No longer just about world peace: Staffers competing for Miss D.C. to address political issues

Before moving to Washington, Sophia Davis was a cheerleading instructor and thought she might become a wedding planner.

Now a staff assistant for Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Davis has found a way to marry her pompom past with her political present. On July 12, she will compete for the 2009 crown in the Miss District of Columbia pageant.

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Beauty contests may not have been public-affairs hotbeds in the past, but Miss California Carrie Prejean learned in the Miss USA Pageant earlier this year that times have changed. Though current political stars like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) won first runner-up and Miss Congeniality at the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) took the Miss San Carlos (Calif.) title in 1977, it now requires a lot more than a melodic flute solo for a woman to feel the weight of a sparkling crown on her head.

Luckily for those competing in the Miss D.C. contest — and there are three other congressional staffers besides Davis vying for this year’s tiara — Washington’s local pageant organization has a rich history in preparing its women to be politically minded beauties, pageant experts and participants say.

Prejean demonstrated in April that beauty and politics can make an ugly mix. During the Miss USA pageant, she answered a question from a judge (celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton) about same-sex marriage and in doing so ignited both sides of a highly charged social issue. Her star rose and faded as she quickly became a spokeswoman for those against same-sex marriage but shortly thereafter was stripped of her Miss California title.

Davis, whose Miss D.C. competition is affiliated with the older Miss America Organization rather than Donald Trump’s Miss USA contest, is already bracing for judges to bring up controversial topics.

“They purposely ask you questions like that to see how you respond when you’re under the line of fire,” said Davis, whose talent is a jazz dance routine to the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Higher Ground.” A native of Pickerington, Ohio, Davis has been competing in pageants for the last four years and has held three titles in her home state.

In a fluorescent green dress with a crown-shaped crystal brooch pinned to her chest, Davis said it can be a struggle for contestants to craft answers to controversial, politically charged questions that strike a balance between telling the truth and not offending an entire demographic.

“[It’s] not a matter of right or wrong or who else thinks this. It’s a matter of how well you can respond to a question,” she said.

Katie Robertson, another Miss D.C. 2009 contender and new staff assistant for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), has competed in 15 pageants and placed in the top 10 in last year’s Miss Alabama contest. Robertson, who came to Washington to follow a family tradition of working at the Capitol, said being attuned to current events and politics isn’t a new trend in pageantry.

She said the Miss D.C. competition focuses more heavily on current events than do other state pageants, since the titleholder is more similar to a diplomat than a hostess.

“If you want to do well, you have to have an opinion, and you have to know what’s going on. We should do that as citizens anyways. It’s not just contingent to pageants,” she said.

Robertson, who also studies public relations at Georgetown University, weighed her words carefully when addressing the Prejean incident. She said Prejean should have been more tactful toward the innate human need for loving relationships.

“But in the long run, you have to say what you believe,” said Robertson, who will sing an opera song as her talent.

While she may be a veteran of pageants, Robertson is new to politics. During an informal interview for this article, she gracefully attempted to hijack a couch from Sen. Daniel Akaka’s (D-Hawaii) office in the Hart Senate Office Building when she couldn’t find an available space in the lobby to field questions.

After bypassing an introduction before sitting on the couch, the receptionist stared quizzically at her before asking, “Who are you?” Robertson then expressed her “deepest apologies” and tried to soothe the social faux pas by twice complimenting Hawaii’s tropical scenery.

As she walked out of the office, barely flustered, she stressed that grasping professionalism and communications skills, like crisis management, is essential when balancing a life in politics and pageantry.

Sonya Gavankor, a producer of the Miss D.C. pageant and the 1997 titleholder, said most women who compete for the District’s title understand current issues and know how to craft a message. Davis, for example, has spoken to lawmakers on behalf of her platform organization, America’s Promise Alliance, a youth foundation started by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Gavankor said contestants not only have to know current events these days, but also should be working to effect change in the issue areas they choose as their platforms, and Miss D.C. competitors understand that “It’s more than charity events and speaking to kids; it’s about really passing legislation,” said Gavankor, who is also a Miss D.C. board member.

Gavankor said diplomatically answering difficult, policy-focused questions under pressure has always been a primary focus of the Miss D.C. pageant. Besides understanding the issues, contestants must offer opinions and eloquently lay out coherent arguments to support them, she said.

“We don’t train contestants in the sense that we don’t want them to be plastic or rehearsed,” Gavankor said.

But the Miss D.C. crown holder is the one who lives with the highest expectations for political savvy. Miss D.C. 2008 Kate Marie Grinold placed in the top 10 in this year’s Miss America contest, and she said she felt the pressure to know her public affairs.

“Obviously, politics plays a huge role in D.C. and divides the city in many ways,” said Grinold, who is a Washington native. “[Miss D.C. contestants are] held to a higher standard.”

Miss D.C. 2006 and former congressional staffer Kate Michael expected to be grilled on national politics, particularly because of her work for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee

During her questioning at the Miss America pageant, Michael remembered, there came a cavalcade of politically bent questions. She said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a judge that year, asked her about Hezbollah, terrorism and racial profiling.

Randie Levendusky, a staff assistant for Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), and Sherry Langrock, a staff assistant for Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), are also contestants in this year’s Miss D.C. pageant but declined to be interviewed, citing office policy.

Davis admitted she was wary of informing her congressional office about competing for the Miss D.C. crown because she knows pageants come with a slew of stereotypes.

But she said her office has been very supportive and said the two P’s, politics and pageants, are intertwined.

“Whether you’re a politician or a pageant titleholder, you’re representing your community,” she said, hastily adding that she tries to keep the two separate. “For pageants, it’s not supposed to be about your career. It’s supposed to be about yourself.”