With More Complete Coverage..

Journalism 101.  Start every story with your best sound and your best video.  Don’t bury the lead.  With that… this month is my last at KETV, after 15 years as a journalist at the only station I’ve ever known.

***

When I was a little girl, I used to sit on the stairs in our split level house in Papillion, with my legs dangling through the steps and a notebook in front of me.  I would just write.  I would write about my day.  I would play the game Life by myself, and use each space as a prompt to write a fictional story.  I’ve kept a journal since I had huge glasses and buck teeth.  In college, long-form essays and papers weren’t hassles, I relished them; I love letting the words just HAPPEN, and the surge of accomplishment when those words come full circle and everything just FITS.

I’ve always been a natural ‘performer’.  I was the ham hogging the attention for our 1st generation camcorder, jumping in front of my Dad with a goofy voice or song whenever he had the thing rolling.  I tried out for show choir every year I could, and joined the speech team my very first year of high school.  Speaking just came easily for me; and I was GOOD at it.  Forensics, theater and choir were my LIFE in high school.

I was never in journalism.  I didn’t carry around a Barbara Walters lunchbox.  I floated around my first year of college not knowing where I belonged or what my future looked like.  My sophomore year at UNL, I took Introduction to Broadcasting with Tom Spann, and was fascinated by a world of history, SHARING history, writing, and reporting.  Somehow the idea of an internship surfaced, and KETV was the station I grew up watching.  My mom bumped into longtime weekend anchor/reporter Pamela Jones at a city meeting, got contact information for the intern program, and I emailed Managing Editor Joe Kasmir the next day.  I showed up for my interview a good half an hour early.. and I will never forget walking through the Newsplex doors, overwhelmed to see the same set and newsroom I had watched on TV for so long.  Julie Cornell and Rob McCartney were just finishing the 6pm broadcast, and Julie looked up and smiled at me.

***

How do you sum up 15 years?

My first breaking news live shot at NP Dodge Park… that was God awful.

Covering my first night of tornadoes as an intern, Scott Buer at the wheel of the car, and me in the passenger seat wearing a green skirt suit and heels, trekking around in mud and rain COMPLETELY unprepared, but willing to stay out as long as Scott did.

Talking to a suspect in jail dubbed the ‘Bare Butt Bandit’, and hearing later from my best friend’s now-husband: ‘I said, Please God, let Brandi be doing that story..’

An Iowa shooting late at night with photojournalist Mike Richard, and then lying in the backseat on the way home  with my eyes squeezed shut, battling a nauseous migraine.

Live shots on the field at Memorial Stadium with Rob on one side and Jon on the other.. when a stray football was punted right into the side of my face.  Hearing my Assistant News Director Vonn Jones yelling in my ear ’30 seconds!!’ as I tried to regain my composure.. as did Jon and Rob (from dying laughing…)

Driving 8 hours throughout the night with Justin Riviera to cover an arrest in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder in Boulder, Colorado.  I was overwhelmed by literally HUNDREDS of rabid reporters; he shoved me and said ‘get in there, Petersen!’

Covering an afternoon and evening of tornado threats across western Iowa with photojournalist Dave Hynek.  Laughs because of a nerve-wracking live shot.. laughing that turned to chaos and sheer sadness when we learned less than an hour later about the tragedy at the Little Sioux Boy Scout Camp.  We worked through the night side by side, waiting for the details that would shake our community and the country.

Countless tears when things went wrong.  Crying to my roommate, wondering what I should have done better.  Coming home and sobbing to myself, questioning my decisions as not only a reporter, but a human being.

Westroads.  Derek Ruth.  The Butternut fire. The paralyzed bride.  Clayton Hildreth.  Evan Sharp.  Pediatric brain cancer.  Amber Harris.  Baby Lawrence.  La Paz, Mexico.

JP Carter.  John Matya.  Trisha Meuret.  Tom Elser.  Joe Kasmir.  Cathy Beeler.  Jay Roberts.  Vonn Jones.  Jon Schuetz. Sean McMahon. Justin Riviera.  Renee Ludvik.  Kristyna Engdahl.  Jeremy Maskel.  Adrian Whitsett.  Andy Ozaki.  Natalie Glucklich. Melissa Fry.  ROB, ANDY, DAVE. My coworkers that have become my family.

Through KETV, I met my husband.  I was on air throughout my pregnancies with both of my boys.  We moved; twice.  This is where we grew up; this is home.

At KETV we lost Joe, my mentor who hired me, fueled my passion for journalism, and always, ALWAYS pushed me to be better, while making me feel like I was really something special.  I often wish he had been alive to see me anchor ‘the big show’.

We lost Jeff Frolio, the photographer who told me about jazz, and how special music was for him and his wife.  It was the music at his final service that broke me down.

***

Just like my stories… in so many ways, THIS story has come full circle for me.  My sweet ‘baby’ boy Easton will start Kindergarten in a few short weeks.  Guys, I need to be here with my children.  I need to hear about their days, I need to be there for school concerts and carnivals and dinner on our deck.  I need to hear THEIR stories, and I need to be PART of their stories when they look back and share them throughout their lives.  News is a business like no other; it never stops.  Tornadoes don’t drop from the sky from 9-5, Monday through Friday.  Tragedies don’t happen just while we’re on the clock.  There will be another journalist, waiting and ready, to slide into that spot next to Rob to anchor our evening newscast every night, but I am my boys’ ONLY MOTHER.  I am the ONLY MOMMA they will ever have.

God works in mysterious ways; he always has a plan, though we may not understand it as it’s unfolding.  Next month, I will join the Communications team with Westside Community Schools.  I still get to tell stories; GREAT stories about incredible students, teachers making a difference, programs that impact generations of kids.  I get to showcase the GOOD in our world; I get to WRITE.  But every day, I also get to go home to my family.  We can eat dinner together.  We can play at the park, and watch the sunset, wake up the next morning and do it all over again.  I know I’ll be home every Christmas morning, I’ll get to watch fireworks with my kids every 4th of July, I get to stay at the pool with them Sunday mornings instead of putting on my makeup, straightening my hair and heading to the station.  I need to say this: I have SO MUCH RESPECT for working parents, regardless of their shifts.  People all over America work crazy hours, love what they do, and love their lives at home.  I work with many of them here at 7!

For me.. it’s just time.  Still, as I write this, I still feel the tears welling up behind my eyes.  I am so excited for this new opportunity and new chapter in my life, but it truly is so hard to say goodbye.  My fear is that I didn’t matter.  That time will go on and it will be like I was never there. That sounds really narcissistic and egotistical; truly, I’ve tried to make a point in my career to NOT make everything about me, to make our stories about THE PEOPLE, PLACES, AND ISSUES we are sharing.  But to everyone throughout these 15 years who’s made me feel ‘like a big deal’.. to everyone who has watched us, followed us, trusted us.. THANK YOU.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  I don’t have words beyond that.. but I hope you understand the deep gratitude from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

WATCH KETV.  You will NEVER find a better journalist than Rob McCartney.  This dude is one of the best human beings I have ever known; he cares, he listens, he is always asking questions and trying to dig a little deeper to share the most complete story possible, and I’d argue NO ONE is trusted as a journalist in our state more than Rob.  He is noble, smart, a leader, compassionate.  He is a good friend.  Bill Randby is HANDS DOWN THE BEST meteorologist you could ever turn to; NO ONE cares more about providing people accurate information than this guy, and truly one of the most genuinely KIND people I have ever met.  Kristyna Engdahl is BRILLIANT.  Her writing is phenomenal, she’s fair, she has a GIFT for public speaking and thinking on her feet, and I WISH everyone at home could meet her and feel her energy in person.. because she makes EVERY DAY better when you’re around her.  Andy Kendeigh is the big brother I never had–always supportive, always caring, just an AMAZING GUY and such a wonderful friend.  And holy crap, is this guy GOOD.  Athletes and coaches LOVE him for a reason–he’s hilarious, hard working, devoted to what he shares every night and throughout every season.  In addition… our future is so very bright.  Alexandra Stone, Chinh Doan, Laurann Robinson, Sean Everson, Matt Serwe, Cem Brinklow, Ashley Nodgaard, Josh Gear, Davonte McKenith, David Earl, Katie Bane, Tanner Kahler, Matt Lothrop, Camila Orti… all of the people you see and many you don’t… they are HUNGRY for good journalism.  They want to tell good stories.  They are willing to sacrifice sleep, personal time, personal LIVES, to make KETV the best it can be.  This team IS TRULY THE BEST.  You will not find local news in our state that is better–YOU JUST WON’T.

***

I knew this day was coming.  I didn’t think it would be this WEIRD.  That’s the only word that makes sense.  I don’t have enough words, and at the same time, I feel like I’ve said too much.

We’ve got a few weeks left, Omaha–let’s make it awesome.  Westside, I hope to make you proud.  KETV, I hope I’ve made a mark, some kind of difference.

And to my boys.. I love you.  Let’s go hunt some pokemon and have a great morning together.

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Photo courtesy Photography By CB

The Year of the Phoenix

“Phoenixes burst into flame and are reborn from the ashes.”

Every lyric of her song shone through her face.  She didn’t spin, raise a leg or lift an arm without passion behind her movement.  Finally, as the audience cheered and applauded, she jogged off stage and collapsed into the arms of a woman behind the curtain, allowing emotion to overcome her.

Miss Nebraska 2016 was simply the Year of the Phoenix.

***

Guys, I don’t have words to tell you HOW MUCH I LOVE MISS NEBRASKA WEEK.  These women are simply INCREDIBLE; they are physical specimens after months of devotion to health and unwavering dedication to fitness.  They glow with energy and charisma, arguably some of the most charming, personable, enjoyable people you could hope to meet.  They are intelligent; they are well spoken; they are confident; they are TALENTED.  They are the best of the best, and not just the contestants, but the board members and volunteers who work tirelessly year round to make Miss Nebraska week happen.

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This year, my role shifted from the giddy spectator in the audience, to the selfie-loving goofball turned co-host on stage.

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I was so very honored to emcee this year’s preliminary and final nights of competition, alongside respected News Director and community leader, Scott Carlson.  THIS GUY IS AMAZING! A consummate gentleman with the classic announcer voice who made the entire week just FUN!  We didn’t get the front seat view hundreds of others did this month in North Platte, Nebraska.. we got a behind the scenes look every day at rehearsal, and every night when everything was on the line.  For this year’s ‘recap’ addition of my There She Is series.. I’m filling you in.

***

June 6, 2016

‘Wow. I am so unbelievably blessed with the most incredible people in my life. I could not ask for a better host family. I feel so at home here. We stayed up for like an hour just talking about everything and my platform. I am really taking it all in. And I love this! I am enjoying every minute of it which is exactly what I am supposed to be doing. Even just reflecting on my year and all of the incredible people that played such an important role in helping me develop into the person I am. I am so so so lucky by being blessed with the Halls and Denise and this organization. Honestly no matter what happens. God is good all the time. All the time God is good.’

She hit ‘send’ on her phone, connecting with her mom at the beginning of what would be an unforgettable week.  She’d been part of Miss Nebraska week twice before, finishing in the Top 5 and then as 1st Runner Up.  She’d spent years telling students and groups about how she’d been bullied as a teenager, tormented into self-doubt and silence.  She wanted this.. to BE Miss Nebraska.. but she already had perspective.

5 days later..

“Your new Miss Nebraska is contestant #12, Miss Omaha Aleah Peters!”

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Photo courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

Who is Miss Nebraska 2016 Aleah Peters? I hope you’ll CLICK HERE and check out my interview with Aleah months before she traveled to North Platte.  You could also CLICK HERE to read about how she came OH so close two years ago, finishing 1st runner up.  Still, as I’ve written before, I believe you can tell so much about a person’s true character by what they say and do when they’re OUT of the spotlight…

Aleah sent that text message to her mom, Kay, two full days before she even began preliminary competition.  Folks, this year’s competition was CRAZY TOUGH.  Not just the Top 5, but any of the Top 10 could’ve become Miss Nebraska.  THEY WERE/ARE SENSATIONAL.  Yet this panel of incredible judges (including a motivational speaker, a woman traveling the country handing out checks to cancer survivors, a Top 5 finalist at Miss America, and one of Omaha’s most well known businesswomen and entrepreneurs), chose ALEAH to represent our state and everything we stand for.  Yes, they saw THIS..

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Photo courtesy Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph

..a 3-time world champion baton twirler dazzling the crowd with her craft.  YES, they saw a CHISELED athlete who has muscles I don’t even know how to tone.  And YES, they saw a bright, articulate young woman with an action plan and mission to make a difference… but perhaps they also saw what Aleah’s mom was proudest of in her daughter through that text message.  Gratitude.  Maturity.  Perspective.

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And THAT is what she will now bring to countless children across our state and beyond, leading by example as Miss Nebraska 2016.

***

She smiled on stage, trying to hide the nervous electricity pulsing through her veins.  It was the first night of preliminary competition, the first opportunity after MONTHS, no YEARS of preparation, to take that step closer to becoming Miss Nebraska 2016. And then she heard it, “Miss Queen City Lianna Prill!”

Another night, another final stretch to wait for that envelope to be passed up to the stage.  She had performed her talent first that night; she set the bar for how the judges would compare and score all of the other talents that followed.  Then, she heard her name AGAIN, “Miss Queen City, Lianna Prill!”

Photos courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

Lianna was a double-prelim winner, claiming awards in both Evening Gown and Talent (a tie on Night 2 along with Aleah.)  The look on her face, BOTH nights, was PRICELESS, disbelief and sheer joy.  Lianna went on to finish 2nd Runner-Up at this year’s pageant, a huge jump from her finish two years ago, outside the Top 8.  I’d argue few deserved a boost like this more than this incredible young woman, knowing what she’d battled through over the last year.

As Lianna told me in her interview earlier this year, she has Celiac Disease; though she has completely changed her lifestyle to stay as happy and healthy as she can be, she IS still dealing with a chronic disorder.  Regardless, Lianna took on a full-time internship with us here at KETV, while working as an editor with the Daily Nebraskan, WHILE attending classes full time at UNL, WHILE taking part in events from Hastings to Omaha as Miss Queen City.  Already put to the test physically, Lianna was then dealt an unimaginable emotional blow; personal events in her family ultimately lead to her parents’ divorce.

Lianna needed this week. Her family needed this.  I simply BEAMED on stage watching Lianna accept her awards, and by late Thursday night I was nothing short of giddy for her when I bumped into Lianna after visitation.

“Lianna, you are a DOUBLE PRELIM WINNER!  You won TWO prelim awards!” I told her.

“I can’t believe it,” she told me, unable to hide her smile.  “I’m just so, so grateful.”

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Focused.  Kind.  Humble.  THAT is the caliber of person this program recognizes and lifts up, helping inspire others facing challenges of their own.

***

June 10, 2016

‘I am heartbroken. Such a senseless waste of a beautiful life that contributed so much to the 4H community. She would have been the 6th Boulder County Fair Queen to receive the crown and join the sisterhood after me. I will always remember her as a great teammate, competitor, role model, horsewoman, and a kind soul. We will miss you Ashley.’

She had already been through a grueling week of rehearsals, appearances, and competition.  Saturday’s final run-through was supposed to be low-stress, and quick.  The night before she had received crushing news.. a close friend was dead.  Murdered, allegedly at the hand of someone she cared for.  She went to rehearsal Saturday stoic, telling her fellow contestants what happened.. women she knew in much the same way as the girl who was now gone.

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Miss Western Nebraska Marie Allison lived in and competed in pageants in Colorado for several years before moving to Nebraska.  Through those experiences, she met Ashley Doolittle.  Police say June 9, Ashley’s ex-boyfriend shot and killed her, upset she had broken off their year-long relationship.

Less than 24 hours after hearing the news of her friend’s terrible death, Marie competed on the Miss Nebraska stage for one final time, and won the Non-Finalist Interview Award.  Somehow, she pushed through whatever pain and despair she was feeling, and stood tall not only for herself and the loved ones supporting her, but for the Little Sisters who idolized her.  They knew nothing of the horrors of what happens in our world.. they only saw beauty, love and kindness.

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Self-confidence.  Leadership. Resolve.  THAT is what these young women showed more than 30 little girls this year, many of whom will grow up wanting to be just like their Big Sisters.

***

Now, the dancer.  The girl who conveyed every word and every beat of her music on the Miss Nebraska stage.  I stood behind the curtain, thinking ‘wow.. she is so passionate about this!’ and suddenly, I noticed that volunteer Jordan Engel was waiting alongside me.

“We’re trying to make sure someone is back here every night for Alex,” said Jordan.  After talking to Miss Fur Trade Days Alex O’Connor this spring, I knew she cared deeply for her platform, Congenital Heart Defect Awareness, and that she had dedicated her performance to kids everywhere facing what she had as a child.  I thought that was fueling her.

“Her uncle died last week,” said Jordan.  “His funeral was Friday.”

Alex had said goodbye to her uncle, who died suddenly and unexpectedly, just one week before arriving in North Platte to compete for Miss Nebraska.  What should have been a joyous and prideful time for her family to celebrate this amazing woman, was diluted and tempered by raw emotion and grief.  Alex used whatever she was feeling on the inside to light up on that stage and make everyone watching feel something incredibly powerful.. for herself, for her family, and for her uncle.

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Photo courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

‘Billy O helping me with my queen wave. ❤️ you always knew the right things to do in order to make me smile. I cherished every moment I got to be with you. You will truly be missed. Rest in peace ❤️ my uncle.’

Compassion.  Strength.  Love.  THAT is what makes this entire week more than just a competition, it’s a showcase of the best attributes women everywhere; no, PEOPLE everywhere, should aim to achieve.

I’ve been a contestant in the Miss Nebraska Pageant.  It is exhilarating.  It is an honor.  It is SO MUCH FUN.  But it is also EXHAUSTING.  It is emotionally draining.  It is a competition that pushes you to become your best, but requires ALL you have to give.  To hear each of these stories throughout this week, knowing what these women were enduring as they took part in this marathon week..

I’m speechless.

Except I still have my Brandi Petersen Unofficial Fan Club Awards to hand out.  Oh yeah, I didn’t forget!! I know how much my readers look forward to these!

<crickets>

WHATEVER.

The Walking The Red Carpet Like a BOSS Awards

Ohhhhhhhhh, evening gowns, how I love thee.  Before I go any further, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to Joe Bohac and the Black Swan Dress Boutique for loaning me three GORGEOUS gowns to host the pageant!  I felt like a PRINCESS (albeit a princess who tested how far jersey can STRETCH before bursting..)

Another HUGE thank you to the backstage GENIUSES, Becky Serrano who styled my hair each night, and Sue Miller and her Mary Kay team for transforming me from Troll to Ta-da!  THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU everyone!

OK.. now the AWARDS..

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Miss Douglas County Savannah Rave (who was also 1st Runner Up!) had one of my FAVORITE gowns of the week.  I GASPED when I saw this gown… absolutely STUNNING on stage, and plus.. WHITE. JERSEY.  I mean, who can wear white jersey and make it look THIS dang amazing?  Her name is Savannah.  She’s AWESOME.  (Gown by Tarik Ediz from the Black Swan Dress Boutique.)

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Miss Scotts Bluff County Allison Baird (a Top 5 finalist!)  was STUNNING.  I’ve said before how much I love COLOR.. yet two of my favorite gowns were Savannah’s white and Allie’s black.  THIS GOWN WAS SOOOOOO PERFECT.  It was elegant, mature (in a good way!), and SUCH a show stopper!  (Gown by Ritzee from the Black Swan Dress Boutique.)

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Miss Kearney Stacy Pospisil (a Top 10 finalist) won a Preliminary Evening Gown Award for this dress.. and OH, HOW I LOVED IT!  Again, I LOVE color, and not everyone can work a hot pink, ruffly princess dress.  STACY DID.  It was GLORIOUS.  (Gown by Jovani from the Winning Crown Boutique.)

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Another of my favorite gowns was on a teen contestant.. Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen Carsyn Long!  THIS. WAS. PERFECTION.  (Carsyn is pictured above on the left next to the equally fabulous Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen Emma Wilkinson!) You guys, I still can’t get ENOUGH of this BEAUTIFUL gown.. it’s like it was MADE for Carsyn and for the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen competition.  Elegant, fun, regal, stunning. This might have been my FAVORITE gown of the week.  (Gown by Jovani from the Winning Crown Boutique.)

Finally, not competing but HOLY. COW.  THIS GOWN, worn by Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell during Wednesday Night’s Awards Presentation.

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No words.  Ok, two words:  HOLY CRAP.  (Gown by Mac Duggal from the Black Swan Dress Boutique–FABULOUS owner Joe Bohac is next to Alyssa in the picture!)

***

The Our State’s More Talented Than Your State Awards

Two talent winners Night One.  Two talent winners Night Two.  Two Overall Talent winners.  An INCREDIBLE Non-Finalist Talent Winner.  An outgoing teen who is also a 6-time world champion, and a show-stopping teen crowned in her place.

Our state > your state.

MIC DROP.

This year’s field of talent was OUT OF THIS WORLD for both the Miss and the Teen contestants.  I have a strong feeling you’re going to see/hear from these incredible women long after their pageant days are done–they have PHENOMENAL gifts and those of us in attendance at this year’s pageant were blessed to witness firsthand!  It’s so hard to narrow this down.. but here were my favorites!

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Photo courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen Emma Wilkinson.  Sometime, I’d like to talk to Emma’s mom about WHAT POINT she knew Emma had this GIFT–no, not a talent, a GIFT to sing.  Yes, you can improve.. yes, you can fine tune, but what this girl has is a God-given GIFT.  From the MOMENT her music began and she raised that microphone, I was BLOWN AWAY by her performance.  So was the crowd and the judges; Emma was this year’s 1st Runner Up.  Assuming Disney or Pixar doesn’t hear this girl and snatch her up for their next blockbuster, I am SO EAGER to see her compete on the Miss Nebraska stage someday!!

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Photo courtesy Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph

Miss Nebraska State Fair Payton Merritt.  I’ve been pretty clear in my past posts that I ADORE this girl.  She’s brilliant, she’s kind, she’s stunning.. and MY LAWD can this girl sing.  Her voice is SO UNIQUE.  She can do things while she’s singing that are SO DIFFICULT: growls, vibrato, power, range.   She simply TRANSFORMS on stage from a petite blonde to a POWERHOUSE vocalist. This year, she shared her own rendition of the classic House Of The Rising Sun, and I texted a friend that this girl could WIN a prelim talent award at Miss America with it,  IT WAS THAT GOOD.  Payton walked away Wednesday night with a Miss Nebraska Prelim Talent Award (tying with Miss Twin Rivers Jenni Wahonick!) and was named a Top 10 finalist.

Right photo courtesy of Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph

Miss Omaha’s Outstanding Teen Hannah Miller… now THE NEW Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen!  What a JOYOUS performance from our state’s new teen titleholder.  For Miss America groupies like me, this performance reminded me SO MUCH of Miss America 2013 Mallory Hytes Hagan.  Hannah’s tap dance was sassy, energetic and fun, it was a SHOW STOPPER!  For the last two years, Nebraska’s teen titleholders have finished in the Top 10 on the national stage in July, and I can’t WAIT to see Hannah continue that trend this summer!

Ok.. I just can’t narrow down the rest.  Miss Alliance Kate Duncan‘s vocal performance was simply BEAUTIFUL, and earned her the Non-Finalist Talent Award.  Miss Chadron Tyler Rambali’s performance of Let It Go with her Idina-Menzel-like-pipes shot her into the Top 10 in this, her FIRST try at the Miss Nebraska crown.  Miss Kearney Stacy Pospisil’s dance was absolutely BREATHTAKING, also helping her make the Top 10 this year.  This year’s competition was simply a talent SHOWCASE that I wish our entire state could have seen and been proud of.

***

The Put-Down-That-Runza, Petersen! Awards

Since I’ve been home from Miss Nebraska Week, and I’m talking to people about how it went, these women and their bodies are usually the FIRST thing I brag on.  Yes, I’m aware of how creepy that sounds.

I think ‘Swimsuit Competition’ and the stigmas associated with that phrase will in someway ALWAYS be stereotypes and negative connotations our program is faced with.  Here’s the deal; this is NOT a skinny competition.  This is NOT a contest to see who can survive the longest on chicken broth.  This is NOT public shaming of young women, in fact, it’s just the opposite. What I see more and more each year I return to North Platte are fit, strong, healthy women, PROUD of the work they have put in and ready to show that off.  I know better than anyone (thank you, Spanx), you can hide things under clothes.  The thing with a swimsuit–there’s NO hiding.  So these women have learned how to be the best physical version of themselves to prepare for that moment, and in doing so, establish healthy lifestyles that last long beyond Miss Nebraska week.  To ALL of this year’s contestants, I BOW DOWN TO YOU.

Aleah, Savannah and Stacy’s photos courtesy Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph.  Allison’s photo courtesy Black Swan Dress Boutique/Joe Bohac

Miss Scotts Bluff County Allison Baird was my Lifestyle and Fitness winner.  MUSCLE ON MUSCLE WITH MUSCLE.  ABS FOR DAYS.  It was like a magazine cover!  And Allie’s PROUD of that photo!! She told me ‘I worked hard to feel confident up there!’

***

Neither I, nor any of the audience gets to see the Interview portion of competition, but we all did get to see the On Stage Questions these women were presented with.  Folks, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over my 15 years of journalism.  I’ve heard politicians dance around questions they don’t want to (or can’t) answer.  I’ve heard leaders stumble and stammer when thousands (or more) were listening in.  These women, all 17-24 years old.. fielded some DIFFICULT questions on issues ranging from the transgender rights debate, to the presidential race, to prison control in Nebraska.  They were articulate, confident, INTELLIGENT.  THIS is the part of the competition I wish I could LIVE STREAM to haters everywhere, because IT. WAS. AWESOME.

***

I woke up groggy and immediately aware my feet HURT after a week straight of standing in heels for hours at a time.  I grabbed my phone, hoping to feed my social media addiction by seeing how far word had spread that Aleah Peters was the new Miss Nebraska 2016.  Instead, I saw pain, anger, grief.  49 people had been shot and killed inside a nightclub in the deadliest shooting in recent American history.  I drove home from North Platte, listening to news coverage on satellite radio the entire trip, my heart heavy for my friends in Orlando covering the horror, and for the country we increasingly seem to be turning into.

I don’t want to believe that.  I want to focus on the good.  I need to believe that like the Phoenix, we can be reborn from the ashes and soar to something higher.

These women give me hope.  That hard work still exists.. and pays off.  That good things happen to good people.  That when you recognize the good, it spawns MORE positivity, a cycle that leads to endless energy, smiles, and inspiration.

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LOVE BEATS HATE.  Love for each other, love for what we do, and love for LIFE.

 Congratulations and THANK YOU to the Miss Nebraska Class of 2016 for allowing me to share these stories of challenges and successes.  I cannot WAIT to see how high and far each of you soar.

***

My thoughts and prayers are with Ashley Doolittle, her family and friends.  May she rest in peace.

Fire and Gold

June 4, 2015.

I had the humbling honor of hosting the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen pageant, and spent the day at North Platte High School in rehearsals.  During breaks, I tried to upload as many photos to the Miss Omaha Facebook page as I could, typing furiously to tag contestants and draw more viewers to our site.  I almost didn’t notice when a stunning blonde sat next to me and said ‘Hi, how’s it going?’

Her name was Alyssa Howell.

Funny how such a small gesture of kindness, just taking a moment to ask someone how they are doing, can make such a big impact on how you think of a person.  A panel of six judges thought VERY highly of Alyssa.. naming her Miss Nebraska 2015 just 24 hours later.

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Photo courtesy the North Platte Telegraph

“Miss Nebraska week was the most fun I have ever had!” Alyssa told me recently.  “I was surrounded by 12 amazing contestants that not only were great friends to me during the week, but who also supported me throughout my year.”

And so began a reign that represents everything this Miss Nebraska has stood for; friendship, kindness, genuineness.

As a longtime Miss America fan and a journalist who is always subconciously observing, I’ve noticed over the years the reaction of other contestants speaks volumes about the woman crowned.  Minutes after Alyssa was named Miss Nebraska, she was immediately embraced by  her ‘pageant sister’, Miss Omaha Megan Gould.  Just weeks later, Alyssa invited Megan, as well as other Miss Nebraska finalists Brooke Ludemann, LaRissa McKean and Allison Tietjen, to perform at her send-off party for Miss America.  These women, Alyssa’s competition at this time last year, seemed genuinely happy for her and showed up in full force to give her their support; Alyssa was eager to share her spotlight that night to showcase the titleholders who had become her friends.

For me.. it goes back to that day in the cafeteria.. Alyssa Howell is REAL.  She doesn’t pretend to care about people; she just DOES.  She’s taken that incredible quality across the country for the last year, focusing much of her time and energy on children.

“Not having grown up in Nebraska, this year took me to so many new places!” said Alyssa.  “Just being able to reach Nebraskans across the state was such a wonderful experience.  Whether it was a Pumpkin Chuckin’ in a cornfield in northeastern Nebraska, a small town elementary school with a total of 42 students, or a large scale fundraising Gala in downtown Omaha, I was able to reach out to the people of Nebraska on so many levels.  If anything, this year reminded me just how much I love being a part of the Cornhusker State.”

Alyssa visited dozens of schools across Nebraska, and four Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in several states.  THAT has been Alyssa’s passion for years now, connecting with sick children through her Miracle Bags program.

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Alyssa recruiting 2016 Miss Nebraska contestants to put together and deliver bags of goodies, ‘Miracle Bags’ to kids at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital & Medical Center

CLICK HERE to watch KETV’s story about Alyssa & her Miracle Bags!

“As soon as I won Miss Nebraska, one of my priorities for the year was to impact as many children as I could with my Miracle Bags program,” said Alyssa.  “And with that goal in mind I was able to visit the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in Omaha, Denver, Milwaukee, and Washington DC, and deliver over 180 Miracle Bags!  Many people ask me how I am able to visit children who are in such dire situations, and not be completely depressed after the fact.  I always tell them that the feeling of seeing a child who is going through the most difficult time in their life light up at the sight of my crown and Miracle Bag is indescribable.  And I will never forget the parents who tell me that this is the first time they have seen their child smile in days.  Children’s Miracle Network will forever be a passion of mine.”

To countless families and children, Alyssa made a profound impact.  She also made a huge mark on the pageant world, when in September, she travelled to Atlantic City to represent Nebraska in the 2016 Miss America Pageant.

“I have watched the Miss America Pageant every year on TV since I can remember, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe that I would one day be on that stage!” said Alyssa.  “Even after winning Miss Nebraska, my goal for Miss America was to have a blast, meet some amazing girls, and represent Nebraska well.”

Check, check, CHECK.  And when 7-million Americans tuned in to see who would make the Top 15..

Left photo courtesy Getty Images

..they heard Miss Nebraska, Alyssa Howell.  I screamed and jumped in my living room.. Alysa’s family and friends were EXUBERANT in the crowd in Atlantic City.  With the confidence women dream of and the swagger of Bruno Mars, Alyssa strutted her stuff on that stage in Lifestyle and Fitness.. and sauntered right into the Top 12.

Photos courtesy Getty Images

“Being called into the Top 15 was a complete and total shock,” said Alyssa.  “Standing on that stage with 51 other talented, beautiful, intelligent women, I never thought that I would hear NEBRASKA called! I still get goosebumps when I watch the video.  When I made the Top 12, I was just so excited and honored to move on!  I was surrounded by some of my best friends in the competition and it was such a surreal moment.”

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Photo courtesy Getty Images

That is where Alyssa’s journey ended, sadly, before she could play her INCREDIBLE piano solo for America.  But when I spoke to her just a few weeks later at the Miss Omaha Pageant, Alyssa didn’t have ONE negative thing to say about her experience;  no trash talk on her fellow contestants, no coulda woulda shoulda’s.. simply a completely EXCITED outlook on what she could accomplish next in her home state as Miss Nebraska.  And holy cow.. has that been a lot.  After Miss America, Alyssa was featured in US Weekly and Pageantry magazines.  She was a high profile model in Omaha Fashion Week.  She secured and strengthened partnerships and sponsor connections with Omaha’s world renowned Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Sun Tan City, Kontempo. and nationally known stylist Kirby Keomysay among others.

Alyssa also became a frequent muse for photographers, taking part in numerous photo shoots with Deyo’s Photography in Nebraska and Jenn Cady Photography based in South Carolina.

Alyssa accepted every interview request that came her way, including the nationally recognized Pageant Junkies (CLICK HERE to listen!), Omaha’s KFAB and KETV (CLICK HERE to watch!)the North Platte Telegraph (CLICK HERE to read!), and ME!

“This year was definitely more challenging than I expected,” said Alyssa.  “Seeing all of the work Miss Nebraska does from Facebook and Instagram posts pales in comparison to the actual job.  What people don’t see is the full hair and makeup 4+ days a week, the early mornings, the days when I drive 8+ hours for an appearance, the days that I was sick, the days that I had three appearances and events.  Truly, this is a 24/7 job.  But what I also didn’t expect is how rewarding this whole experience would be! By going through everything this job requires, I have not only learned so many life skills, I have also learned so much about myself.  I know that if I can be Miss Nebraska, I can do anything.  This job has given me a strong sense of confidence about what I am capable of, as well as so many amazing memories and friendships!”

***

June 4, 2016.

I have the humbling honor of writing this blog post, chronicling Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell and her year of service.  Initially, I wanted to title this article Humble and Kind, inspired by the Tim McGraw song that to me, so reflects who this incredible young woman is.  Despite her jaw-dropping beauty, smile and grace, she doesn’t radiate a shred of arrogance.  She is giving, real, and most of all KIND.

Alyssa Howell is fire and gold.  She has a huge heart that she has opened to countless children over the last year and more, with the aura of a woman who can only be called QUEEN.  As this journey ends, she’ll pick up where she left off one year ago.. pursuing her Elementary Education degree at Creighton University, intending to impact even more children through her career, now with a big boost from her life experiences and financial awards from being Miss Nebraska.

“I have won over $20,000 in cash scholarships for school,” said Alyssa.  “This has made all the difference in my future!  I started at Creighton University with a total of $27,000 in student loans over four years.  Graduating to become an elementary school teacher with that debt was going to be difficult to say the least.  This program is first and foremost a scholarship organization, and I cannot say enough about the impact that Miss Nebraska and Miss America makes on young women who are getting a college education.”

As I close out.. I must share a ‘shout out’ to part of  Alyssa’s dream team.. her boyfriend, Grady, and her directors, Kayla and Rachel.

These three are superstars in their own right; people who have been in Alyssa’s corner since the moment that crown was placed on her head.  They have also become near and dear to my heart with their humor, loyalty and dedication to helping Alyssa become the absolute best she could be.  Each of this year’s 36 women I’ve profiled have set out to make the world a better place, supported emotionally and otherwise by their own #TeamAlyssa’s.  To ALL of you, THANK YOU for helping these fires burn so brightly, for allowing these gems to sparkle.  They’re about to embark on one of the craziest, exhausting, yet exhilarating weeks of their lives.. and they’ll need you.

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“To this year’s contestants, whether you win or not, Miss Nebraska week is the most fun you will ever have!” said Alyssa.  “Don’t let the stress get to you, and don’t take yourself too seriously.  Just have fun and enjoy that time that you get with your Miss Nebraska sisters!  To Miss Nebraska 2016, I am so incredibly excited to see everything that this year has in store for you!  Remember to make this year your own, to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, and find those small moments that make every challenge worth it.  Most importantly, remember that this is a year of service.  Never underestimate what an impact a crown and a sash can make.”

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

***

CLICK HERE to follow Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell

on Facebook and on Instagram.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALYSSA?

2015 * ROAR

2015 * Miracle Worker

2014 * The Kid Whisperer

***

CLICK HERE to meet the 2016 Miss Nebraska Pageant contestants!

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

***

PREVIOUS.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien!

CHECK BACK for my 2016 Miss Nebraska Pageant ReCap, and for a look at Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell’s farewell video!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Twirling To The Top

Last night, I had one of those moments where I just stopped, breathed deeply, and thought ‘this is the life!’  My boys, my man and I were all at the pool.. I was listening to them splash and laugh together, while I laid in the glorious sun for a few blissful minutes.

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Then I immediately felt GUILT… why was I just lying there?!? I should have been in the pool WITH them, right?!?  I *hope my guilt was unfounded.. that after a long two months of blog-writing, documentary-producing, news-anchoring, event-emceeing, etc… it was OK for me to sit and relax.

However, there are those among us who never stop.  They use every moment of every day to their full advantage.They rarely take a break for downtime… and in return, every day they are one step closer to the top of whatever peak they are climbing.  They define ‘outstanding’ in their attitudes, goals, and the way they touch people along that journey.

Steffany Lien has spent the last year twirling to the top.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“It has been a busy year, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way!’ said Steffany, who  next week, will pass on her title as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  Anyone who was there to watch Steffany last year (click here to read more!) will tell you how outstanding this young woman truly is.

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Steffany started her year as Miss Nebraska’s Oustanding Teen with media coverage across Nebraska.  CLICK HERE to read her story in the Lincoln Journal Star!

Let’s start with her talent… which is WORLD CLASS.

“I compete with baton twirling,” said Steffany.

OK, STOP.  Steffany doesn’t just COMPETE with baton twirling

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Photo courtesy Blinq Studio

Steffany is a 6-TIME World Champion baton twirler.  Her talent WOWED the crowd at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen (more on that later..) and leaves audiences EVERYWHERE in awe.  Steffany and her incredible gift have been featured by Omaha’s Metro Magazine, by television news outlets, by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, by the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, even as part of the Pegasus Parade at the Kentucky Derby.  This spring, she was also selected by the University of Louisville to be the school’s featured twirler, a highly coveted position including a full-ride scholarship.Folks, that’s $25,000+ A YEAR.

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Steffany has fine-tuned and perfected this incredible gift with years of training and performing, and showcasing her art has been a highlight of her year as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

“I was invited to perform for the Big Red Tailgate to benefit the Completely Kids Program in Omaha,” said Steffany.  “Not only was I proud to be the headliner at the event that raised $175,000 to combat childhood hunger and provide after school programs, but Tommie Frazier sang ‘Dear Old Nebraska U’ a capella while I twirled!”

“Performing at the Kentucky Derby and the Pegasus Parade was clearly a highlight of my year,” said Steffany.  “When I signed autographs and took pictures with people at a festival the same weekend in Kentucky, the people there couldn’t have been nicer to Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen!”

CLICK HERE to read more about Steffany’s performance at Churchill Downs, thanks to the Lincoln Journal Star!

As I’ve written about previously, the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program is the ‘little sister’ organziation to Miss Nebraska, all part of the Miss America Organization.  One of the biggest differences between the Teen and Miss program.. these teens are also STUDENTS.  While their Miss counterparts often defer their college entrance or postpone classes during their year of service, Teen titleholders take part in events and service all year IN ADDITION to their time in the classroom.  Steffany is no exception; in fact, she’s set a new standard for what is possible, even expected, out of these exceptional young women.

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“I dance and compete with Madonna ProActive Dance Team, I teach baton twirling at Madonna ProActive, I’m in National Honor Society, and I’ve maintained a weighted 4.28 GPA,” said Steffany, who just graduated this May from Lincoln Southwest High School.  “Most importantly, I had decided early on to leave a legacy of active participation at charitable events, so this year I performed at, appeared for, and worked at an average of two events a week for the year.  This means that I have participated in over 110 events as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  My white sash is now grey, my crown is spotted from raindrops and races, my tennis shoes have logged miles for health runs, and I need new heels!  It has been a very busy schedule, but I have loved every moment because I will remember these experiences for the rest of my life.”

The montage above barely scratches the SURFACE of the photos posted on the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Facebook page, showcasing Steffany’s service this year.  She also returned to Peru on a mission trip with orphans, work she has dedicated countless hours to over the years. (Click here to read more!)

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“When I became Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen, I expected to be out and about in the community, attending charity events and promoting a variety of organizations,” said Steffany, who has volunteered for the Child Advocacy Center of Lincoln, Kids Against Hunger, March of Dimes of Omaha, Food Bank of Lincoln, People’s City Mission, the Autism Family Network, the Alzheimer’s Association, Pinwheels for Prevention, the LSW Parent’s Advisory Council… the list goes ON AND ON AND ON.  “While this was my main focus throughout the year, the part I had not anticipated was how much these experiences would change me and how I view life.”

THIS is the caliber of young woman we want to represent our state, do we not?  And Steffany did, oh so well, at the 2016 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant in Orlando, Florida.

For the second year in a row, Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen finished in the Top 10 in this national competition, in front of the 2016 Miss America Class and tens of thousands, if not more, online.  Steffany had a clear impact on the audience and the organization, later featured by MAOT on their Facebook page, and drawing wide support from fans across social media.

CLICK HERE to read more about Steffany’s success at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, in an article featured by KETV!

“Miss America’s Outstanding Teen was amazing, and so different from any other experience I’ve ever had,” said Steffany.  “I loved meeting other young women from across the US, and gaining friendships that will last a lifetime.  I was surprised to hear my name in the Top 10, because every girl competing at MAOTeen was well-spoke, talented, and we had all been working hard leading up to the national pageant.  For me, it was just an honor to be standing among them, but it was also satisfying to maek the Top 10 and be able to represent Nebraska at the competition.”

TONY BOWLS

Steffany came home from Orlando with $3100 in scholarship money, adding to the $1500 she won at Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  She also caught the attention of designers Tony Bowls and Ashley Lauren, nationally renowed photographer Jenn Cady, as well as Lincoln boutique The Black Swan, leading to several modelling opportunities throughout her year.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

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“The big events, the fashion shots with Ashley Lauren and Tony Bowls, and all of those wonderful purple bags from the Black Swan Dress Boutique bring me more pleasure than I’d like to admit,” said Steffany.  “However, I had one recent experience that made me understand the real meaning of being an outstanding teen.  Last week, a mom unpacked her daughter’s backpack at the end of the school year.  In it, she found a paper her daughter had written in school after given an assignment to write about someone that is important to her.  I was surprised this quiet, thoughtful child wrote about me.  I had no idea the impact on her values and her perspective about my attitude and ‘kindness’.  And although I giggled that she wrote I am the ‘world’s most amazing teen’, I am humbled and know that the title of Miss Nebraskas’ Outstanding Teen is one that I hold for life and that I better live up to this little girl’s expectations!”

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One year ago, Steffany Lien looked up and focused on her goals and dreams.  While many of us would get tired, and take a break, she kept climbing.. or in her case, twirling.

When Steffany represented Nebraska on the national stage this year, her program’s new directors, Kali Tripp and Heather Edwards, created her catch phrase: #TwirlingToTheTop.

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Steffany Lien has EARNED blissful moments poolside or otherwise.  She IS the top.. the essence of what it means to be outstanding, and a young woman our state will continue to be so very proud of.

JENN CADY

Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

Even now, as the clock winds down on her time as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen, Steffany continues to put others ahead of herself.

“More than anything, I am thrilled for the next girl who will earn the crown, and can’t wait to see all the great qualities she will bring to this organization and how she will represent Nebraska.”

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***

CLICK HERE to follow Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien on Instagram

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT STEFFANY?

2015 * Vision For The Future

For more information on becoming a Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestant, contact Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com or Director Kali Tripp at kalinicoletv@gmail.com.

***

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

***

PREVIOUS.. SPECIAL FEATURE: Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell!

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Special Feature: Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell

My dad told me once, ‘if you love what you do, it never feels like work.  Every day, you go to do something you enjoy, and you just get paid for it!’

I’ve been interviewing and writing about Miss Nebraska contestants for three years now.  Many have said they are competing for a JOB.  You’re about to meet a young woman proving every single day that is EXACTLY what this honor is.

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Photo courtesy Matt Boyd Photography and the Miss America Organization

Betty Cantrell is Miss America 2016.  To anyone who thinks all beauty queens do is wave their hands and smile.. STEP BACK.

“A normal day for me is getting up super early, putting on a lot of makeup, making sure my hair looks nice, and doing a full day of events,” Betty told me earlier this month.  “Usually a full day is about 12 hours; I’m always ready to crash by the end of the day.”

Betty’s journey to Miss America started in 2013, when she entered a local pageant in her home state, hoping to become Miss Georgia.  Betty finished as 1st or 2nd runner-up three times before winning a local title, and went on to place 2nd runner up at the 2014 Miss Georgia Pageant.  Betty tried again just weeks later, becoming Miss Warner Robins 2015.  Representing her hometown, Betty was crowned Miss Georgia 2015, winning $15,000 in scholarship money and a ticket to compete at Miss America.

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Photo courtesy Matt Boyd Photography

“I decided to begin competing in pageants for the scholarship opportunities offered by the Miss America Organization and because I love to sing and I really enjoyed competing in talent competitions,” said Betty.  “I just really loved everything this organization stood for: Scholarship, Service, Style and Success. (Those are the four points of the crown, the 4 S’s.)”

Betty had less than three months to prepare for Miss America; she tells me she prepped the same as she did for Miss Georgia (just stressed out a little bit more.)  Immediately, she caught the attention of the Twitterverse that follows Miss America, and everyone following the chatter at home, by winning one of only 3 preliminary talent awards with her powerful vocal performance of ‘Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!’ from Madama Butterfly.

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Photo courtesy The Miss America Organization/Bruce V. Boyajian; CLICK HERE to watch Betty’s performance!

“I loved winning preliminary talent at Miss America,” said Betty.  “If I hadn’t won the competition, winning talent would have been enough for me.  I love to perform, so being validated on my talent on a national level was amazing.  I also made SOOO many friends at Miss America and I’m so grateful for those friendships because I know they will last forever.”

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The 2016 Miss America Pageant titleholders surprising Betty with a birthday treat; she celebrated her 21st birthday while she competed at Miss America. (Photo courtesy the Miss America Organization)

FINALS NIGHT.. with approximately 7-million people watching across the country, Miss Georgia Betty Cantrell was crowned Miss America 2016.  She is only the 2nd Georgia representative to win the title, taking home $52,000 in scholarship money.

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Photo courtesy The Miss America Organization/Bruce V. Boyajian

“I couldn’t believe that I had just won,” said Betty.  “I was so thankful to the judges for picking me and for seeing through my imperfections.  They saw that I’m the real deal and could be a good role model for young people everywhere.”

Those ‘imperfections’…. during her final moments before she won the title, Betty took on a complicated question on stage regarding ‘Deflategate’, and had a minor trip in her evening gown.

First, let’s take a step back.  How many times have you tripped in the office, at the mall, or anywhere else… we all do it!  Second, all of the Top 7 finalists at this year’s competition were put on the spot about some of the hottest topics and issues we face today.. and they had courage under fire in front of 7-MILLION people!

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Photo courtesy the Miss America Organization

Still, haters gonna hate.. and Betty (like many Miss Americas before her) faced almost immediate criticism that the judges made the wrong choice.  Despite an overwhelming, and sometimes hateful social and mainstream media storm, Betty IMMEDIATELY got to work, ready to make a difference as Miss America 2016.

 Literally, from New York to LA, Betty Cantrell set out to cover the country and impact as many people as possible.  She accepted countless interviews, she visited the New York Stock Exchange, she rubbed elbows with Hollywood celebrities, and always made time for the children that matter to her most, pediatric patients in Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

“I always love doing events with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals,” Betty told me.  “CMNH is the official platform of the organization and I love kids, so anytime I get to work with them is just awesome.”

Then in December, just three months into her reign, Betty did something jaw-dropping..

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..she chopped off all the long, gorgeous hair so many associate with beauty queens.  With Miss America.  Betty did it to donate to pediatric cancer patients who needed it, and with that, inspired countless teens and women after her to follow her lead.

Betty Cantrell has advocated for farmers and 4H.  She’s taken part in the USO tour, singing for men and women around the world serving our country.  She’s performed for school after school after school, dazzling children everywhere with her INCREDIBLE rendition of ‘Let It Go’.

And in a time where people seem to increasingly have a negative connotation of pageants, Betty Cantrell has brought the Miss America brand back into the forefront.  She’s spoken and performed in front of the Georgia legislature.  She’s drawn 65,000 followers on Twitter.  She’s presented and/or performed at some of the country’s biggest events and awards shows, making friends with some of America’s most popular performers.

Red carpet photo courtesy Getty Images

“My favorite appearances so far have been the CMA’s and the ACM awards shows,” said Betty, who was also featured in People Magazine’s Best Dressed list after the events.  “I’m an aspiring country singer, so hanging out with all of the country artists I look up to is always pretty thrilling.”

Every time someone sees Miss America at a respected event, I’d argue that’s one more person who might think ‘hmm, what’s this Miss America thing all about?’ and maybe find out a little more about the thousands of young women competing, earning thousands in scholarships, and making a difference in their communities.  Betty, for example, partnered early on with Team FNV to promote her platform ‘Healthy Children, Strong America.’  Joining her mission.. actresses Jessica Alba and Kristen Bell, NBA star Stephen Curry and singer Nick Jonas.

“I have now partnered with the American Farm Bureau to help spread the word about kids eating healthy, exercising, and learning about where their food comes from!” said Betty.

The one thing NOT mentioned in my interview with Betty… a break.  Because she rarely gets one.  As Nebraska prepares to crown a new titleholder in just weeks, Miss America 2016 is preparing to hand over her crown, and resume life as simply, Betty Cantrell.

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“I am looking forward to having a normal life again!” said Betty.  “My plan is to move to Nashville and work on my country singing career.”  (Click here to follow Betty’s new professional account on Twitter!)

Maybe you’ve watched Miss America your whole life.  Maybe you’ve tried to AVOID Miss America your whole life.. not wanting to feed into a culture that subjects women to swimsuits, high heels and objectification.

If you’re the latter, Betty Cantrell has a message for you.

“This is a fun and philanthropic way to be a role model and earn scholarships to further your education,” said Betty.  (Quick recap: Betty, a Mercer University student, has made more than $67,000 in scholarships competing in the Miss America Organization.)  “Another reason to compete is for the friendships you make that will last a lifetime.  I was skeptical at first, too, but when I really learned what the organization is all about, I was so happy I chose to be involved.”

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To the women hoping to become Miss Nebraska.. dreaming of becoming the woman Betty crowns Miss America in just three short months, a reminder.

“My number one piece of advice to every contestant in every state is just to be yourself,” said Betty.  “Show those judges what makes you special and unique.  Be confidently and unapologetically, you!”

And Miss America 2016 has no apologies.  She’s a farm girl, a Georgia peach, perfectly imperfect, a Mercer Bear, a country star-in-the-making, a daughter, granddaughter, and friend.  She is Baciliky Andris ‘Betty’ Cantrell, a girl given a name meaning’royalty’.. a woman showing her country what being a queen is all about.

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“I want people to remember me as the different Miss America,” said Betty.  “The Miss America who didn’t care what the haters had to say.  The one who chopped off her hair and donated it.  The one who grew up on a farm and became Miss America.  I just want people to remember me as a Miss America that changed the stigma of what Miss America is and should be, forever.”

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My sincere thanks to Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell for taking the time for our interview, and to  the Miss America Organization’s Chelsea Mineur for facilitating this!

To learn more about Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, click each link to follow

on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram.  You can also CLICK HERE to visit the Miss America Organization Facebook page for a full list of resources and information about Betty and the program.  The 2017 Miss America Pageant takes place September 11 on ABC!

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CLICK HERE to meet the 2016 Miss Nebraska Pageant contestants!

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Sheridan Blanco!

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Let’s Dance

First off, a HUGE congratulations to Omaha teen Tharein Potuhera, the 14-year old who is one of only 45 students in America to make it to the finals of the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee.  This guy is AWESOME, not only representing our city and his school, St. Wenceslaus, but drawing smiles and thumbs-up nationwide with his signature ‘dab’ on stage.

Learn more about Tharein and his awesome moves here!

When we saw this last night.. my co-anchor Rob knew what Tharein was doing.  So did sports superstar Andy Kendeigh.  Our chief meteorologist Bill Randby even had the moves down.

Really.. Rob and Andy are crazy awesome–just watch!

Thanks to KETV viewer Paloma Power for tweeting that… and reminding me I HAVE NO MOVES.  NONE.  Really.. what happened that in my formative years that led to my body just crumbling in on itself whenever I try to move with grace and style?

I digress.. GREAT JOB, Tharein!!! We are SO very impressed by your intelligence AND personality.. and I personally am once again in awe of anyone with ‘the moves’, teens like Gering’s Sheridan Blanco, who will be showcasing her talent in front of hundreds of people in just a few short weeks.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

Sheridan is a sophomore dance team member at Gering High School, and she’s also Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen 2016.

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From the Miss Alliance/Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Oustanding Teen Pageant Facebook Page on November 29,2015: We are so proud to introduce our new titleholder-Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen, Sheridan Blanco!’

Within days, Sheridan was taking part in community events, braving the elements for the Alliance Christmas Parade with her fellow titleholder, Cherokee Purviance, Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen.

Just weeks later, Sheridan and Cherokee were volunteering again, judging a cupcake contest for an Alliance Girl Scouts group.

Winning a local title almost meant Sheridan was eligible to compete for the title of Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen, which includes fitness, interview, evening gown and talent.

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From the Miss Alliance/Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Oustanding Teen Pageant Facebook Page on April 2, 2016: ‘Great day prepping for #MNOTeen!’

 The talent portion is no problem for Sheridan.. in addition to her dance background, she’s also a member of the POMS team, choir and band at Gering High.

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The Bulldogs dance squad not only performs; they also volunteer in the community, an effort going hand-in-hand with Sheridan’s new role as Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s OT.  No doubt they’ll be cheering her on as she heads to North Platte to compete in June, along with her THREE beautiful sisters!

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One nicknamed her ‘Baby Sista’ in a Facebook post.. her friends call her ‘Sher-Bear’.  Sheridan Blanco hopes you get to know her as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.. and whenever her name is called, she’s got some GREAT moves to celebrate the moment!

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For more information about the Miss Alliance’s OT/Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s OT/Miss Panhandle’s Outstanding Teen pageant, CLICK HERE to visit their Facebook page.  For information on becoming a contestant, contact Director Melinda Cullan by phone at 308-710-5593, or by email at maot.alliance@gmail.com.

For more information on becoming a Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestant, contact Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com or Director Kali Tripp at kalinicoletv@gmail.com.

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The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Old West Balloon Fest’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Brianna Little!

NEXT.. SPECIAL FEATURE: Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Bring It On

If you follow my blog (THANK YOU!!) you may have noticed I LOVE highlighting good people doing good things.  It reminds me our future is bright, that there are kids and young people willing to work hard, who put others first, who simply want to make the world a better place.  With that in mind.. last February, I pursued a story about the Millard West Varsity Cheer Squad, heading back to nationals after winning the title the previous EIGHT years. I wanted to give these girls some attention and publicity for their hard work, but I don’t know that I had a vision in my mind of what cheer would look like.. or how much it takes to win a national title.

One of the first things I saw was EVERY, SINGLE, GIRL do a standing back tuck.  At the same time.  Synchronized.  These girls tumbled.  They danced.  They had attitude and energy.  They took a break, and they did it all over again.  I think I pulled my hammy just watching them.

CLICK HERE to watch KETV’s story: Millard West Cheer Working Hard To Continue Tradition Of Excellence

This ain’t your momma’s cheerleading.  Brianna Little knows that.  452 miles west of Omaha, the Scottsbluff native is hard at work several hours a week as a member of one of the top cheer programs in the region.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“The only All Star squad in Nebraska is about 6 hours away, so I attend Windsor All Stars in Windsor, Colorado,” Brianna told me recently.  “That means traveling a little over two hours, both ways, twice a week for a three hour practice!  I spend countless hours in the car studying and doing homework.”

Maybe it’s the cheerleader mentality.. anytime you feel tired you shake it off and yell ‘O-K!’  My apologies.  Terrible cheerleader joke.. especially considering what this young lady has accomplished over the last year.

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At just 15-years old, Brianna was crowned Miss Old West Balloon Fest’s Outstanding Teen 2016.  The sophomore at Scottsbluff High School  is also a nationals-qualifying member of HOSA (Future Health Professionals of America Club),  a peer to peer mentor with her school’s special education program, and she maintains a 4.043 GPA despite her advanced course schedule.  Still, when given a crown and sash that represents style, success, scholarship, and service, Brianna said ‘BRING IT ON.’

“To me, the most important thing in life is to not back down from it, but embrace it,” said Brianna.  “Don’t be afraid to make your own path because it just may lead to life’s greatest joys and secrets.  Everyday I thank God for blessing me with a determination to go after all life has to give, not only to myself but to others as well.”

Brianna devoted herself to BEING an outstanding teen in her community, volunteering at event after event, week after week.  She especially sought out anything to do with her platform, ‘Special Love for Special Needs,’ after forming a close friendship with a boy with Autism.

“Through my platform this year, I have helped with the Team Lydia Benefit, attended the Special Needs Prom for Meridian Schools, ran in the Torch Run for the Special Olympics, and participated in the Polar Plunge,” said Brianna.  “My dream is to one day partner with my role model, Tim Tebow, on his Tim Tebow Foundation.”

And just as her role model has raised millions of dollars for charity, Brianna too is already seeing tangible evidence of her hard work.  Just weeks ago, Brianna organized the Special Love For Special Needs 5K, securing corporate sponsors and drawing numerous participants.

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By the end of the event, Brianna had not only raised awareness for Camp Scott, a summer program for children with special needs, and for the Autism Society of Nebraska… she donated THOUSANDS of dollars to both causes.

AT the time she presented these checks, Brianna had NOT YET turned 16 years old.

“One of the most amazing experiences in my life has been receiving my title and helping those around me,” said Brianna.  “It has opened my eyes to a whole new world of service.  True joy is not found when you worry about yourself; it’s found when you impact others.  When you see the smiles and laughter of a child who is in need, the hope that is given to families, the sparkle in a girl’s eyes when she finally sees the beauty in herself, THAT is the purest, truest joy in life.”

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Brianna on Facebook: “I got to spend the evening with a pretty special little girl Saturday night.  Lydia has temporal lobe epilepsy and was given a service dog.  Training, however, is going to cost approximately $15,000.  Our community raised $6,200 Saturday to help with the costs.

Brianna and Miss Old West Balloon Fest 2016 Claire Holsinger have also done extensive work in their local schools, visiting classes and raising thousands MORE dollars for Miss America’s Community partner, Children’s Miracle Network.

Adding up those checks? That’s $4,200 IN DONATIONS, collected by Brianna in just a few months.  Yet, this young woman says she is the one who benefits.

“Through my participation in the Miss Nebraska Organization, I have really come out of my shell,” said Brianna.  “Before I became involved, I was really shy when meeting or being around a lot of people.  My communication skills have grown tremendously.  I am now confident expressing my opinion in all matters and have no problem talking to people I don’t know.  This has helped me achieve so many things in life, such as being a board member of the Team Lydia Foundation at just 15 years old, being successful as a salesperson, being able to express myself in any environment, and organizing an eent all of my own (which involves contacting many businesses and being able to project yourself as a professional partner in business agreements.)”

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Wanna take a dig at cheerleaders?

BRING IT.

If you weren’t convinced by the acrobatics and contagious work ethic from the Millard West Wildcats, just watch Brianna Little disprove EVERY stereotype you may have about cheerleaders.. and pageant girls for that matter.  A Scottsbluff camp now has an additional $1500 in their budget this summer.  The Autism Society of Nebraska can arrange family events and needed support activities with their donation.  Kids, who face so many challenges in life, felt extra-important on prom night.. because someone took a little extra time just for them.

This, all thanks to ONE YOUNG WOMAN.  A cheerleader and outstanding teen with limitless energy and zeal for life, who is still hungry to do more.

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“I feel I should be the next Miss Nebraska Outstanding Teen beause I strive to be a role model for and serve others,” said Brianna.  “I will show young girls to be confident in who they are and not let society define their beauty.  I will also be an example of scholarship and character for others to follow.  I will take every opportunity to serve in my community and my state, as well as be the best role model I can be through leading by example.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Old West Balloon Fest’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Brianna Little on Facebook.

For more information about the Miss Old West Balloon Fest Pageant, CLICK HERE to visit their Facebook page.  You can also find more information via the Scotts Bluff County Fair Pageant HERE on Facebook, and HERE on their website. For information on becoming a contestant, contact Director Cheryl Engelhaupt by phone at 308-783-2940 or at 308-635-8615.

For more information on becoming a Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestant, contact Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com or Director Kali Tripp at kalinicoletv@gmail.com.

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The 2016 Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place June 10 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Western Nebraska 2016 Marie Allison!

NEXT.. Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Sheridan Blanco!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!