Tuesday, August 17, 2004

my second front page article

Miss Seafair contest one of talent, community service and smarts

By Katherine Sather Seattle Times staff reporter

They say that in the early years of Miss Seafair competition, the women wore such elaborate outfits that people wondered if there was a costume party going on.

The 1950 pageant included thrones, crowns and a re-enactment of King Neptune rising out of the ocean to select a Queen of the Sea. Costumes were sewn with wax beads that were known to melt under the hot lights of Seattle Center's Civic Auditorium.

The title of Seafair queen came with a Hollywood screening test. Winners traveled to Paris to promote Seattle and hydroplane racing. They were community icons, whose wardrobes and travel were paid for.

The modern coronation, which takes place tonight, caps off five weeks of competition that's come a long way over the past five decades. The winner among the 22 contestants will receive a $5,000 college scholarship and a diamond-studded pendant for demonstrating community service, public-speaking skills and academic achievement.

Participants stress that the competition is no longer a beauty pageant. Instead, they are seeking to burnish their résumés and earn cash for college. They also want to engage their communities in summer's Seafair events.
"Physical beauty has all but been eliminated from the competition," said JoAnne Ludwig, a longtime coordinator of what is now the Miss Seafair Scholarship Program for Women. "The coronation is really an acknowledgment of who the valedictorian of the group is, so to speak."

On Sunday, this year's Miss Seafair princesses put in a 12-hour day of appearances. They arrived early in the morning dressed in tiaras and gowns, adorned with sashes, for a parade in Des Moines. By that afternoon they were salsa dancing on stage at the Hispanic Seafair Organization Festival in Seward Park, and by evening they were cruising in the Chinatown Seafair Parade, smiling and waving from red, blue and yellow Corvettes.

They've seen each other almost daily, to rehearse for tonight's coronation and prep for various events. They're mostly college students representing various ethnic groups as well as Puget Sound-area communities. They say that they've grown to be friends, and their camaraderie is more important than who wins the title.

Still there is the competition.

"In the back of our minds, sometimes during rehearsal, we're probably thinking about who's in the top eight," said Teddy Rupp, an 18-year-old from South Seattle who's headed to Seattle Pacific University in the fall.

Miss Seafair will be chosen tonight from the eight finalists. The winner will receive a "schooling" from Seafair officials on public speaking and helping represent the festival across the Northwest, Ludwig said.

Caroline Phan, Miss Seafair 2000, traveled as far away as Japan during her reign. The first year she competed was 1999, but she quickly realized that other competitors were more than familiar with the routine.

"It was scary. I was competing against some girls who'd done pageants all their lives," she said. "They had this down pat. How could I compete with girls who knew exactly what they were doing?"

Phan graduated from the University of Washington in 2000 with degrees in international studies, European studies and German language and literature. She earned a master's overseas in contemporary European studies. She said she was motivated to be Miss Seafair because she wanted to be a role model.

"I thought Miss Seafair was the coolest thing on Earth. She had the perfect poise and grace and was such a great speaker, and everyone looked up to her," Phan said.

The scholarship money also was a draw, she said. This year, the program will give away $10,000 in college scholarships. In addition to the $5,000 grand prize, scholarships will be given for talent, community service and academics. Since 1950, the program has given more than $300,000 to more than 1,400 women.

Back in the '50s and '60s, judging was done undercover by a group known as the "Secret Seven." During the 10-day Seafair festival, they'd observe the competitors as they interacted at various events, looking for poise and speaking ability, said Ludwig, who worked as director of the Miss Seafair program from 1994 to 2003 and now directs the coronation ceremony.

Half of the judging is already done. The women completed an interview and a talent competition, which was recently renamed "creative expression" to encourage competitors to try something other than dancing and music. Judges also reviewed their academic records, community service and participation in Seafair events, which included trips to children's shelters and veterans hospitals.

"Yeah, you're a good student, and yeah, you have a résumé that's a mile long, but if you're a good citizen, you'll be a good Seafair representative," Ludwig said.

At tonight's coronation, judges will select the top eight finalists who will then be interviewed on stage and participate in round-table talks.

Coronation-night judging will last only a few hours, but many competitors are surprised at the amount of commitment required in the five weeks of competition.

Tina Faulkner, last year's first runner-up, commuted to Seafair events three or four times a week from Bellingham. The 20-year-old has competed in pageants for years. She is the reigning Miss Whatcom County and recently competed in the Miss Washington competition.

She thought it was unusual, and refreshing, that Miss Seafair judging wasn't based on appearances.
"It's a lot different because none of it is based on beauty," she said.

"To be honest, I was concerned about that. I'd never done it. It's neat to find out I was still a well-rounded person without that aspect."

Phan, Miss Seafair 2000, said she was sometimes criticized by people who thought the program was demeaning to women. But, she said, there's no swimsuit or evening-gown competition.

She said she felt rewarded chatting at events with children, who'd often ask if she was really a princess and lived in a castle.

"These princesses are role models for these little kids. There are not that many role models out there that are positive, and celebrate being smart, being involved in the community and being an active person," she said. "It's exciting to be all these things to other people and realize 'hey, I'm a role model; now I'm the girl who's Miss Seafair.' "
Katherine Sather 206-464-2752 or
ksather@seattletimes.com

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