are aware of my title and what I’m up to behind the scenes – the teaching is my day job and the other is my night job. I think that the biggest lessons that they learn are really about personal growth and putting themselves out there so that they are able to get up and perform. It’s incredible to see them transform throughout the semester.”

Miss America Nina Davuluri faced a lot of public criticism based on her race. What are your thoughts on this?
“I think that a lot of people were very ignorant to say such things and to criticize Miss America for being Indian. We live in America and it’s a cultural melting pot up to this point. We’ve had a handful of African-American Miss America’s and only one Asian-American Miss America, so I think it’s about time that we make room for more races to be embraced. We have our first half black president, so I feel it’s ridiculous that people would criticize that. I know that sometimes people have an ideal of what Miss America should look like, but that’s completely shifting.”

How is the pageant culture? So many people have the perception that it can get catty.
“Well, I think that it varies from year-to-year and also different pageant system-to-pageant system. I have to put a positive plug in for the Miss America organization because it’s a scholarship program geared towards college-aged women. More than that, it’s an opportunity for women to do something good for their communities with platforms and community service projects. Honestly I’ve met some of the most kind, down-to-earth women competing in Miss America."

"Of course, there are some people who are there for the wrong reasons, which can change the whole experience. But, overall, the girls are wonderful and they are there to help each other. For example, last year when I made it into the top ten, a couple of girls stayed behind and asked if we needed anything. One young lady even helped me with my updo because I’m really bad with them. So, it is like a sisterhood in that sense.”

Are there any behind-the-scenes beauty tips you can share that you've learned from pageant life?
“I’ve learned that enough sleep really goes along way, and of course, staying hydrated. Many people think that if you have enough concealer you’ll be fine, but that’s not the case. You need to be healthy, that’s the most important thing. Beyond that, just a little gross hair tip: I don’t wash my hair constantly. I’ve found that with styling, hair is that it’s better if you just let it breath a little bit so you can style it differently. For example, if you haven’t washed it in three days, it’s easier to put it up or curl it.”

What are you doing to prepare for the Miss America Pageant in the fall?
“The biggest thing is to prepare for the stage competition and interview, so I’ll go through coaching with experts and talk out issues with friends and family. When it comes to fitness, I run and train at the gym every day. I also work on my stage presence and poise with former Miss Illinois 2012 — one of my image coaches for the pageant. Then, there’s hair, makeup, and my talent.”

We're sure it's safe to assume that you'll sing for the talent portion. Any ideas of a song yet?
“I do! I’m singing — the song is in French — it’s called "Je Veux Vivre," which means I want to live. It’s from Romeo and Juliet , the opera. It’s very high energy — a couple of high notes in there — and a song I love to sing."

Trying to figure out what to wear in a pageant must be a daunting task. Where do you like to shop for your competition wares?
“Well, a lot of the outfits that I wear in any pageant are from local designers like Anastasia Chatzka and Borris Powell, who provide me clothes on loan. I love their avant-garde designs, so I’m trying to give them some exposure. My favorite boutique here is Akira Chicago; I’m good friends with the owner Jon Cotay. We met because he was judging me in a pageant way back in the day. I wear a lot of their clothes because I feel they are very edgy and represent who I am."

Any thoughts about what type of dress you'll sport in the evening gown competition?
"Actually, for the first year ever Tony Bowls — a pageant and evening gown designer — is sponsoring all 53 contestants for their evening gown competition, which is pretty much unheard of. I’m not going to give away exactly what it’s going to look like, but it’s going to be somewhat of an illusion dress. I love his work so I think I’m going to love this design, too."