The Miss America contest has been around for more than 100 years. The competition has a complicated history and in recent years is trying to place a larger emphasis on scholarship and social activism. Elizabeth Pierre was crowned Miss Massachusetts in 2021. She joined hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel on GBH's Morning Edition to talk about the competition and why she thinks it is still important today. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Elizabeth Pierre: I decided to start competing in the Miss America organization because I missed dancing. I love dancing. I've been dancing since I was 14, and the Miss America organization has the talent portion of competition, so I decided to take the risk, take the jump and compete at my first local competition. And then I got to represent Cambridge, Massachusetts, my hometown moving forward to the Miss Massachusetts competition. So that was really, really cool to just jump in on my first try and have the opportunity to take the state stage later on that summer.

Jeremy Siegel: You were the second runner up for the 100th Miss America pageant this past December. In those 100 years, the competition has changed dramatically. But as it started and continues forward, people think of it first as a beauty contest. And some people, given that, question its relevance in this day and age, and I'd like to ask you, why are beauty pageants both still relevant and necessary right now?

Pierre: Right — so actually, Miss America, we call ourselves a scholarship competition because that's exactly what it is. I started competing in 2020 and have earned almost $35,000 and have completely paid off my undergraduate career at Syracuse University. So one, it really helps young women propel themselves into education and whatever professional development and career goals that they have. But also, I've learned so much about myself. The professional development that this opportunity provides is in [learning] to be able to speak in front of audiences and be confident in your voice and yourself is so important.

But I think finally, two, each woman that competes, has a social impact initiative and something that they're passionate about that they want to be an advocate for during their time in this organization. Mine is called We Hear You: Empowering Youth Voices, and the goal of that is to get young people to be involved in public policy and in social change. And so when so many people see the one night when a woman is crowned and she looks fabulous and glamorous, a lot of times what they don't see is the 364 days that lead up to that, where a woman is working incredibly hard to make a difference in their community.

Paris Alston: In addition to a change agent, you are also a barrier breaker, Elizabeth. There's never been a Miss Massachusetts who's won Miss America, but you are the first Miss Massachusetts of Haitian descent and only the second Black woman to hold the title. How are you using this platform to empower others who may see themselves in you?

Pierre: You know, it's a big responsibility to be the first of anything to be that barrier breaker, like you said, but I'm really proud to be able to break down those doors and open up opportunities for more young women who look like me to know that this is a space for them. This is a place for them to thrive. And I think a lot of the times when people think about the nation of Haiti, they don't necessarily have the best things to say. The country has gone through so, so much. And so, it really has been my goal to shed more light on the positive aspects and the culture and all of the things that my parents and my family have taught me that stem from being Haitian and being proud of that.

Siegel: You mentioned the importance of this for lifting the voices of young people pushing for change, speaking out on social equity initiatives, things like Black Lives Matter. And right now we're watching what's happening in Ukraine. We're seeing young people demonstrating here, young people demonstrating in Ukraine, young people demonstrating in Russia. I'm just curious how you are making sense of this moment and the importance of activist voices in this moment.

Pierre: For as long as I can remember I have found it very important for young people to always be involved and always know what's going on, and always be willing to share their voices because I think for so long, you know, we all understand that there's privilege in being an adult. And so a lot of the times young voices are just not heard, they're not respected. And so with what's going on in the world, I really just urge all young people to stay connected, to listen to resources and news from all points and all sides to get the full story of everything that's going on and then find their own beliefs and their own points and use that to strive for change and to make a difference and advocate for what they believe in.

"When so many people see the one night when a woman is crowned and she looks fabulous and glamorous, a lot of times what they don't see is the 364 days that lead up to that, where a woman is working incredibly hard to make a difference in their community."
-Elizabeth Pierre, Miss Massachusetts

Alston: Elizabeth, I want to ask you about something that is a sensitive subject and may be sensitive for some of our listeners, and that is suicide. This is a role that comes with a really big spotlight, which can sometimes mean a whole lot of pressure. And earlier this year, former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst died by suicide, which was a tragic loss for the pageant world and beyond. Now, first of all, did you know Cheslie or had you ever met her before?

Pierre: I didn't get a chance to meet her personally in person, but we did get to connect a few times on social media, and we were involved in bringing awareness to Black women in pageantry because there aren't too many of us. And so it was really heartbreaking to hear the news of Cheslie Kryst because she was an inspiration to many.

Alston: Is there an added pressure with — I mean, we talked about you breaking barriers — Cheslie and others breaking barriers? Is there an added pressure that comes with that?

Pierre: Absolutely, I think when competitions like Miss America had first began, Black women weren't even allowed to compete because Black women weren't considered beautiful or weren't considered worth listening to. And so to hold the title of Miss Massachusetts today, it's a lot of pressure because I know that there are also people around me who I've interacted with, who still believe those thoughts. And so it's my role to not only be a change maker, the advocate and make a difference, but also to show other people who don't believe in the power of Black women or don't see us as worthy or as beautiful to help change those ideals.

Siegel: As a change maker, do you think there are changes that should be made within the pageant community?

Pierre: Absolutely. I think we can always strive to be more inclusive, not just with race, but with body types and all abilities and mental health struggles, too. I think with the passing of Cheslie Kryst, it goes to show the lack of support in the pageant community in competitions like Miss America, because, like you said, you are catapulted into the spotlight. A lot of the time you feel like you have to always be on, and you have to always have a smile on. And there are times where you're traveling across the state by yourself or you're at an appearance, and someone says something that's rude or disgusting even. And you have to learn how to just like, shake that off and move on. And I think there could be a lot more support for women to feel as though they are welcomed and they are celebrated, and that they will be supported throughout their year of service.