Behind the formal dresses, make-up and smiles, Diane Paukstelis found some grime and dirt. A former Miss Kansas finalist who has been competing in pageants on and off since the age of 13, Paukstelis is on the other end of the lights as executive director of the Miss Manhattan Pageant, which takes place today.
“This is the first pageant I have ever organized,” Paukstelis said. It’s also the first time the city has had a pageant affiliated with Miss America in 15 years.
Eight women will compete starting at 2 p.m. at Forum Hall in the Kansas State Student Union. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children.
Despite the pageant’s name, the contestants are competing for two titles — Miss Manhattan and Miss K-State — and two winners will be selected. The women do not have to designate which they are competing for, and both titles are considered equal to each other. Both winners will travel to the Miss Kansas competition in June, and both will fulfill the obligations of a winner, including helping out with any of the pageant’s sponsorships, being a spokesperson for the Miss Manhattan Pageant, and community service.
The idea of bringing a pageant back to Manhattan started a few years ago in conversations among Paukstelis and two other women, also former pageant competitors. Paukstelis is the only one from the original three creators who stuck around to see the final result.
Pat Bosco, vice president of student life at Kansas State University, arranged for the use of Forum Hall at no cost. Then Paukstelis and the six other board members went out and recruited all the things a pageant needs: contestants, sponsors, awards, and general interest.
“We didn’t have any money,” she said. Paukstelis was also contending with the perception of pageants that has been perpetuated by TV shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which portray only the most extreme contestants. She said pageants are like any other competitive venture.
“You are going to have people who take it way overboard, and that’s just not what pageants are all about.”
That packaged image of pageants almost kept dancer and K-State freshman Emily French from signing up. It took French nearly a week to decide whether to do the competition, after hearing about it from one of her dance professors.
French prodded her parents and her sister about the pageant. They encouraged her to sign up, as long as she was doing it to glorify God rather than herself.
“I didn’t want it to be about me or how pretty my dress was,” French said. “As long as I am able to influence one girl, then I did my job. So far, mission accomplished.” Already the experience has modified her view of the process. “I have a better respect for pageants,” she said. “I can be who I am without having to compromise myself.”
Eighteen women signed up initially, but only eight remain for Sunday’s competition. Like all Miss America pageants, the contestants will be judged on swimwear, evening wear, interview and talent.
Many of the girls competing this year have never done pageants before. Kristin Blecha, a senior at Kansas State, is pursuing graduate school and was intrigued by the scholarship money. Blecha did Junior Miss when she was in high school and watched the Miss America pageants growing up, but had little connection to pageants.
“I’ve been wanting to do something like this my whole life,” Blecha said. A dancer, Blecha will be performing a Bollywood-inspired number.
The biggest challenge, according to Blecha, was the interview.
“I remember my interview and it was not very good,” Blecha said.
After participating in a December workshop provided by Paukstelis and the Miss Manhattan board members, Blecha feels more confident in her interviewing skills.
“The judges said that when I was really confident in my answers, I shined the most.”
For next year, Paukstelis would like to see an increase in the number of women participating, but her ultimate goal is for one of the local contestants to make it to the national stage.
“I want to get to Miss America,” she said. “I think we will have a contender for a state title every year.”