“Is it your birthday?”
“Are you homecoming queen?”
“Is that a real tiara?”
McKenzie Freed gets a lot of questions when she walks down the street these days. If she’s conducting official business as Miss San Joaquin County, the tiara on her head and sash draped across her body invite stares, smiles and endless comments.
“I’m all about new things, new adventures,” she said.
Freed has spent the last three years competing in beauty pageants across California. She’s pleased with the $6,000 in scholarship money she has earned, and her mother loves the new confidence she sees in her daughter.
“It’s been surprisingly a very positive experience,” said Freddie Freed. “She’s more able to speak in a crowd of people, to people she doesn’t know.”
Rocking a pink leather jacket, with her crown fastened on by clips and nylon strips, the 17-year-old speaks with enthusiasm and a big smile.
She’s a senior at Jim Elliot Christian High School, where she played on the basketball team.
But when she isn’t doing homework or filling out college applications, Freed prepares for her next pageant.
It started with a letter in the mail about an information session when Freed was 15. The Miss America circuit was holding an open pageant in Santa Clara. Freed convinced her mother to sign her up, and she’s been competing ever since.
It wasn’t until January, at the Miss San Joaquin Pageant, that Freed took home the top spot.
“She had gotten awfully close in the others. Seeing her finally win — it was exciting. I was very proud of her,” said Freddie Freed.
Judges look for beauty, fitness, intelligence and the ability to speak eloquently. Freed wasn’t shaken when she learned her competition was in their early 20s, and most had years of experience over her.
“I found the place where I fit, where I’m what the judges were looking for. I knew I could get better. I did get better,” she said.
In June, Freed will compete at the state pageant in Fresno, so the preparation has begun all over again.
Being a pageant girl
A pageant girl doesn’t just represent herself and her family. As a tiara winner, she represents an entire organization, and serves as a role model to other girls.
“To wear the crown, you have to look presentable,” she said.
Freed doesn’t get to wear jeans or sloppy shoes when she’s on pageant business. Her wardrobe has expanded to include an array of cocktail dresses, classy slacks and tidy jackets.
But looking sophisticated was a learned skill.
In her first pageant, Freed showed up to the Santa Clara hotel with poofy hair, a huge green ballgown and elaborate makeup. She says her mom tried to warn her the look wasn’t right, but she didn’t pay attention. Freed made the first cut, but didn’t get any farther.
“I’m learning she’s usually right about those kinds of things,” she said.
But mom was more positive.
“She made the top 15. She has never been in a pageant where she didn’t make it to the next level,” said Freddie Freed.
Every pageant girl needs a platform to support. Due to her affinity for sign language. Freed chose to raise awareness she carries an I Can Sign doll with posable fingers. The doll sports a silver tiara and a pink tulle tutu.
Her ASL skills fit into her talent display. Freed signs along while singing “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae or Adele’s “To Make You Feel My Love.”
Six months before a pageant, Freed goes to work. That means a gym workout every other day, eating healthy and drinking lots of water to keep her skin hydrated and fresh looking.
“I cheat a lot. I like candy, I like food. I tolerate the gym, because I know I’m working toward a goal,” she said.
Two months pre-pageant, she ups the gym visits to at least once a day, practices her singing and makes sure she has the perfect dress ready. Freed love the dresses, because it’s a chance to express her own style. Shopping for the dresses is another story.
“I get tired after three hours,” she said, adding that it can take six stores to find a good dress. “They all start to look the same.”
The most recent score was a custom blue strapless column gown with a glittery bust and a half cape from the waist. No matter the structure, no dress is perfect.
“You wear a shaper underneath, or you have the body of a goddess,” Freed said.
Swimsuits are easier to find than ballgowns, but they have to be altered before the garments are ready for the stage. Freed rips out the thin lining and pads the fabric with something thicker so the light doesn’t shine through. Triangle-style bikinis are not secure enough, and Freed said the ties on each side make hips look wider.
“You go for a clean look. I want the judges to look at me, not the strings,” she said.
A week ahead of time, Freed will make an appointment for a full-body spray tan, and make sure the rest of her supplies are ready. Girls whiten their teeth and apply false eyelashes to highlight their features under the harsh stage lights.
“It evens out your tone, and makes you look normal on stage,” she said.
Shoes are meant to sparkle and make a girl look like she’s walking on air, generally with five-inch heels. Those have to be comfortable, because they could stay on for 12 hours through rehearsals.
Tips and tricks
There are some tricks involved to get the perfect pageant look.
Spray your ’do with hairspray, lay a tissue on it, then drag it away to reduce flyaways. Freed uses fashion tape to keep shirts in place.
Hairspray is also good for making sure swimsuits and dresses don’t slip around, though Freed prefers the spray football players use on their gloves.
Bikinis are not forgiving when it comes to camel toe. Many pageant girls use a small padded insert to prevent those awkward clothing mishaps.
It’s not all about fun and fashion. The pressures of competition can push girls to scary places.
“Eating disorders do happen, more often than people care to admit. You have to stress that it’s not about your size, it’s about how you carry yourself. The judges don’t want you to be the skinniest, they want to know you live a healthy lifestyle,” she said.
Freed must prepare mentally as well for the stress of being judged on stage under bright lights.
“I’m trying not to psych myself out,” she said. “First runner up is the worst. You were there. You were right there.”
Freed bought copies of videos of the previous year’s winners and took notes. She also studied current events to prep for her interview and on-stage questions. She takes singing lessons to keep her voice ready to perform.
The interview portion can be very intimidating, said Freddie Freed.
“They’re usually older adults. She doesn’t know them, and they can ask anything they want to,” she said. “They do it see how girls react in the situation. If you win a big pageant, you’re going to have a lot of microphones in your face.”
Both mom and daughter advise interested girls to research the pageant world before entering. The prices can add up, but if done right, it doesn’t have to be expensive.
Freddie Freed said the gains are worth the cost.
“People think of ‘Toddlers and Tiaras.’ But most pageants are not like that. Most are about helping the girls gain confidence,” she said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.