When Kacie West, the newly crowned Miss Montana 2010 and a former Kalispell resident, competes in the Miss America competition in Las Vegas this January, she will find the odds stacked against her. Excluding powerhouse California, the western states are not known for churning out champion pageant queens. It isn’t too much a stretch to say that the closest Montana has come to the crown was when Joe Montana had his picture taken with Miss America in 2009.
This isn’t to say that Miss Montana hasn’t had an effect on the competition. Miss Montana 1949 is responsible for the banning of animal acts after she and her palomino horse nearly fell into the orchestra pit during the talent competition.
Perhaps most hindering Montana’s success rate is the statewide lack of pageant culture and the industries that support it.
Most state-level competitions in the Miss America system are closed whereas Montana’s is open. In the neighboring Miss Idaho competition, 22 women competed for the crown, only after advancing from separate local competitions. At June’s Miss Montana competition, meanwhile, 13 contests competed, after doing nothing more than meeting the requirements and completing the paperwork.
“It’s very unusual in the Miss America system not to have any feeder competitions,” Cheri Kennedy said. “More experience would really help produce better contestants.”
Kennedy, a pageant coach based out of Minneapolis, Minn., has worked with past Miss Montana contestants. While she would like to see Montana produce contestants who are more prepared, she realizes the state’s limitations.
“They don’t have the things they need available, so it’s hard,” she said. “I’ve worked with girls in Wyoming who are in the same situation.”
The most needed pageant accoutrement is a stable of professional coaches. These men and women teach contestants how to glide across the stage in four-inch heels, converse with judges on world affairs and how to stay well-groomed and beaming under pressure. In the smoke-and-mirrors world of pageantry, their involvement is absolutely necessary.
Kennedy also points to the enormous number of pageants hosted within the states that produce the most winners.
“Georgia has at least two pageants every weekend and these girls are in them from a young age,” she said. “It’s amazing how good they are.”
Despite the impediments, Kennedy believes that the right Montana contestant can advance, if she possesses the drive and is willing to put in long hours of practice.
“These other girls are preparing like crazy; really in-depth preparation,” she said. “The most important thing in the Miss America system is finding a great talent-it has to be beyond-belief excellent.”
Forty years ago, the stars aligned for Joanna Lester in Atlantic City. Competing as Miss Montana 1961, Lester is one of only two Montana women to place in the top 10 at the Miss America competition. The last Miss Montana to reach the top 10 was Yvonne Dehner in 1994.
Lester, who now lives in Missoula, says her success in the competition resulted from her stellar performance in the talent competition.
Coached by her father, who at the time was a professor of voice at the University of Montana, Lester sang a medley of four different songs, ranging in genre from opera to pop.
“It was really well received and I got a big hand of applause,” she said.
Lester says she gained valuable experience singing with the UM Jubileers and that the school’s small size allowed her more time in the spotlight during various musical productions.
“I had so much experience with the university and I was comfortable being onstage,” she said. “I’m also sure I looked OK in a bathing suit.”
Yet she was surprised to advance in the competition and admits her nonchalant attitude might not fly in today’s pageant world.
“I was kind of naïve in that I didn’t get too excited about the whole thing,” she said. “I realize now that it was a bigger thing but then I didn’t have time to be real worried about it, and there was no actual training like there is now.”
More recent Miss Montanans feel it is the lack of access to training that hinders them.
“Montana is at a disadvantage,” Miss Montana 2007 Kristen Mantooth Yeley said. To prepare for the Miss America competition, Yeley traveled to Minneapolis, Minn. for dress fittings and trained with an interview coach in Portland, Ore.
“It would be nice if everything was here, but I guess that adds to the character of being Miss Montana,” she said.
But according to Yeley, the Miss America pageant is just a small part of being Miss Montana.
“It’s really a service position,” she said. “It’s about traveling across our big state, going to schools and interacting with so many young people.”
Kerry Burman, interim executive director of the Miss Montana program, agrees that the most emphasis put on the Miss Montana position is her community service.
“So many people don’t understand that it’s not a beauty pageant,” she said. “It’s a scholarship program and the chance to make an impact on Montana.”
The Miss Montana outfit, based in the eastern city of Glendive, operates as a non-profit and relies on donations and sponsorships to keep it afloat. Burman herself is a volunteer and by day works as a Glendive city judge and an EMT.
According to Burman, the bulk of the program’s funds go toward sending Miss Montana on a statewide school tour, where she discusses her platform with different communities. But even this has had to be curtailed.
“It would be nice if she could make it to more schools but we don’t have the funds,” she said. “We’re not able to do that without additional support.”
But some money must go toward prepping Miss Montana for the national spotlight. This year, a portion of the budget has been set aside for fittings at Regalia, an Orlando-based pageant gown store. West will stop there when traveling to Florida in August to support Amy Fox, Miss Montana’s Outstanding Teen, as she competes in the Miss America Outstanding Teen national competition. West will also visit pageant coaches in South Carolina and Houston, Tex.
Burman says that while several Glendive businesses have donated smaller wardrobe items, their stock is limited and the pageant has fallen off the radar for much of the state.
“I would like to see us be able to provide her with more money,” she said. “We would love to have not just local, but statewide support.”
But as West swept all five categories of the Miss Montana competition and is a trained vocalist comfortable with tackling big Broadway songs, expectations are high.
“I think she’s ready to go,” Burman said, “and I think she’ll do really well.”
Meanwhile, West’s competition preparations have moved from discussing current events with her family at the dinner table and drilling from a former high school debate coach to working with the Miss Montana organization and serving as an ambassador of the Children’s Miracle Network.
West possesses a can-do Montana attitude, which will serve her well.
“I’m going into this thinking that I’m going to try my best and my goal would be to be one of the finalists, but if not, I know that I will put 110 percent into everything that I do,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Former Miss Montanans like Yeley always have hope.
“You never know, this could be the year,” Yeley said. “We might see Kacie West crowned as Miss America.”