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The Sisterhood Is Real

As long as I can remember, I’ve had very vivid dreams. I swear I dreamt of my husband before we met, and I fully admit that I am less than pleasant with him if I have a nightmare about him falling for another woman. I dream about flying quite a bit.. and dreams about falling, especially careening off the Missouri River bridge, FREAK ME OUT.

This week, I had a dream about my pal, Alex Bisson. So random – I haven’t seen Alex since last summer! But that’s how my whackadoodle brain works sometimes.

I dreamt I was supposed to be emceeing a big awards ceremony. Everyone was dressed up.. and I was in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Then, to make matters worse, I was petting dogs at the animal exhibit (because why wouldn’t there be an animal exhibit at a high-profile awards ceremony?) and a goat threw up all over me. WHAT TO DO? I suddenly remembered that across the high school (because that’s suddenly where the event was held) there might have been a spare set of clothes in the KETV wardrobe closet (which also happened to be at said high school). I sprinted there as fast as I could, made it to the closet, and nearly burst into tears when I realized there was NOTHING that would work. I opened the door…. and there stood Alex, saying “I can help!” She magically found me one of her anchoring outfits, helped me change, and I rushed back to the event where I joined Rob and elegantly shared with the audience how I was late because a goat threw up on me. Everyone had a nice laugh and we moved on – the event was a success and no one remembered me being late or looking like a dirty hamper.

WHAT. IN. ALL. THE. HECK.

Plankton in Brain

I seriously wonder sometimes what is going on in my hairspray infused skull. The next morning though, the overwhelming feeling I woke up with was peace and gratitude for Alex, that she was there for me to help.

Alex and I became friends when she began working at KETV as a reporter, then the First News Anchor. I was asked a question frequently in my time at KETV: do you get along with the other women? I think there was an assumption that we were competitors; we were all vying for air time, the same prime time spots, and therefore, we must have all had secret contempt for each other. SO FAR FROM THE TRUTH.

girls

This photo was taken in October at Adrian Whitsett’s wedding in Florida. My caption with this on Facebook and Twitter: my heart is happy. The women shown here all worked for KETV at some point (two still do!) We were not competitors; we were teammates. We turned to each other for advice and support. We cheered each other on when we found success. We shared clothes, makeup, hairspray (A LOT of hairspray), and insight. In a way, we were very much sisters, connections that we confirmed were still strong during this wonderful trip. Because we were all facing similar challenges and comparable journeys, we understood one another in ways others could not.

I see the same love and support in another sisterhood: the Miss Nebraska Organization.

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Yes, each of these women wants, or has worked for, the same thing: the title of Miss Nebraska. But the environment surrounding them is not Miss Congeniality brawling, gossip-mongering, or vindictive game-playing. They form friendships that span years. They learn how to support like-minded women, an attribute that will serve them throughout their lives. And when they feel alone, juggling service, school, family and work… they reach out to the sisters who can empathize because they are doing it, too.

#TheSisterhoodIsReal

That phrase has become a universal message in recent weeks, one of the toughest times the Miss America Organization has faced in decades. Our program has been in national headlines, not for the goodwill we inspire, the opportunities we offer or the relationships we nurture, but for an email scandal and ensuing criticism of our organization as a whole.

Every time I see a tweet or post from someone questioning why we have beauty pageants in 2018, or why we parade around young women in swimsuits like a meat market… I fight the urge to reply. I want to write about the scholarships we offer thousands of young women every year. I want to write about the networking opportunities this program provides, the lessons in confidence, public speaking and presence, personal composure and more. I want to share my own experiences that only happened because I was once a Miss Nebraska local titleholder. I want to tell those critics about our success stories: the doctors, award-winning journalists, philanthropists, business owners, teachers, and more who all gained incomparable life skills and attributes because of this program.

What is wrong with BEAUTY? What is wrong with a woman feeling beautiful, and promoting beauty on the INSIDE as well as out?

I get the swimsuit argument; truly, I do. But I ask critics to look beyond their initial assessment: we live in a world of obesity, indulgence, heart disease, inactivity, high cholesterol… and let’s be frank, when you know you are going to be on stage in a swimsuit, you WORK HARD. You hit the gym, you eat clean, you BECOME HEALTHIER. We are hopefully building the foundation of health in these women that will last years beyond their time competing for a crown. More so, our program is evolving; we see women of varying shapes and sizes from the local to national level. Health is not defined as ‘skinny’; we see muscle, positive lifestyles, CONFIDENCE. In my years attending the Miss Nebraska Pageant, I have left not feeling ashamed for the women who walk that stage, but wanting to BE BETTER myself, and wanting to work to be the healthiest and most confident I can be.

I don’t post any of this when I see those negative remarks…. because HATERS GONNA HATE. There will ALWAYS be negative assumptions and unfounded opinions about our program. They don’t want to listen, and I would argue, many haven’t taken the time to learn more about what Miss Nebraska and the Miss America Organization stand for TODAY.

SERVICE. SUCCESS. SCHOLARSHIP. STYLE.

To those who WILL listen, we will show the world the value of this program through our titleholders’ stories. If you’re reading this, I encourage you to join me over the next few months as I introduce you to the women competing for the titles of Miss Nebraska and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen. They are scholars, public servants, artists. They are ART, they are inspiring, they are ambassadors of goodwill. They are proof of what our organization truly stands for; not objectifying women, but empowering them.

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I’ve written before about all of the positives I gained from being a local titleholder in this program. Cash scholarships. Speaking skills and confidence. Lessons in networking and learning from criticism. Learning how to take care of myself. Getting to sing in front of thousands of people. Traveling across the country. And learning the importance of supporting other women; in pageants, career and life, we are only competing with ourselves, not each other.

Haters, go ahead and hate. #TheSisterhoodIsReal. Miss America is relevant and empowering. This organization, much like my time at KETV, helped instill in me that we as women are better when we support each other and surround ourselves with others who are pushing to be the best versions of themselves.

Alex, my fellow anchor at KETV, is also a Miss America alum. She’s an NCAA record-holder in swimming, a goosebumps-inspiring singer, one hell of a softball player, a majestic woman and a beautiful human being.

We believe in this sisterhood… and in helping a sister out when goats attack. Alex, thanks for the outfit.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-9 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE to follow the Miss Nebraska Organization on Twitter, CLICK HERE to follow on Facebook, CLICK HERE to follow on Instagram.

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COMING UP.. Tristen Wecker, Miss Fur Trade Days 2018

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014 through 2017 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

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Follow The Rainbow

One of my favorite events I got to take part in during my time at KETV was Omaha Fashion Week. I know NOTHING about fashion (I’ve got a solid 5-outfit rotation and that’s it..) but I LOVE seeing it. OFW offers anything and everything you could envision, from swimwear, to children’s wear, to the most beautiful gowns to the craziest avant garde designs. CLICK HERE to read more about my adventures hosting Fashion Week while pregnant.. or about the time I became Fashion Roadkill in front of hundreds of people.

This is an event where the people are art as much as the garments. Every designer chooses different models based on that collection or their aesthetic. You will see rail-thin and plus-size women, translucent skin tones to the darkest ebony.  This showcase is a spectacular rainbow of color and life, a display of the array of beauty God created in so many different types of people.

This year, you’ll see the same thing at the 2017 Miss Nebraska Pageant.

Bags

The Class of 2017 spans from barely 5-feet to almost 6-feet tall (without heels!). We have dancers and singers, a SLAM poet and a violinist, pianists and a sign language artist.  They are young women with various backgrounds and ambitions, as different on the inside as they appear outside. It’s something one of these contestants is not just proud of, she’s made the message of diversity her mission during her time as a Miss Nebraska titleholder.

Miss Western Nebraska 2017 Devin Owens

“My platform ‘Representation Matters: The Importance in Being Present’, focuses on the importance of diverse role models/leaders/representatives in media, film, systems of government, our communities and beyond,” Devin told me recently. “With race, gender/sexuality, and religious issues being at the forefront of many of the national conversations/debates that we are having, it’s important to ensure that all are accurately, fairly and equally represented in various spaces.”

This is Devin’s first year as a Miss Nebraska titleholder, though she previously represented Nebraska in the Miss Black USA Ambassador pageant. Devin attracted media attention multiple times in that roll through her work to empower girls across the Omaha area.

“In the summer of 2015 I hosted the first ‘Queens For A Day’, which gave 20 young women from across the state the opportunity to feel like the queens they truly are,” said Devin. “Our day began at Memorial Park where we had a photo shoot with a professional photographer, and rode off to the spa in a VIP limousine. Once we arrived at the spa, each girl was able to get either a pedicure or manicure, we loaded back on the limo, and we went to decorate crowns.”

Queens for a Day 2015

CLICK HERE to read the Omaha World Herald’s story on Devin, or CLICK HERE to watch KETV’s story on her event!

This was the continuation of work Devin began in 2014 when she founded Project Poise, a leadership initiative for young women in need, focusing primarily on low income/needs based areas.

“Operating out of existing nonprofits, elementary and middle schools and after-school programs, I bring tailored programming to each site and work with young ladies on developing their core strengths,” said Devin. “Everyone has leadership potential, and my goal is to help these young ladies discover, embrace and grow within in their leadership potential.  I’ve had the privilege of working with over 250 young women in the last three years, and I am looking to impact even more as we delve into 2017.”

Solomon Girls Center

Devin has studied at both the University of Nebraska Lincoln and Omaha campuses, she’s worked at 10/11 News and now at the Peter Kiewit Foundation. So why add to an already busy schedule by competing for Miss Nebraska?

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“Overall I was once again ready to utilize the platform to serve and lead that the Miss Nebraska Organization offered and pageantry at large offered,” said Devin. “Upon winning the title of Miss Western Nebraska, I am really eager to learn more about the western portion of Nebraska that I haven’t been able to see as much residing in Omaha and Lincoln most of my life.”

Devin hit the ground running, lining up school visits to speak to students from all areas and backgrounds. She’s also extremely active on social media, stressing not only the work she is doing, but spreading the word about Miss Nebraska Organization sponsors and opportunities.

“I want those who are skeptical to know that we work hard, really hard, and are all passionate about the communities we serve and the platforms we advocate for,” said Devin. “For many of us, we wear multiple hats; whether that’s as students, employees, entreprenuers and more. I personally balance a full time job, being a student while paying my way through school, my own nonprofit organization and pageantry, not even considering personal or social obligations. While the many roles often leave little time for a personal life, I wouldn’t have it any other way. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Example is leadership’, and therefore I recognize the grave importance of my presence and activism in my community and state.”

Elementary School Visit

And while Devin’s main objective has been to empower others, she says she herself has been empowered by the experience, and the women she’ll compete with in just over a month.

“I am overwhelmed by the immense amount of opportunities to learn and serve my state,” said Devin. “One of the most important things to me when being a participant in a pageant is being able to walk away a better person than when you started the journey.  Having the opportunity to compete in three very different pageant systems, I must admit my favorite thing about the Miss Nebraska Organization is the sense of family I get from my sister queens, volunteers and state directors. I was nervous to enter another pageant system so ‘late in the game’ as I am 22 years old, but never once did I feel alone or isolated in my journey. It’s been a blessing to be surrounded by such amazing women from across the state.”

Our goal as volunteers who recruit women to compete for Miss Nebraska is to find the best representatives of our state and reward them for their hard work, talents and service. We don’t consider race, how much money a girl has, where she’s coming from or where she’s going. We are blind to who a young woman is when she reaches out to us saying ‘I’d like to learn more’, and we are willing to help anyone and everyone to become the best versions of themselves.

Devin and girl

Still, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t warm my heart this year to see a rainbow of little girls look up to our titleholders, maybe thinking ‘she’s just like me… and I can be just like her when I grow up.’

Devin in class

“When I close my eyes and dream of being Miss Nebraska, it’s an opportunity that I’d be so blessed and humbled to have,” said Devin. “I think about the potential lives I could impact, and bringing awareness to my platform on a large scale, it’s kind of scary, but an opportunity of a lifetime. Each member of this Miss Nebraska class brings something so unique to the forefront when considering who will represent our state next, so in any circumstance, the outcome will be great!”

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Click here to follow Miss Western Nebraska 2017 Devin Owens on Facebook, click here to follow her blog, ‘DJ Writing Out Loud’, click here to follow her on Twitter, and click here to follow Devin on Instagram.

Devin was crowned at Crowns & Gowns 2017, Nebraska’s largest annual prom/pageant showcase.  CLICK HERE for more details about the 2018 pageant and event! You can also email Director of the Miss Gering/Miss Western Nebraska Pageant, Heather Hayes, by emailing Heather.Hayes@charter.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more detailsHERE to follow on TwitterHERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Hannah Miller

NEXT.. The Perfect 10: Recap of the 2017 Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Finding Fate

This year, the night before a new Miss Nebraska is crowned, generations of our royal family and their fans will gather to celebrate 80 years of the Miss Nebraska Scholarship Program.  Our first recorded Miss Nebraska, Ruth Lenore Jones, was crowned in 1937.  Each year, we have not only sent an incredible state representative to compete at the Miss America Pageant, we have united and celebrated a class of extraordinary women from all corners of Nebraska.

LJS Miss Nebraska 1968

A clip from the Lincoln Journal Star, June 30, 1968.

As Miss Nebraska 1968 Diane Boldt was crowned, 1st Runner Up Charlene Warneke applauded alongside the rest of the Class of ’68.  That year’s Miss North Platte continued to be involved in our program for years after, eventually passing on that passion to her granddaughter Alexandria.

Miss York County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Alexandria Warneke

This weekend, 50 years after her grandmother finished as 1st Runner Up, Alexandria Warneke will compete to become Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

“I am passionate, committed, and will work hard to convey a positive image of Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen while promoting science education to girls,” said Alexandria.  The 17-year old is a junior at York High School, who hopes to one day become an environmental attorney.  That passion for science led Alexandria to focus her year as Miss York County’s OT on her platform, ‘Where a Beautiful Brain Can STEM From.’  Click here to read the York News-Times story on Alexandria!

“As a [female] student interested in science, I find myself in a minority at school,” said Alexandria.  “Fortunately, I am lucky to have many female science teachers to look up to and parents who have helped me thrive in a world where girls are outnumbered.  I strive to be a role model for young girls to show them how much fun they could have exploring new things in the world.”

Alexandria has visited science fairs and classrooms across her area to share her platform.  She talks about Margaret Hamilton, who wrote the coding and invented the software in the 1960’s that helped get Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.  She talks about the 66% of girls in fourth grade who say they are interested in science and math, and the less than 18% who end up majoring in engineering, or the 0.4% (yes, less than 1%) that major in computer science.  She also shares her own achievements in STEM fields; Alexandria has received the President’s Award for Educational Excellence, she’s a member of the state champion Science Olympiad team, and she’s currently taking four college-level courses at York High School.

Alexandria fix

“Currently, the world needs a lot of help from all of us to keep its natural resources and put a halt to further damage we cause,” said Alexandria.  “As Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen, I will be able to be a role model for many more young girls, and together, women can do amazing things to allow the world a brighter future.”

Alexandria notes she wants all girls to hear they can be brilliant AND beautiful, something she’s demonstrating to everyone who’s followed her journey.

Alexandria was chosen as a Prom Ambassador for the Black Swan Dress Boutique in Lincoln, modeling designer gowns for the business’s annual showcase.  She is also an award-winning dancer who has performed for the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company.  At school, Alexandria also participates in FBLA, Mock Trial, Show Choir, York Dukes Dance, Musical and Speech.

“I am beautiful, I am smart, I am outstanding,” said Alexandria.

Agreed.  And I guarantee one of the proud women who would echo all of this and be one of Alexandria Warneke’s biggest cheerleaders… her grandma, Charlene, who paved the way for this fateful journey 50 years ago.  Charlene Warneke died in North Platte in 2010, but last weekend, her granddaughter took a few minutes to take in all of her grandma’s accomplishments, and reflect on what’s to come in her own future.

Alex April 16

“I had an emotional talk with my family over Easter lunch, about my grandma Charlene Warneke,” Alexandria posted on Facebook.  “I’m so proud to be following her footsteps by competing for Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen next week! The Miss America system is in my blood, so Grandma, I will have you in my heart and mind during this amazing experience.”

Alexandria final

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The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.  For more information about becoming a contestant, email Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Fur Trade Days 2017 Courtney Pelland

NEXT.. Miss Western Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Whitney Miller

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

NamaSLAY

I have a new best friend.  I look forward to the time we spend together everyday.  My husband knows about this new friend.. and encourages our relationship.

vytas

Meet Vytas.  Vytas is really good at yoga.  Vytas is helping ME get better at yoga.

Note: I’ve never met Vytas.  He lives in my computer.  Please halt all potential warnings to Vytus about his creepy ‘friend’ Brandi.

Like so many, I struggle with my weight and nutrition.  I lose weight, then I lose interest and lose control.  I’m an emotional eater.  Pretty sure my body is 99% coffee instead of water.  When I was 18, I could get away with eating Chex Mix and Mt. Dew for breakfast.  Now, a few trips through the Runza drive-thru and the only thing that fits are my husband’s sweats (and he gets grumpy when I steal them!)  But aside from how I look and my confidence, my health has started to suffer because of my less than ideal lifestyle.  I feel like I’ve been sick in some form since early November.. and just after Christmas, I contracted strep throat.  A trip to the ER, 2 rounds of antibiotics and a week in bed later, I promised myself I was going to start doing a better job taking care of the body God has given me.

I’ve been trying Beachbody on the advice of my friend and stunning beauty, Amanda Soltero.  One of her challenges to kick off 2017 included 3-Week Yoga Retreat with Vytus.  I tried it.. and became hooked.  I LOVE the way yoga makes me feel.  I love awakening the muscles I used to stretch in gymnastics as a kid.  I love realizing I can touch the floor with my hands, or now keep my legs straight in downward dog.  I love when I automatically sit up straighter at my desk because the practice has already improved my posture and carriage.  Most of all, I love the RETREAT that yoga has provided me.. a chance to breathe deeply and for 30 minutes a day dissolve all of the stress and burdens that have piled on throughout the other 23 hours.

For a young woman from Omaha, this is a message of health and wellbeing she’s understood for quite some time.. one she’s now taking to children across eastern Nebraska.

Miss Omaha 2017 Wellesley Michael

“I am currently a yoga teacher and went through children’s yoga teacher training this summer,” said Wellesley.  “Both of those experiences led me to mindfullness.  I then continued my training on mindfullness with [my platform] ‘Mindful Schools: Peace Begins With Me’.”

A platform that skyrocketed last fall when Wellesley was crowned Miss Omaha 2017.

“I’ve always admired the women that have been in the Miss Nebraska Organization,” Wellesley told me recently.  “Then, when I was old enough, I felt as if it was time for me to stand up and be a leader and role model like the women who have been in the system before have been for me.”

A title doesn’t make you a role model.  A crown doesn’t make you a leader.  But Wellesley used both of those tools to find new audiences in schools across Omaha.

Wellesley sharing yoga and mindfulness with students at Westside’s Oakdale Elementary and at Brownell Talbot, where she attended school!

“Mindfullness is the act of paying attention on purpose without judgement,” said Wellesley.  “I’ve spent a large part of my year so far going to schools and working with students on techniques to help them breathe, focus, listen and just feel good!  In a world that is so chaotic and go-go-go we have to find a way to slow down.  It’s healthy! Mindfulness brings that stillness we are often missing.”

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Wellesley is also a frequent visitor to Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, delivering blankets over the winter holiday and bringing in Valentine’s Day crafts for patients this week.  She’s also partnered with businesses like Yogurtini in Lincoln to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network, the Miss America Organization’s community partner.

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“Three words to describe me are driven, organized and focused,” said Wellesley.  “Goal setting is one of my favorite things.  When I set a goal I dig in right away and figure out what it takes to get me to my dream.”

CLICK HERE to hear more from Wellesley during a guest appearance with Matt Tompkins on News Talk 1290!

These are the character traits Wellesley hopes stand out to both children and adults, attributes she credits in part to her participation in the Miss Nebraska Organization.

“This organization has helped me to clearly articulate my opinions and beliefs without fear,” said Wellesley.  “It has given me experience in skills I will always need such as interviewing and networking.  I go into a lot of situations with more confidence than ever because of this organization.  The fact that I get to even put on the Miss Omaha crown and sash and meet so many amazing people around my city is unreal to me.  The whole experience is a dream come true.”

Wellesley is clear: her big goal is to become Miss Nebraska.  However, she is also mindful of the big picture.  Wellesley is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student majoring in advertising/public relations and journalism and has authored her own fashion/pop culture blog for several years. CLICK HERE to check it out!

“Beyond the pageant world, I hope to one day combine my loves of journalism and yoga to work for a wellness magazine or website like The Yoga Journal or mindful.org,” said Wellesley.  “At the state pageant, my plan is just to do my best and get people thinking about mindfulness and all of its benefits.”

Wellesley and her fellow titleholders will be the first to tell you, just as yoga isn’t just ‘stretching’, competing for Miss Nebraska isn’t just slapping on makeup and waving your hand in parades.  They spend  hours in the gym every week.  They dedicate countless hours to people and causes they care deeply about.  They study, they work hard, they plan.  But at the end of each day, Wellesley also remembers to breathe deeply and to reflect.

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“Here’s a mindfulness tip before I go.  I do this everyday,” said Wellesley.  “Take five minutes, mute your phone and listen to your breath.  Maybe you say ‘inhale, exhale’ with each breath or count how many times you breathe.  Thoughts will come up and that’s ok!  After five minutes sit for a minute and notice how you feel.”

On behalf of this blossoming yoga instructor, Namaste.  To you, Miss Omaha Wellesley Michael, NamaSLAY.

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Photo courtesy Michael Dar

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Omaha 2017 Wellesley Michael’s blog, Wellesley Lauren.  You can also CLICK HERE to follow her on Facebook, or CLICK HERE to follow her on Twitter.  To contact Wellesley for appearances and speaking events, email wellesleymich@gmail.com.

For more information about the Miss Omaha/Miss Douglas County Pageant or to become a contestant CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Facebook, and CLICK HERE to follow on Twitter. You can also email missomahapageant@yahoo.com, or contact Director Marianne Grubaugh at ggrubaugh@cox.net.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Omaha’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Katie Harris

NEXT.. Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Phoenix Stanford

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Special Feature: Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev

FACT: You are more likely to have a son play in the Super Bowl than you are to have a daughter compete for Miss America.

This weekend, as people all over the US watch the biggest game of the year, dozens of women from across Nebraska are gathering in North Platte, hoping this is the first step in their journey to Atlantic City and the iconic crown.

Not so long ago, a New York college student was doing her own preparation.. planning, hard work and drive that ultimately catapulted her into the national spotlight and cemented her place in the storied history of the Miss America Program.

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Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev

“I will always be incredibly proud to be associated with the Miss America title,” Kira told me recently.  “Only about 90 women can even say that! It has enriched my life more than I can convey, not to mention the personal growth, relationships, and experiences I have had ever since.”

Kira grew up in California and showed early on she was a talented, charismatic leader.  She held two state pageant titles by 16 years old, she was Student Body President of her high school, and a member of the Varsity Cheerleading Squad.  Kira moved to New York after high school to triple major in political science, global studies and geography.  At Hofstra University, Kira maintained a 3.6 GPA, she studied in Barcelona and she held multiple internships in political consultancy in Washington DC.  Somewhere, she found time to compete for the title of Miss New York, winning on her second try in 2014.

“The thing about being Miss New York is that it’s unlike any other state, especially if you’ve spent any time living in the city,” said Kira.  “You are fighting to maintain relevance in a place that has so much other stuff going on, you can easily slip into the shadows. You are also being exposed to high profile events, people and opportunities constantly which is great preparation for Miss America. In New York our pageant culture is very unique. The girl is very much in charge of her own preparation. I chose every piece of my wardrobe, I worked hard to get sponsors that I wanted, and I took the subway to the Bronx and Brooklyn for appearances that I scheduled myself. We have an incredible board and support team, but Miss New York herself leads the charge. It is tough and requires grit but that’s a recipe for one heck of a Miss America contestant.”

Proof: Kira made history in September of 2014, becoming the 3rd straight Miss New York to be crowned Miss America.

“I remember a blur of screaming and lights and turning around to see all of my Miss America sisters smiling and clapping,” said Kira.”

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A dream come true for countless little girls and young women across America, one that was quickly tainted by a small group trying to muddy Kira’s reputation.  They criticized her talent, a song-and-Solo-cup routine mirroring Anna Kendrick’s viral video.  They questioned her character regarding her participation in sorority activities.  Here was a woman who speaks three languages, was an honors student with three majors, an elite golfer, and she just did the impossible by becoming the 3rd consecutive contestant from one state to win that national title.. and she was being virtually assaulted by critics within days of her groundbreaking success.

“People focus on the negatives because 1: It makes them feel better about themselves and 2: The higher you rise, the more people will want to tear you down, because that is just the way many people are,” said Kira.  “I learned that lesson very early on as Miss America.  It taught me who my true friends were and who was really there for me.  I don’t focus on the negative.  If I did, I would still be sitting and responding to the millions of nasty tweets and comments I’ve gotten over the last few years.  Instead, I focus on the positive, the amazing things I’ve been able to accomplish, and the goals I continue to aspire to.”

Kira won me over through her reign as Miss America… starting with this:

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…a photo shoot with her cup.  She stood tall in the face of all the haters and OWNED it.  Something about this photo made me smile and think ‘you go, girl!’

‘Miss America isn’t a talent show.  Talent is meant to show you can entertain, you can connect with people.  That is the job of Miss America.’

It was the first of MANY photos of Kira, taking the world by storm.

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Presenting at the Academy of Country Music Awards

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Red Carpet at the Billboard Music Awards

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Presenting at the American Music Awards

Kira returned the Miss America brand to the national spotlight, appearing at and/or presenting at numerous awards shows (and often featured in the Best Dressed section after!)  She was the first Miss America in 43 years to visit troops overseas with the USO.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of StaffUSO Spring Troop VisitVice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

And Kira shared her spotlight with her biggest.. yet smallest fans, as the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

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‘Remember when you are fundraising, there are tiny human beings on the other end who benefit from that.  No matter what challenges we face there are these little people who rely so much on us.’

She also embarked on a personal crusade against domestic violence, a campaign she dubbed ‘Put The Nail In It’.  She partnered with Safe Horizon, the nation’s leading victim assistance organization, and started a social media revolution.

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Kira painted her left ring fingernail purple, the color of the anti-domestic violence movement, and encouraged her half-million social media followers to do the same and unite together, as one collective voice, that we will support survivors and stop violence.  Music stars, professional athletes, reality TV stars, and countless others across America proudly painted and posted.

“No one can prepare themselves for suddenly being the face of a social media movement!” said Kira.  “But it was my greatest honor to be part of the creation of the ‘Put The Nail In It’ campaign.  It continues to garner huge impressions on social media while spreading awareness for the cause.  I couldn’t be more proud of it!”

By September of 2015, Kira Kazantsev was both sad to pass on her crown to new Miss America Betty Cantrell (click here to read more!) yet ready to begin a new adventure on her own.

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Photo courtesy People

 

“It was really hard for me to let go of a role I loved so much,” Kira told me.  “At the same time, I was ecstatic to take everything I’d learned and venture out into the world as just Kira.”

Kira has since expanded upon the connections she made and experiences she had as Miss America.  She’s hosted multiple events from the red carpet to the the non-profit world, she has performed and spoken at high profile venues across the country, and she’s played in numerous charity golf tournaments including the BMW Pro Am, and the Tiger Jam for the Tiger Woods Foundation.  She is now based in Los Angeles, using her extraordinary social media knowledge and experience as the Director of Community Engagement for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, the same organization she devoted so much of her life to as Miss America.

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Named one of the Most Beautiful Women In Golf by People Magazine & Golf.com

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Hosting Red Carpet coverage for the American Music Awards

“I’ve definitely taken time to travel and do things for me, but sometimes my schedule these days feels just as busy if not busier than my time as Miss America and I love that!” said Kira.  “I find that I’ve grown accustomed to that pace and If I’m not constantly doing something then I just feel a little off.  I try to balance as much as I can but there’s nothing better than the thrill of accomplishment.”

And through that balance, Kira continues to be a role model for women of all ages and backgrounds.  Through her social media and blog (click here for more!), Kira continues to advocate for health and fitness, chronicling how she faces the same challenges so many working women do regarding fast food and finding time to work out.

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“It is always a struggle,” Kira told me.  “I just remind myself that people battle disease, hunger, homelessness and far bigger problems than I could ever imagine every day, so I think I can find the will to make healthier eating choices and to get myself to the gym.  Now, I’m not always on top of it, but I do my best and that’s all anyone can do.  Life is full of choices and if we make the choice to take care of our bodies then somehow, someway, we find the time and we get it done.  It is all about perspective.”

Kira is sharing that insight with dozens of Nebraska women this weekend at Crowns and Gowns 2017 in North Platte as a featured guest.  She often thinks back on her own pageant journey, both her successes and her regrets.

“A million, but such is life and there is nothing I can do about them now,” said Kira.  “I try and work on this, but instinctually after every appearance, speech, and interaction, I turn it over in my head a million times.  Self doubt is my constant companion.  However, I know that I am being my best possible self and putting my best foot forward, always, and I am proud of everything I have accomplished and continue to pursue.”

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That is the self evaluation, the search within one’s self, that Kira hopes young women learn from her story.  To speak out on what you believe in.  To define this competition anyway you like and share your talents with the world.  To set larger than life goals whether you are a local titleholder, or Miss America.

“Miss America is evolving and the ones who can keep up with those changes and be cutting edge in their definition of titleholders will remain at the forefront,” said Kira.

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And to all of the young women competing for Miss Nebraska this year, dreaming of the day they could follow in Kira Kazantsev’s footsteps, this advocate, speaker, host and former Miss America has a message.

“Please just be YOU!” she said.  “Be genuine, real and off the cuff but always be prepared.  Do your research and work ahead of time and READY for a JOB.  This is more than a pageant, it’s an opportunity that can change your life forever and bring you incredible experiences.  At the same time, if it doesn’t work out, no big deal! We all have a plan and maybe being Miss Blah Blah isn’t part of yours and that’s ok.  Miss America is A dream, not THE dream.  There should be other things in your life that you are aspiring to like internships, colleges, charity work, and larger than life dreams.  You’ve got this, and only YOU can make it happen.”

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Photo courtesy Kristy Belcher Photography

‘As a  titleholder, you have the power to have a positive impact on somebody’s life.  That’s why we do this, it’s not for the crown, it’s for these kids.  It’s not about me, it’s about the title and what it makes people feel.  Hold on to who you are and be confident in the person you want to be.’

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Kira Kazantsev is available for public appearances and events.  For booking information and more about Kira, CLICK HERE to visit her website.  You can also follow Kira on social media: CLICK HERE to follow her on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook, HERE to follow on Instagram.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook

The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook

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PREVIOUS.. Brilliance (2017 Series Preview)

NEXT.. Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Sydny Ridgeway!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Brilliance

BRILLIANCE (n)

1. great brightness; luster
2. excellence or distinction; conspicuous talent, mental ability, etc.
3. splendor, elegance, or magnificence:

EXAMPLES OF BRILLIANCE:

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This week at work, my friend Kim asked me if I watched Miss Universe.  With that, she unknowingly invited me to share my original oratory for why I LOVE pageantry, and in particularly, the Miss Nebraska Organization.

 1. INSPIRATION. These women are clear evidence of how beautiful our bodies can be when we exercise, eat right and take care of ourselves.  Every single time I feel that fire within myself rekindling to JUST DO IT, looking like that IS POSSIBLE with focus and hard work.

2. RADIANCE.  I am a proud, strong, confidant woman.  I can be all of those things and still LOVE to dress up and feel like a queen.  The gowns, the glitz, and regarding Miss America, the beauty and art behind each talent performed on stage.. I LOVE IT.  Being a woman is a beautiful thing; focusing on that beauty and allowing each woman is radiate is spectacular.

3.  CONFIRMATION.  Evidence of the intelligence, articulation and confidence so many of these women possess in their interviews on stage and off.  Women at Miss Nebraska last year were asked questions on issues ranging from prison overcrowding, to education funding, to social media challenges.  These are real issues we as a society face, and in front of hundreds (and sometimes, millions of people on live TV), these women address each topic and prove time and time again you can look amazing, and FEEL fantastic, AND be BRILLIANT.

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And with that… the time has come for Year 4 of There She Is, my annual series profiling each of the Miss Nebraska and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestants.

This program is RELEVANT, providing countless opportunities for young women in our state to speak, perform and to raise money for their futures beyond pageantry.  Miss Nebraska 2014 Megan Swanson went on to perform the National Anthem for tens of thousands at the College World Series and is currently pursuing a recording career.  Miss Nebraska 2016 Aleah Peters has visited dozens of schools crisscrossing Nebraska to speak to children about cyberbullying and what they can do both before and after it happens.  Both she and Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell topped $20,000 in cash scholarships during their time competing for Miss Nebraska and then Miss America, money that helped both pay for their college educations.

One of the other things I have come to cherish about this program is the camaraderie it creates between the women who compete, and the women who work behind the scenes to make it happen.  I look forward to Miss Nebraska events all year long not only for the glitz and glamour, but to be surrounded by women who work everyday to ‘have it all’.  Our goals are so similar; to give to our families while serving others, to make sure we are hitting the gym and eating right despite nonstop schedules, to reach the top of our career fields the right way, through hard work, respect and kindness.

“Someone else’s strengths are not my weaknesses.”  

–Miss Pennsylvania 2014 Amanda Smith

We live in a competitive world, folks; I can’t tell you how many times people seemed surprised when I told them Melissa Fry was one of my dearest friends at KETV and that Julie Cornell was a leader and mentor to all of us.  Much like in the pageant world, I think people assume there’s an Anchorman/Miss Congeniality mentality where women are constantly fighting with each other to be the It Girl.  Programs like Miss Nebraska reinforce a culture of unity and support between women.  Is it competitive?  For sure.  But one of our constant goals is to teach women to compete with themselves and not others.  To focus on defeating procrastination, weakness, distractions, NOT other women.  To be the best THEY can be, and allowing others to inspire, not deflate.  Those lessons translate far beyond pageantry in teaching young women how to support each other, creating more positive work environments, support networks and friendships.  To better handle challenges and disappointments, to better foster team work and productivity.  I daresay these are intangible qualities that every employer in America prizes in their staff.

Happy February; the countdown has officially begun.  To this weekend’s Crowns and Gowns event in North Platte and to the final weeks and months leading up to the competitions that will determine the next two women to represent Nebraska in this storied organization.

If I can’t convince you to become a Pageant Junkie like me (shout out to the talented Carrie Lakey!), I ask you this.. to please support the women who take part.  They are talented.  They are beautiful inside and out.  They are intelligent and well spoken.

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Photo courtesy Kali Tripp

They are BRILLIANCE defined.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook

The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook

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To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

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!”

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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

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CLICK HERE to watch Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell’s Farewell Video

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

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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 Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien!

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska Pageant 2016 Recap: The Year of the Phoenix

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!