Photos courtesy of Miss America Organization
In her time as Miss America, Betty Cantrell has visited countless hospitals and charity events, traveled by C17 aircraft to eight countries in as many days, and become very, very exhausted.
Identifying Miss America among a crowded room of lunchtime diners takes only a beat. There she is, her long pageant locks cut into a russet bob, a mask of richly pigmented makeup on her face, slim limbs. There she is, Miss America: Baciliky "Betty" Cantrell, named for her Greek grandmother, whose name translates to royalty. There she is, clutching her paper Starbucks cup with both hands. She is so tired.
We're seated upstairs at the midtown Manhattan location of Fig & Olive, an upscale restaurant chain serving "the essence of the Mediterranean" in nine locations across the country. Betty is in town for the day as part of her final sweep of press as Miss America 2016, a role that has kept her traveling every two to three days for the past eleven months (Miss America reigns from September to September). Most impressive: during her USO tour, Betty traveled by C17 military aircraft to eight countries in as many days, performing for deployed troops in Japan, Kuwait, and Iraq.
The Miss America pageant dates back to 1921, when it was originally billed as a "bathing beauty revue" whose winner was selected based purely on how good she looked in a one-piece (and, later, a bikini). Today, the Miss America Organization is a 501(c)4 non-profit scholarship pageant, open to unmarried and childless young women ages 17-24.
In addition to her looks, Miss America is now also judged on talent performances and an interview section; according to the competition's grading rubric, talent and looks are now weighed equally—the swimsuit section accounts for 15 percent of the total score, and evening-wear counts for 20; the talent portion comprises 35 percent of the overall sum.
Miss America is, in many ways, the original American Celebrity, pretty and poised, wholesome and sweet, America's girlfriend—which, in the age of sexual liberation and celebrities beloved for their accessibility, feels somewhat archaic and out-of-touch.
The Miss America Organization constantly emphasizes the community service its contestants participate in; as part of her duties, Miss America regularly travels 20,000 miles per month, appearing at smaller circuit pageants, meeting with our active-duty military, visiting children's hospitals, and attending conventions in need of a VIP guest and events like the Kentucky Derby and the Cherry Blossom Parade. After our meeting, Betty is flying to Orlando, for the Miss America's Outstanding Teen pageant.
But first, we're going to have some lunch. "So, I just want, like, something kind of normal," Betty tells the waiter. "Can I just get chicken breast and mashed potatoes, without, like, extra things?"
"We're not allowed to do short orders," he says, apologetically.
Betty inquires about the chicken tagine, but upon hearing the waiter describe its stewy, spice-infused nature returns to reading her menu. Also at the table are Julie, Betty's manager and an emissary of the Miss America Organization, and Rachael, her publicist. Someone suggests the chicken paillard, but Miss America is unmoved by this dish's description and ends up settling on the rotisserie chicken sandwich, which will be dismantled by the end of our meal.
Betty, 21, has only been in the pageant world for the last two years, which is unusual for someone in her position. She qualified to compete in Miss America after winning the title of Miss Georgia 2015, and before that was crowned Miss Warner Robins, as in Warner Robins, Georgia, her home town.
"My mom kinda talked me into it, because of the scholarship opportunities," she tells me, calmly removing chicken breast pieces from between thick triangles of toasted sourdough and wiping them clean of a goat cheese and caramelized onion spread. "I didn't really ever think I'd be in pageants."
Being a pageant queen is a full-time job—which, ironically, considering the scholarship incentive, leaves no time for school. Betty took a semester off from college to prepare for Miss America, simultaneously keeping up the appearances required of her as the then-reigning Miss Georgia. She's also taken this year off, to accommodate her almost-daily travel and appearance schedule. She had been a vocal performance major at Mercer University and won the talent portion of her Miss America competition for her operatic vocal performance of "Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio," from Madame Butterfly.
Betty, whose parents, Mike and Tassie Cantrell, work as physical therapists at their own clinic, won her crown on the following platform: Healthy children, Strong America.
As the winner of the 2016 pageant, Betty received a scholarship of $50,000 to be used towards her education. She has a year and half of school left, but after she turns in her crown this September, Betty and her boyfriend Spencer, a former cop she met on Tinder, are moving to Nashville so that she can pursue a career as a country music singer. "I'm probably going to be finishing my degree online," she says. "So I can still graduate from Mercer." The money she won will allow her to graduate debt-free—enough to cover any outstanding student loans and the rest of her online credits.
As we eat, Betty and Julie discuss what's next on what seems to be a never-ending itinerary of appearances and performances. She'll been in Florida for the whole week and is looking forward to the opportunity to relax on the beach. "I'm not performing, am I?" she asks Julie. "Or maybe I'm singing 'Let It Go'?"
Julie consults her smartphone and determines that Betty has committed to singing "So Small," a Carrie Underwood tune. "Am I really? Okay," she says, and shrugs. Then Julie tells her she's also singing "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables on the final night of the pageant.
"And I'm not having anyone do my hair and makeup all week?" Betty asks Julie, who nods in assent. "That is so irritating."
Typically, at awards shows, Betty's hair and makeup are done professionally, but otherwise it's on her to be camera-ready. And it is more or less a year of non-stop photo ops. If you think the Toddlers in Tiaras wear a lot of makeup, just wait till they grow up.
"Parades are the worst," says Betty. "You just stand there and wave."
that was particularly brutal. "That day, that parade, I just wanted to die," she says. "It was really, really hot, and I was so tired... and I was not having a good hair day, and I didn't like the dress I had to wear."
She goes on: "There was no water for me, and the float I was on was, like, a bunch of random people that wanted to talk the whole time... It was a nightmare," she concludes.
Our waiter, who has come by to deliver our dessert menus, has overheard Betty talking about her performance schedule. "What kind of performer are you?" he asks.
She tells him she's a singer, and he says he is, too: He sings opera. Betty is a first soprano, she tells him. Then she tells me she could hear it in the timbre of his voice.
After he departs, I wonder aloud why she didn't just say that she's Miss America and that she is about to pursue a career as a professional singer.
"I don't like to bring it up," she tells me. "I just like to be myself sometimes and not have to live up to people's expectation of what Miss America looks like or is. Sometimes it's just nice to not be Miss America for a day."
Betty decides to order the apple tart with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which she found quite pleasing on a previous occasion at the Fig & Olive in Washington, D.C. "It's been the longest and the shortest year of my life," she says. "I'm ready to pass it on and go home—I'm ready to be Betty again."
First up on her agenda as Just Betty? Fly home with her boyfriend, who will be in the audience at the pageant in Atlantic City next month. "I just want to be with my dogs and be with Spencer, that's all I want to do—and no one can tell me that I can't, or that I can't post on social media about us."
One of a set of outdated rules Miss America must abide by during her reign is that she must refrain from speaking publicly about having a boyfriend. "It goes back to Miss America as being, like, America's sweetheart," explains Julie. "To get the interest of young men..."
"Which is terrible," interrupts Betty, who self-identifies as a feminist. "I just can't wait to post a long ode to Spencer on Instagram. It's the first thing I want to do on social media."
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