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Modern-day Cinderella: Pageant queen drops her crown

A former Miss Teen Alabama resides on the three streets of St Andrews. Her tale is nothing short of a modern-day Cinderella.

Beauty pageants are a popular part of American culture. Girls and women compete inter-state, nationally, and across the globe. They are judged by a board on their physical appearance, academic achievements, charitable endeavours — and most importantly — their ability to engage an audience.

From their earlier days as “toddlers in tiaras” they strut into aspiring crown wearers. They spend their lives prepping, dieting, practicing, and stressing, with the hope that one day they will win a title.

In 2018, an unassuming free spirit dominated the Alabama pageant scene. That was Ivey-Elise Ivey, a fourth-year psychology and social anthropology student. Disinterested in makeup, glitz, and glamour, Ivey was more concerned with leading her school band as a flautist.

The first the 17-year-old knew of the competition was an email. It read: ‘we’re excited for you to compete for the title of Miss Alabama in three months’. Surely, this was an advertisement.

Her Mother and a family friend had entered her into the competition under her nose. There was no going back.

“I was extremely mad”, Ivey said.

She was furious with the idea that she was expected to strut around on a stage, and worse, get graded for it. Ivey initially refused to participate at all.

Her mother’s silver tongue won her over. She said that pageantry had become about more than objectification. Begrudgingly, Ivey’s was won over.

Ivey’s experience with pageantry was limited to a small charity fashion show fundraiser. This was child’s play compared to representing Walker County in the inter-state competition for the title of Miss Teen Alabama.

Preparing for the competition proved no walk in the park (or down a catwalk). Thus began the full weekend of preparation and physical transformation.

Alongside the show-girl looks and classic ‘up-dos’, Ivey was surprised at the pageant girls’ willingness to wear fake lashes and hair extensions, get spray tans, and whiten their teeth. They all existed at the behest of the makeup artist.

The real commitment involved a whole new fitness and diet regime. Ivey, a nervous novice, was most apprehensive about ‘Swimsuit Sundays’. She had to suit up and record herself to ensure her pageant coach of her progress.

“Swimsuit Sundays were the worst”, Ivey said.

A team of experts supported her. This included a pageant coach, dietician, and personal trainer. Ivey began tracking her diet on an app. Convinced that every calorie and macro counted, weighing out her food proved more arduous than agreeing to eat it. Keeping up with the expected amount of protein was a chore.

As teenagers struggle with body dysmorphia and eating disorders, Ivey recognises that this experience could have had a detrimental impact.

Ivey did find that she gained confidence and felt empowered from the process, though. This also had a lot to do with the valuable interview and networking experience she gained from it.

The competition did not centre solely on aesthetics — it also encouraged the girls to give back to their community by way of charity platforms. Ivey’s initiative was empowerment through education.

As a keen volunteer, Ivey took part in book drives and campaigned for community members to read to elementary school kids.

“I wanted to encourage kids to take their education seriously”, Ivey said. “Education is the foundation for empowerment in later life”.

Nervously waiting for her results, Ivey impressed the judges in all categories. Much to her own surprise and the gall of her more experienced peers, she was crowned state champion as Miss Teen Alabama.

This was just the beginning. She now had to prepare for the national competition.

To prove her commitment to this new role, Ivey was expected to sign a year-long contract. That promise added stress to the already busy band leader and academic weapon.

She was further expected to take on other volunteering opportunities on top of preparing for a more rigorous national competition — at the expense of her school attendance record. Refining distinctions between the graceful stride of an elegant ball gown walk, and a more sassy swagger of the ‘arm on one hip’ swimsuit strut, the stakes and expectations were high.

Some of her new responsibilities included drawing raffle tickets at charity galas, introducing acts at local music festivals, and having to go to Montgomery — the state capital — to pose for pictures with local politicians. The crown reflected queen-like duties, and Ivey became a recognised figure.

As a talented flute player, she was asked to perform a one-woman concert in a care home — obviously adorning her signature crown and gown. “It was really sweet and fun”, said Ivey, “But on a normal Tuesday, I don’t know why I couldn’t have just worn jeans”.

Despite all the hard work, Ivey did not want her contract to completely wreck her 17-year-old social life.

At the end of her year, a non-negotiable event was the handing over of her position to the incumbent Miss Teen Alabama. Unfortunately, this directly coincided with an important right of passage: her junior prom.

The event took place two hours away from her hometown in Birmingham, presenting a logistical nightmare. Though Ivey had become accustomed to rearranging the order of most importance of her extracurricular commitments, she was determined to show face at both events.

“This particular weekend I just couldn’t do one”, said Ivey, “I had to drive a few hours, check into a hotel room, shake hands, make a speech, take pictures, have my makeup done, and then drive back in order not to miss my prom”.

She managed to make the pilgrimage back to her high school and was keen to attend the afterparty just like everybody else. Dancing her way through to the early hours, she was nonetheless expected to promptly resume her duties at the crack of dawn.

“I woke up at 5 am and I probably went to bed at 3.3o”, she said, “I then took the two-hour trip back to have my hair and makeup redone, ready to crown the next Teen Miss Alabama.”

Now, from her comfortable home on the three streets, Ivey watches as one of her peers — the former Miss Florida and current Miss U.S.A. — prepares to compete at the climactic Miss Universe competition. Between class and the main library, Ivey’s life in Scotland is a stark change.

When starting at St Andrews in 2020, the Miss Alabama pictures were still “very fresh” on her Instagram, and people saw it as “a bit of a joke”.

Ivey felt judged for her brief escapade in the world of pageantry, and even somewhat tried to cover it up.

“There are many connotations that come with it”, said Ivey. “And I think I was very quick to say, ‘oh but I don’t really do pageants; I’m not an actual pageant girl’”.

Upon reflection, Ivey recognises that her role was hardly easy — requiring a lot of hard work, commitment, and energy.

When she arrived at St Andrews, Ivey’s passion for charity encouraged her to join The Lumsden Club, an all-female charity organisation predominantly supporting Fife Women’s Aid.

As former head of the Lumsden Leadership Summit — a conference for female professionals — Ivey was confident in moderating the discussion at the talks last year. She attributes this to her extensive training in the pageantry process.

Joining the many of us who may hesitate to believe her, former U.S. President Donald Trump also awarded Ivey the National Presidential Award for her service to volunteering.

Whilst Ivey's interest in pageantry has faded, she noted that the experience introduced her to cool people and presented her with amazing experiences. She still keeps in touch with some of the other contestants.

Despite her conclusion that “the good outweighed the bad”, Ivey holds firm in her stance that she “probably wouldn’t do it again.” She's got used to choosing her own haircuts for a change.

“That life feels so far removed from now, it feels so long ago and so different”, she said, “but it was also fun to play dress up for a while”.

Photo: Jack Bains

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