My name is Crystal Lee, and in 2014, I was first runner up to Miss America.
Since I was 8, I begrudgingly cooperated with my Tiger Mom’s regularly scheduled programming of math tutoring, piano lessons, Mandarin classes, theater, gymnastics, and ballet classes. The one thing that kept me from devolving into total teenage rebellion was my belief that all the hard work would one day pay off. When I was 11, I decided I wanted to be Miss America, and nothing could stop me.
While other high schoolers spent weekends hanging out at the mall, I devoted all my free time to ballet classes. It was my life. Every day for 11 years, my dad picked me up from school to drive me to back-to-back lessons. Balanced in the backseat of the family minivan, I would shimmy out of my jeans and into a leotard. Most nights we wouldn’t get home until 8:30 pm, I would often doze in the backseat, dreaming of my reign as Miss America, when I could be a glamazon in the spotlight, bringing smiles to children everywhere.
But my dreams of becoming the first Chinese-American woman to win Miss America were shattered that day in 2014, when the host called Miss New York’s name and not mine. I left the stage a runner-up, cried goodbye to splintered dreams and my “butt-glue” girlfriends, and flew home to California. I spent my first few days back quietly eating ice cream and scratching the fake orange tan off my body. But as someone who was constantly in motion, I couldn’t sit around for long.
I had to get back to real life — not only did I need a job that paid, I needed a new goal. So I started applying for jobs at tech companies. After all, I studied human biology and virtual reality in college, and I had interned at Dropbox. I could do this.
I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock, though. Pageantry had been my full-time job, and suddenly I found myself in a bewilderingly different industry surrounded by middle-aged white men with whom I had to be highly judicious about divulging my pageant past. I swapped out tight dresses for jeans and loafers, and I toned down my makeup. I reintroduced tech T-shirts into my wardrobe and banished my teasing brushes and hairsprays to the farthest corner of my bathroom cabinets.
In my first few phone interviews, I was still Miss California, and I hadn't learned to curb my animated, peppy persona. I had to teach myself to talk in a more monotone voice in order to get anyone to call me back. After four interviews, I finally landed a job on Google’s sales team: The manager thought potential customers would be intrigued to see what Miss California was selling. I started at the lowest tier of the the corporate ladder as a sales development rep.
This job was supposed to be my new dream, but I experienced something of an identity crisis. My KPIs as Miss California had been so clear: thank sponsors with autographed photos of myself and always, always say yes when someone asks for a photo. I loved making people happy. It didn’t hurt that people told me I was beautiful on a daily basis. But in a professional work environment, I was terrified of being pegged as a ditzy beauty queen who was as pretty as she was clueless.
To compensate, I started dressing down, wore less makeup, started wearing my glasses again. I focused on overachieving my sales targets and taking on higher-visibility projects to earn approval from managers. I started speaking up at meetings more frequently, even if what I had to say wasn’t particularly groundbreaking. Where people used to wait hours just to shake my hand, now I was struggling to get people to take me seriously.
About one year into being an SDR, I developed an itch to learn more. I wanted to be responsible for more than hitting a quota. Google was a well-run engine, and it felt like my ability to make an impact was really limited. I wanted to know more, so I started asking my managers and mentors high-level, strategic questions to try to grasp an understanding of what the company's seasoned executives were thinking. I was hungry for the insights they possessed that earned them the big bucks and their strong legacies.
I realized that jumping to a small startup was the best way for me to get more first-hand business experience. In 2015, I started LifeSite, an ultra-secure digital, safe-deposit box. I met my cofounders through mutual friends in the tight-knit San Francisco tech community, and we believed we could solve a problem — and selfishly, there was no better way for me to "drink from the fire hose" and accelerate my learning. Certain skills can't be picked up by reading in a book. I had to do the job.
LifeSite has been an incredible journey, but I still haven't escaped the stigma of pageants. Board members have suggested that I remove my Miss California experience from our pitch deck as they felt it diminished my credentials as a businesswoman. It makes me wonder if it will ever be possible for pageant retirees to reconcile their pasts with their current professional accomplishments.
I’ve known for years that the transition from pageant winner to corporate life would be difficult. In 2013, I heard a former Miss California finalist, and then Facebook employee, talk about how she distances herself from her pageant past. This woman was a direct report of Sheryl Sandberg, and I was disappointed when she told me that she never, ever mentions at work that she had done pageants. She was sure that going public with her pageant past would hinder her advancement, and that it would be the same for me. To succeed as a respected woman in tech, I would need to erase it from my LinkedIn.
The whole conversation made me sulk. I dragged my feet back to the Facebook parking lot, wondering how I could recover from this career-limiting liability. I should have played sports, I thought. I would be celebrated if my goal had been to be an Olympic gold medalist. But compete at Miss America? Nobody takes those women seriously.
After a few hours of feeling dejected, I made peace with myself, taking comfort in the realization that I will always have situational liberty to divulge or censor my pageant record. Just like anyone else, I possess the freedom to choose where and when I talk about my past.
I owe a lot to pageantry. It taught me not to shy away from wanting to better myself, from wanting to win. It introduced me to a die-hard sub-culture full of kind and nutty people. It gave my loving, supportive parents their close-ups on national TV, a memory that will tickle me for the rest of my life.
Though I didn't win Miss America, I won the courage to initiate my career on my own terms. After all, our pasts are what make us who we are: the good, the bad, and the beautiful.
Being extraordinary is about living a life of purpose. The Unconventionals is our celebration of extraordinary women who know there is no right way to follow your dreams, and are creating their own roadmap for success. These women recognize that progress comes from the urge to stir up the conventional in order to change the world.
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