Hairspray? Check. High heels? Check. College scholarship? Check.
Although the crown and sash are the icing on the cake, UCF students Crystal Ruiz and Abigail Dawn Cunnane hope to walk away with the cash to further finance their educations.
From June 28 to July 2, 48 women from locations spanning the state will compete in Lakeland in the hopes of being crowned Miss Florida and for the chance to compete in the Miss America pageant in September.
Currently the reigning Miss Miami-Dade, Crystal Ruiz, a senior broadcast journalism major, hopes to one day become an anchor for ABC’s Good Morning America. The scholarships that she has received from competing in pageants have allowed her to attend UCF and chase her dreams.
“I’m using my scholarship money to further my education, and I’m using it to go to UCF,” she said.
For a girl who grew up wanting to spend her life in front of a camera and in the spotlight, Ruiz wasn’t always so confident and outgoing. She competed in her first pageant at the age of 12 after persuading her parents to let her compete.
“I was really shy, and my parents weren’t up to it at first because of all the stereotypes [associated with pageants],” she said.
However, Ruiz found a very supportive community within the pageant world and said that it’s been a very positive experience.
“I want to show people that pageants are more about bringing up women than tearing them down,” she said.
Miss Manatee River Abigail Dawn Cunnane, a senior political science major, said pageants have also helped her with her self-esteem. She didn’t start competing in pageants until she was 18, but has already received more than $2,000, which she used to pay for tuition. Cunnane wants to attain a law degree after graduating from UCF and practice state law.
“I’m financially independent, so I do need outside scholarships,” she said. “I’ve used scholarship money from Miss America to pay off loans.”
She said that she has gained more than she could have ever imagined from competing in pageants.
“The pageants have given me a lot of self-confidence,” Cunnane said. “I have become more poised. I now have all the characteristics that I always wanted.”
She also said that through the Miss America Organization she has met many women that she admires.
“I have a lot of positive role models within the organization,” she said.
The last Floridian to win Miss America was Ericka Dunlap, a UCF alumna who won in 2004. She went on to compete in The Amazing Race. According to her Twitter, she is now a “Ladylike life coach, diversity advocate, and motivational speaker.”
Miss Florida is a part of the Miss America Organization. The Miss America Organization is “the nation’s leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women,” according to its website.
Don’t call it a beauty pageant, because it’s about so much more than that, said Mary Sullivan, president and executive director of the Miss Florida Scholarship Pageant.
“Our whole organization is focused on education,” she said.
This year, the Miss Florida pageant will give out $60,000 in cash scholarships, which can be used to pay for things such as tuition, textbooks and housing, Sullivan said. Well-rounded women have the best chance of winning the crown.
“We look for women who want to excel academically and are community and service-minded,” she said.
Sullivan emphasized that the key qualities for success in the pageant are drive and motivation.
“We are looking for women who are driven to succeed,” she said. “If a women is driven to succeed, then she is going to want to excel in all areas of her life.”
Both Ruiz and Cunnane will grace the stage in Lakeland as representatives of their respective areas. If either of them wins Miss Florida, they will go on to compete in the Miss America pageant in September.
Jillian James is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Email her at JillianJ@CentralFloridaFuture.com.