I have known Ashley since she was in grade school as our families are friends. She was always a very caring, giving kid. Sincere in every way, a hard working student, a good athlete and just one of those kids you know will do well in life. She played sports, took Irish Dance lessons, played the piano, wrote poetry and spoke with adults as easily as her friends. Her and her four siblings stayed with us one week while her parents were on vacation; we went to church that Sunday which happened to be Palm Sunday in the Catholic Faith, so of course everyone was given a palm branch. Ashley made a cross out of her palm branch and then gave it to me. I still have that hanging on a leather lace from my baseball glove on my rearview mirror in my car some 12 years later.
Ashley is 24 years old, a graduate of Lockport Township High School and the University of Illinois. She is employed as an Art Director for a marketing firm in Chicago. She is as active as ever and STILL calls me Coach Mike.
I recently asked Ashley if I could interview her for my blog and she responded, “My short answer ... YES! I would be honored!!”
Since I am new to this competition as are probably most of my readers, I have included the complete transcript rather than put her answers in prose, as well as not to lose the essence of the communication. What follows are Ashley’s responses and thoughts to my questions:
Question: What are the Miss Illinois / Miss USA Pageants? And how does it differ from the other competitions?
Response: The goal of the Miss USA program is to provide an opportunity for young women to better themselves; the pageant encourages the contestants to gain self-awareness, self-confidence, individual pride, and greater social awareness. It certainly has for me. What most people don't know is that the Miss USA pageant is actually completely unrelated to the Miss America pageant ... they are two completely different systems. The Miss USA system consists of an evening gown, swimsuit and interview competition. Miss America has those three, plus talent.
Question: How did you get involved in this competition?
Response: I have always been someone who is looking for the "next big thing." It keeps me from being bored! I was trying to get involved in something new, something challenging, and something I could work toward, and this just sort of fell into my lap. I tried for the first time in December 2008 and came in 2nd runner up out of 88 girls. When I realized it was something I could actually be "good" at, I tried a whole lot harder and it paid off. I was awarded the crown, the title of Miss Illinois USA and the chance to compete at Miss USA in November 2009 during my second attempt.
Question: What are your goals / what do you want to achieve from this?
Response: My main goal with this pageant was to prove to others that the negative stereotypes of pageantry can and will be broken. Most people view pageantry as something for brain dead women who don't eat. I don't see myself as that, and I don't think others do either. I graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in Graphic Design and a minor in business. I am an art director at a top marketing agency in Chicago, and being "fit" does not come easy. I work hard at the gym, am a very active athlete, and try to watch my portions as best I can. I want young women to know that I was teased in grammar and high school, and that I am just a normal girl who went through the same hard times that they did. If I can find my self-worth and make my dreams come true, they can too. I want young women to know that anything is possible if they work hard and believe in themselves.
Question: Do you feel that the swimsuit competition “objectifies” women? Would you like to see this changed?
Response: This is controversial for me. Before being involved in pageantry I most definitely would have said, "Yes." This was difficult for me to compete in at first, because I couldn't find the purpose for it. In my mind I wondered, "Why do they need to see me in a swimsuit? I'll never be in a swimsuit during appearances if I win? What is the reason for this?" However, after being involved in pageantry longer, I realize that it is more than just "a girl in a swimsuit." It is about evaluating the care a woman takes of her own body. We are critiqued in interview to see if we are right for the job of being a public speaker, we are critiqued in evening gown to see how we demonstrate poise and elegance as a woman, and we are critiqued in swimsuit to evaluate our confidence and the way we take care of ourselves. I think confidence is everything in this competition, and the swimsuit category is what can make it or break it.
Question: When you win, how will your life be changed?
Response: I like that you say, "When" I win. I hope I win! It’s a 1 in 51 shot, but I've definitely given it my best shot thus far. Whoever takes home the crown at the Miss USA Pageant will be immediately whisked away to her new high rise condo in the center of New York City. She receives a salary, a complete wardrobe, public speaking and modeling contracts, as well as hundreds of other perks and prizes completely worth a young woman's while. She will spend her year traveling and speaking to different groups of people, trying to raise awareness for breast cancer and AIDs, and will have the opportunity to represent the United States in the Miss Universe Pageant. Having this experience would change MY life, because it would give me an opportunity unlike any I would otherwise be subjected to. I would have the chance to reach out to young women with my message on a much bigger level, I would be able to fully embrace my love of travel and adventure, and I would get to meet people that would undoubtedly enhance my life. I hope so much this comes true for me, but if it doesn't, I know the girl who gets that chance sure is a lucky one.
Question: What was it like throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game on April 27th?
Response: That was so cool. It was neat being on the field, touching the dirt, and seeing the stands from the players' points of view. As I walked out to the mound all I could see was the catcher in front of me, and I hoped so much that I would be able to throw that ball right in his glove. I did, thank goodness, but my one regret is that I rushed off the field and didn't take a second to look up from the mound. It was such a fast, exciting moment that it was hard to stay focused. I just wanted to make sure I didn't look like a nonathletic girl in front of all those people! Regardless, it is something I will never forget.
Question: Is a similar event planned with the White Sox?
Response: No similar event is planned just yet, but I can say it is in the works!
Question: How much of a time commitment is this for you?
Response: I can make of this what I want. My directors and appearance coordinators offer me opportunities and it is always up to me whether or not I'd like to attend. Since this is only one year of my life, I have wanted to do absolutely everything that has been offered to me, which has the tendency to make my weeks somewhat intense. Some weeks I might have one event, and other weeks I could have four. It just depends on what's going on, and what I'm available to do!
Question: Did playing sports earlier in your life prepare you for this?
Response: Absolutely; I think being part of a team, learning to work with other people, and having goals helped me immensely in this competition. I played softball and water polo, and I was also a swimmer. For each of these sports I had goals I set for myself and did whatever I had to do to try and reach them. I learned how to improve with practice, ask others for help when I needed it, and how to be competitive. In a way, I find pageantry to be a very intense sport. After all, it IS a competition with a whole heck of a lot of preparation, just like anything else. And boy ... those pageant girls are even more vicious than the ones in water polo!
Question: What will you do after this is all over?
Response: When Miss USA is over I will either live in New York as the new Miss USA (fingers crossed!) or go back to my full time job. Eventually, however, I would like to utilize the experiences and contacts I gained during this experience to help young women better them-selves whether it is through pageantry or by some other means. I would like to open my own studio that would incorporate my skills as an artist, as well as my skills as a public speaker and role model. One thing this year as Miss Illinois USA has taught me is that I work much better being with people than sitting behind a computer. I want to reach out to others, learn from them, and teach them, with the hope that we will inspire each other. It’s something I didn't realize the power of before this year, and I want to help others know the greatness in numbers, and also, the extraordinary strength of women.
Ashley has a blog of her own detailing her time as Miss Illinois USA. It is a delightful read, filled with humour and great insights. Please check it out. Also tune in to the Pageant this Sunday at 6pm Central on NBC, as they say, ‘check your local listings’ and if you are so inclined and I do ENCOURAGE it, please vote for Ashley at Miss USA 2010 Online Poll.
All the best Ashley, you’re always a winner in my book. And to the Chicago White Sox organization, get on the stick and get Ashley out to your park. Love you kid!
~ Coach Mike