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.

2 thoughts on “The Year of the Phoenix

  1. Pingback: Fire and Gold | Anchor's Away

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