Not just a pretty face: Pageant contestants making a difference

Female residents of the Keystone State will once again enter the Jaffa Shrine to lend a voice to their cause, and, yes, sashay a bit of glamour into town on Saturday.

The 2013 Miss Teen, Miss and Mrs. Pennsylvania International pageant will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Altoona facility.

Jodi Cessna, state pageant director, who is celebrating her 10th year as director, said the pageants are open to ages 13 to 18 years old for Miss Teen, 19 to 29 years old for Miss and 21 to 56 years old for Mrs., and focus on service.

The contestants vying for the individual crowns of Miss Teen, Miss and Mrs. Pennsylvania International are judged in categories of interview, evening gown and fitness wear. The Miss Teen and Miss also compete in fun fashion.

The interview counts as half of the the score for the Mrs. title, and 40 percent for the Miss and Miss Teen titles, Cessna said. Contestants do not wear swimsuits, but instead wear aerobic wear and tennis shoes to showcase their level of fitness.

Winners at the state level go on to compete in the Miss Teen, Miss and Mrs. International Pageants, taking place in Chicago in July.

“It’s just so amazing. The girls I get to know are just incredible,” Cessna said. “To me the most exciting part is just hearing the platforms and hearing about the charities.”

Contestants’ platforms in the past have made a direct difference when an audience member has gone to get a medical concern checked out or told a friend about what they learned, she said.

“It really does have an impact,” she said. “It’s exciting they get to talk on stage about their platform.”

For the first time this year, the Teen and Miss prize packages include $500 scholarships, and a competition will be held between 10 to 14 years old for the title of Miss Junior Teen Pennsylvania International, the pageant’s website said. The youngest contestants compete through a written essay related to community service they submit and the evening gown portion of the evening.

Among those getting the chance last year to talk about their platform were the victors of 2012: Miss Teen PA International Julianne Biddle of Altoona, Miss PA International Kelsey Landy of Connellsville and Mrs. PA International Kimberly McLendon of Shickshinny.

“I will definitely say this year has allowed me to grow in so many ways. It has allowed me to grow as a wife, as a mom, as an advocate and it has really blessed me with a lot of opportunities to touch the lives of others throughout the state of Pennsylvania,” McLendon, 36, said.

McLendon’s cause is the “Blessings in a Backpack” organization, which helps feed children during the school year through backpacks of food given to them for the weekends.

“I want to give back to our community, and even though my title is up on Saturday, I’m still going to continue to give back and I’m still going to be doing some appearances,” said the professional chef who also teaches at a community college and works in a special needs classroom at a high school.

She is excited and sad to pass on her crown, she said.

“I’m trading in my crown for my fishing pole with my family,” she said. “To me, the biggest title in the world is being Mom and being Mrs. McLendon.”

What Landy, 21, learned most is “how powerful it is to have a crown and how it really helps get your message out and really helps spread awareness to your platform,” she said.

Landy’s cause is bullying prevention. She started the “Choosing Life … Bully-Free” program when she was 13 years old.

“My platform chose me in a way because I was bullied when I was in junior high,” she said. She sees many students who lack support at school or home.

“With the help from my mom, I was able to get over it and realize I’m a person of much worth,” she said.

While she is sad to pass on her crown, she is excited for what’s next.

Although Biddle said she did not encounter any negative perceptions of pageants since her involvement, Landy and McLendon have.

“Everybody has a soul, and you welcome everybody into your life,” McLendon said. “And I think that’s what it is; you just don’t be judgmental, even though those people are trying to cast a judgment on you. You really need to have an open mind and open heart and just kind of accept comments of people, but know in your heart that you’re real and you’re making a difference in this world.”

While some pageant contestants can fit into a stereotype, she hopes people are meeting the women who are giving back and have passion for a cause, Landy said.

“I don’t think people realize that pageant girls are some of the brightest people,” Landy said. “They’re valedictorians of their classes, or they’re a head of organizations, or they might be a president in a company. They’re making really big impacts.”

Biddle said she devoted her reign to her cause, “Educating to Eliminate Teenage Suicide.”

“Just being called Miss Teen Pennsylvania International is surreal, and it is a true blessing,” Biddle said. “I have been honored to represent PA for an entire year, but most importantly, represent my platform.”

Biddle learned from her title.

“The title itself has taught me a lot, about confidence, standing up for what you believe in and truly making a difference in the lives of others. My experience has been unbelievable, and I am extremely thankful for the opportunity,” she said. “I would not have changed one thing about my year, and I am happy to say I reached all of my goals during my reign. Yes, I am sad to give my crown to my successor, but I am extremely excited to see what they will be able to do during their year, not to mention, I am beyond excited to see their reaction when they are crowned. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.