By: Bora Cecia (Loyola Sophomore)
If you were to Google the word “pageants” the definition you will find is that it is a competition that is judged according to someone’s physical attributes. Some people may agree with that definition but if you ever competed in a pageant like I have you know that is far from the truth.
During Labor Day weekend, I competed for the title of National American Miss Illinois, where I proudly represented my school (Loyola University Chicago) and its neighboring communities Rogers Park/Edgewater. I placed 1st runner up but, in this article, I won’t talk about myself but about a girl I met that weekend.
Olivia Venkus (21) a junior studying communications at Lake Forest College has competed in pageants since the age of 9 and recently placed 3rd runner up for the title of National American Miss Illinois. She is an honor student and during this year’s pageant she won the Academic Achievement Award as well as the Heart of Service Award recognizing her community involvement.
*Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RogersEdge Reporter: Growing up in the pageant world, what is something that pageantry has taught you?
Venkus: A big skill that pageantry has taught me is how to lose gracefully. Because as you learn, through acting, not everyone’s going to get the role and in pageantry, not everyone’s going to get the crown. You learn how to lose gracefully and be happy for those who have succeeded over you. But not only that, it teaches you to strive for a goal and to work harder the next time.
RER: To people that don’t know how pageants work, how would you explain to them a typical pageant weekend?
Venkus: Pageant weekend for most pageant girls is very hectic, you’re very caffeine dependent and a little bit sleep deprived but it is so much fun. All the other contestants are just so sweet! They are goal driven and such beautiful, smart young women. I would describe it as a camaraderie because you rely on your fellow contestants and celebrate yourselves as young women. You get to walk on stage with a beautiful evening gown to show your confidence and poise. Then, you speak on stage for the personal introduction round where you introduce yourself and the cause that you support to the audience and judges. You interview with the judges where you learn a lot of great interview skills that you can use later in life when it comes to interviewing for a job. In addition, at National American Miss all contestants are required to donate books and/or school supplies to their communities which teaches the value of community service. You learn a lot of great life skills and overall, you just get to take away so many great memories.
RER: Could you talk more about your community involvement?
Venkus: Yes! I advocate for those with invisible illnesses, making the invisible, visible. Chronic illnesses are something you live with and cannot be cured. It is often not a physical disability, and you cannot see it, hence being an “invisible illness.” It may be hard to get your needs met by society as you look “able bodied” or doctors to listen to the severity of your pain. I hope to provide a voice to those in similar positions as me. I also participate in blood drives in my community and around Illinois due to my blood transfusions. I hope to inspire young girls to find a cause that they are passionate about and make a change. I know you have your own platform, The Journal For Change and it shows how pageantry pushes women to be active members of their communities in a variety of ways.
RER: I know you talked a bit about this previously but in moments of defeat, how do you deal with having gone through a long weekend and not winning the title? How do you turn that feeling into fuel?
Venkus: I know, of course, once you lose, you become defeated. You can see all the girls backstage and a lot of them are upset and crying. And it just shows how much pageantry means to them. They want to do a good job and they want to succeed. For me, every year I just keep coming back and it’s because of all the great memories. All the fun that you get to have and celebrate being a girl, being shown on stage in a beautiful dress, hair, and makeup done while simultaneously celebrating your accomplishments. So, I think these are the main factors that fuel me to keep coming back.
RER: I was wondering since you have been competing for a long time, what are the most common misconceptions you have found people have about pageantry?
Venkus: I don’t know if people still have the stereotype that it’s like the Toddlers and Tiaras. But I think a lot of people also think of pageant girls as just all beauty and no brains. I think systems like Miss USA and National American Miss have shown that pageantry is all about celebrating women through all facets of life. At National American Miss Illinois, I won Academic Achievement and Heart of Service which means a lot to me because it shows that I love my community and I really am involved in service work. And, with Academic Achievement it’s an award for my grades. This shows that pageantry, especially National American Miss, really cares about the fully well-rounded individual. Through the title holders that they choose it’s such an amazing diverse group of young women. It’s not just your cookie cutter average person.
RER: What is next for you? Will we see you on the pageant stage anytime soon?
Venkus: I qualified for the national competition, which is the week of Thanksgiving in November and it’s still up in the air. If I don’t get to go this year, I really want to next year before I age out or move on to other things. But next year I want to try to push myself and get back to pageants because it’s something that I love. I personally have struggled with chronic illness for a few years now. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when I was a sophomore in high school. National American Miss has always been a light in my life. It has always given me something to push for and dream about and it makes me want to continue and succeed. So, I really want to continue with pageantry.
RER: Absolutely, and I can’t wait to see you do all of that! I’m going to be cheering you on!
Venkus: Thank you! I will be cheering for you as well!
RER: Thank you! See this is what pageantry is about. Being each other’s biggest cheerleaders! Lastly, I want to ask how do you think women and girls in small communities around Illinois such as Edgewater, Rogers Park, and so many more, how can they become involved in pageants and one day reach the big stages?
Venkus: When you think about pageantry, of course it’s about the glitz and the glamour as well but there is so much more beyond that. Competing in pageants can be expensive but National American Miss has a sponsorship program where you can go out to businesses in your community, and you can ask if they’ll sponsor you. It’s important to remember that the girl with the most expensive dress isn’t necessarily going to be the winner. I think just using your resources and if you have a goal in mind, I think that you should be able to hustle to get there.
Interested in competing/learning more about National American Miss?
Check out their website: https://www.namiss.com / Follow their Instagram: @nationalamericanmiss