The Crown of the Continent’s Pageant Queen

After nine years away from the pageant circuit, Kalispell’s Madyson Rigg was crowned Miss Montana USA. Now, the 26-year-old is balancing her work with the Glacier Institute, her deep civic ties, and the responsibilities of the state’s most coveted pageant title.

By Denali Sagner
Miss Montana USA Madyson Rigg of Kalispell pictured at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on May 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As she traverses the shores of Lake McDonald in heels and a diamond tiara, Madyson Rigg is a model steward of Glacier National Park.

A proud Kalispell local, Rigg was raised against the backdrop of Glacier, a defining feature in both her childhood and her current work as the marketing manager for education nonprofit the Glacier Institute. As she chats about her upbringing in the Flathead Valley, her journey to college, and her career, she is gracious and conscientious. She offers friendly smiles to tourists. She answers questions enthusiastically. In the middle of a sentence, she stops to pick up a piece of garbage left on the beach, and carries it in her hands until a trash can appears.

“I have memories from before boating was restricted in Glacier. My parents would bring our boat up here, so I have pictures of us wakeboarding on Lake McDonald,” she remembered as the shores of the lake emerged from the dust of Apgar Loop Road.

“I mean, how lucky?” she said. “It’s crazy to think about now.”

Rigg last month was crowned Miss Montana USA, becoming the 65th woman to hold the coveted title and the first winner from the Flathead Valley in nearly a decade. The win marks the second major pageant title for Rigg, who was crowned Miss Teen Montana USA in 2014 while she was a student at Glacier High School.

For Rigg, pageants are an important element in her story, yet not an uncomplicated one. She speaks fondly and enthusiastically about the Miss Montana pageant — the passion and intelligence of the women she’s met through the competition and the platform it has given her to be a role model for younger women.

“I was absolutely astonished by the quality of women that decided to compete this year. I was super proud to share the stage with them,” she said.

The 26-year-old is thoughtful as she considers how pageants have changed since she entered the circuit 10 years ago, and how she’s changed with them. She is introspective when she talks about the pageant process — one that she says can bring incredible women together, yet can also apply undue pressure on female contestants at a formative age.

As she prepares to represent Montana in the Miss USA pageant later this year, Rigg reflected on the road that brought her to the Glacier Institute, her ties in the Kalispell community and winning her second major pageant title after nearly a decade on the bench.

Miss Montana USA Madyson Rigg’s tiara box pictured on the shores of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on May 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Rigg grew up in south Kalispell, attending St. Matthew’s Catholic School from daycare through eighth grade, and later Glacier High School. She called her time at St. Matthew’s a foundational experience, and one that endowed her with the public speaking skills that propelled her to beauty pageant success.

“Being a student at St. Matt’s and being asked to say mass and be part of public speaking opportunities from kindergarten through eighth grade is something that I can really pinpoint to say, has made me a much more confident, comfortable person,” she said.

At Glacier High School, Rigg balanced a handful ofactivities, bouncing between speech and debate, Business Professionals of America (BPA), the volleyball team and DECA, a pre-professional entrepreneurship club, which Rigg called her most important high school extracurricular.

“It was another really important part of my public speaking upbringing, and something that I absolutely attribute to me being a successful person,” Rigg said, reflecting on her time in DECA. She boasted the titles of two-time DECA state officer and traveled to four national competitions. Rigg said DECA primed her well for the question-and-answer segment of beauty pageants, where contestants are often thrown difficult questions.

“For a lot of women, the interview portion is challenging, because I think there’s just so few opportunities for women to speak their minds. I feel really lucky that that’s always been something that my community has encouraged in me.”

But unlike Rigg’s thorough list of activities and achievements that had driven her teenage years, becoming a beauty pageant queen was never on the agenda. That is, until she was cut from the Glacier High School volleyball team.

“I was devastated,” she said, remembering the moment now a decade later.

Mady Rigg at the Girls on the Run Spring 2023 SuperPower 5K in Kalispell on May 21, 2023. Photo by Drew Silvers.

Around the same time, a flyer arrived at the Rigg family home advertising the Miss Montana Teen USA pageant. Rigg had never competed in a pageant before, she didn’t wear makeup or know how to walk in high heels. She didn’t have any of the right clothes. But, she said, it sounded fun, so she signed up. That year, in 2013, Rigg placed fourth runner up in the Miss Montana Teen USA pageant, and she “was hooked instantly.”

The next year, Rigg competed for Miss Montana Teen USA again, won the title, and went on to represent the state in the Miss Teen USA pageant in the Bahamas.

After her win in 2014, however, Rigg receded from the pageant spotlight, taking a nearly decade-long break from the world of sashes and tiaras.

“The impact on my mental health from competing as a teen was really intense,” Rigg said.

Though she fell in love with the Miss Montana Teen competition, Rigg found herself immersed in the culture of eating disorders that too often defined the beauty pageant circuit.

“It’s really truly not an easy thing to do, and it’s so fast, how quickly you start comparing yourself to the other contestants and picking out your insecurities,” Rigg said.

“I’m a pretty strong woman and I think that competitions that focus on external beauty are pretty harmful at times,” she added. “The last few years have been really unpredictable, and I think everyone’s had a lot of time to reflect on themselves and their goals and what they value in life. I wasn’t sure if pageants still fit in that picture for me, to be honest.”

Madyson Rigg of Kalispell holds her Miss Montana USA crown at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on May 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Rigg is critical of the pageant world, even as she talks about her Miss Montana experience with enthusiasm and gratitude. She is happy that the teen competitors no longer participate in a swimsuit competition — Miss Teen USA in 2016 swapped the swimsuit round for athletic wear after facing decades of backlash. She is critical of pageant organizers and judges for only highlighting certain body types, a phenomenon that she calls “a bummer.” She recognizes the inherent problems with competitions that judge women based on their physical appearance, especially in a world where such conventions are facing mounting societal pushback.

After high school, she took a step back, putting pageants on the back burner as she transitioned to college and post-graduate life.

Rigg spent her freshman year at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, before transferring to Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. Both at James Madison and Eastern Washington, Rigg’s sorority, Gamma Phi Beta, became a cornerstone of her college experience. So much so, in fact, that after graduation, she took a job as a collegiate leadership consultant, traveling to colleges across the country to help coach Gamma Phi chapters through the recruitment process.

Rigg always wanted to join a sorority, a space for women that she characterized as not dissimilar to beauty pageants.

“I think the role of pageants is actually fairly similar to the role of sororities,” she said, when asked about the place of pageants both in contemporary American society, and in her own life. “It’s a place for us to connect with each other and to meet other women who have similar ambitions and goals. To build each other up and help each other.”

Yet Rigg’s career with Gamma Phi was cut short in early 2020, when the pandemic forced her to pack up her Airbnb at Virginia Commonwealth University and book the earliest flight to Kalispell. Like many young people pushed home in the wake of a global shutdown, Rigg assumed her move back to the Flathead would be temporary. When she realized it wouldn’t be, she decided to plant some professional roots in Kalispell, taking a position as marketing and communications specialist for Logan Health that September.

Tagen Vine, the former president of the Logan Health Foundation, described Rigg as an enthusiastic team member at Logan and praised her “positive attitude” and “willingness to help” with any task at hand.

Vine said Rigg wanted to be “woven into the fabric” of the community that raised her, a theme that has defined Rigg’s professional life since she moved back to the Flathead Valley.

In July 2022, Rigg left Logan Health to work as a finance assistant on Monica Tranel’s campaign for Montana’s newly drawn western congressional district. Tranel last November lost to Republican Ryan Zinke by about 8,000 votes.

As Rigg navigated her work with Logan, and later the Tranel campaign, she became increasingly involved with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, where she said she found mentorship and community. Vine encouraged her to join the chamber’s two-year leadership development program, Leadership Flathead. She joined Flathead Area Young Professionals, a chamber initiative designed to bring together local professionals ages 21 through 39. Most recently, she was inducted into the Kalispell Rotary Club.  

“We’ve just enjoyed her personality, her spirit,” Loraine Clarno, president and CEO of the Kalispell Chamber, said about Rigg. “Her spirit brings people together. Her leadership just always comes to the forefront. She’s just a pleasure.”

It was through Leadership Flathead that Rigg met Anthony Nelson, the executive director of the Glacier Institute.

When Nelson met Rigg, the Glacier Institute, an outdoor education nonprofit based in Columbia Falls, had been serving the community for nearly 40 years without a staffer dedicated to marketing. The organization, which leads guided hikes and educational programs in and around Glacier National Park, had grown, however, and needed to expand its outreach. Meeting Rigg, Nelson said, was perfect timing. 

“This is brand new for us. We’ve been around for a long time, but have never put a lot of time and energy and dedication into marketing,” he said. “Mady was a perfect fit, coming in with her skill set and her ridiculous ability to connect to people.”

Mady Rigg at the Girls on the Run Spring 2023 SuperPower 5K in Kalispell on May 21, 2023. Photo by Drew Silvers.

“Mady is definitely a positive force on our leadership team and brings a lot of experience and leadership quality that I can trust,” Nelson added. “She certainly brings the team together and rounds our leadership team out nicely.”

Rigg never expected to work in outdoor education, calling herself “not an outdoorswoman,” especially compared to her coworkers at the Glacier Institute. Nonetheless, she had a historic love for education and grew up with fond memories of hiking, swimming and boating in Glacier National Park, which ultimately led her to join the Glacier Institute team.

Since she started the job in January, Rigg has planned community events, created promotional materials and made visits to the Glacier Institute’s Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, where she went on field trips as a child. Rigg described in detail a tracking class she took over the winter, where Glacier Institute educators taught her how to identify animal prints in the snow. When she got home from the class, she said proudly, she was able to spot least weasel tracks on her front lawn.

“It’s awesome to work with people who are so knowledgeable,” Rigg said about her Glacier Institute colleagues, “People who can just tell you about every single plant and insect that we run into, and why the trees here look the way that they do. It’s really been cool to experience the park on a much more in-depth level.”

Rigg admitted with a laugh that she was “really intimidated” when she started her work with the Glacier Institute.

“I was like, ‘They’re gonna hate me. I’m gonna be the annoying Miss Montana who’s coming here, who doesn’t know anything.’ But they’re just so sweet and silly and accepting, and everyone’s totally themselves, which is a big blessing,” she said.

After she had settled back down in the Flathead, Rigg began to consider picking up pageants again, a world she had been away from for the better part of nine years. She said a combination of factors had kept her from entering the Miss Montana USA competition — the mental toll of her teen-pageant years, the time she had spent away, the fear that being in beauty pageants would hinder people’s ability to take her seriously in a professional setting.

“There were a lot of factors in making the decision to compete again,” she said. “I just knew I would regret it if I didn’t. I wish I had a better answer, like, ‘I just conquered that fear and it didn’t bother me anymore.’ But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Mady Rigg at the 2023 Miss Montana USA Competition on May 7, 2023. Photos by Gracia Butcher and Kate Loose

On May 7 at the Fergus Center for Performing Arts in Lewistown, Rigg was crowned Miss Montana USA amid a pool of 15 competitors. In addition to her crown, a bedazzled tiara that stands out against her reddish-brown curls, Rigg received the pageant’s congeniality award, which was voted on by her fellow contestants, and the spirit award, chosen by pageant staff and volunteers.

“When they called my name at the end, I was absolutely in shock,” Rigg said. “I was and I still am just so excited and so honored. There were so many amazing contestants this year who fully deserved to be Miss Montana as well, and I hope that I make all of them proud and feel like a good representation of our year of Miss Montana.”

Rigg later this year will represent Montana at the 72nd Miss USA pageant in Reno, Nevada, where she will compete against the titleholders from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

She noted that no Montanan has ever won Miss USA.

“Nobody expects Montana to do well,” Rigg added with a grin. She intends to prove them wrong.  

As Miss Montana, Rigg will be adding a host of public appearances and celebrations to her already busy schedule in the months to come. She has been traveling around the northwest with Ava Williams, Miss Teen Montana USA 2023, a high school senior from Billings.

Though the road to Miss USA is a long one, Rigg said her experience going to the Miss Teen USA pageant prepared her for some of what lies ahead. Her roommate from Miss Teen USA, Hannah Metzner, was recently crowned Miss Idaho USA, and Rigg is excited for their reunion.

Mady Rigg (center) at the 2023 Miss Montana USA Competition on May 7, 2023. Photos by Gracia Butcher and Kate Loose

With all of the celebration, Rigg understands her role as a pageant winner differently now than when she was a teenager. While her Miss Montana crown marks a defining accomplishment, so too do her career accolades and her ties in the Kalispell community, both professional and personal. Navigating the space between the glitz and glam of the pageant world and her work with the Glacier Institute is not an easy task — one she understands to be a struggle for many of her female peers.

“Most days, I don’t wear makeup, I don’t do my hair, and I don’t look like how I present when I’m competing,” she said. “I don’t know. There’s some days where I feel like it really sucks and I wish that I could just fully be myself all the time, but I don’t really know what that means either.”

While she’s become more comfortable balancing her love for pageants with the other aspects of her life, the fear that people won’t take her seriously persists, even into her twenties.

“I’m hopeful that the experience that I have one-on-one with people is confirming that’s not the case and that people still see me as totally capable of handling really serious jobs,” she said.

“We’re getting all these different messages about how we’re supposed to be, and how we’re supposed to show up,” Rigg added. “I feel like every woman that I know, knows that struggle.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.