I am not your typical law student. And I’m certainly not your typical beauty queen. I’m currently a first-year student at Yale Law, and previously I was Miss District of Columbia International in 2011 and Junior Miss Wisconsin in 2004. I’ve done some other things, too: I graduated from Harvard in 2008 and then worked for McKinsey and Bloomberg in Washington, D.C. My peers, co-workers and professors have always been fascinated by this combination of pedigrees, but both feel equally natural to me. In fact, I would argue that my pageant experience helped prepare me for law school.
“How did you get involved in this?” my friends ask when they hear about my pageant titles. They may secretly hope I was a toddler in a tiara, but (un)fortunately, the truth is less scandalous. In high school, I got a letter in the mail about a competition with more scholarship money than any other I’d ever seen. I decided to enter partly out of curiosity, a belief that I had a shot at winning and a propensity to accept challenges.
Pageants were an intense experience. Preparation can take hours a day: meeting with talent coaches, volunteering in the community, and choosing “wardrobe.” Every outfit is pre-planned down to every little detail: the right earrings, the perfect shoes. For every Swarovski crystal-studded gown you see on television, hundreds lie rejected in dressing rooms across the country. Furthermore, the competition itself at the state and national levels is usually preceded by a week or two of living together with the other contestants, either in a hotel or with local host families, basically cut off from the outside world. It’s normal to feel exhausted and perhaps a little delirious by the time the actual competition arrives. The volunteers will often remind contestants that those two or three nights on stage aren’t the be-all, end-all of our lives. That said, pageants remain a significant part of some contestants’ lives beyond one or two competitions. Many women are repeat players: they will compete three, four, or five times before winning the state crown or will try for multiple titles over the course of many years. As a titleholder, my years were filled with appearances, parades, and speaking engagements. I would carry a giant backpack stuffed with my crown and sash in a glass case and cocktail dress to work. Once the day ended, I’d change in a flurry of sequins and safety pins and rush off to the gala or fundraiser.
The challenge of maintaining a sense of self in such an intense situation translates to the law school environment. One of our deans told us during orientation that law school is a “total institution” as defined by sociologist Erving Goffman and expanded upon by many others: a place where people are separated from the community at-large and engaged in a regimented, administered mode of life. At Yale, unsurprisingly, law school monopolizes much of our time: we take classes in one building, talk about similar topics, study for the same exams, and hang out with the same people. Though it’s unpalatable to view law school as a “competition,” many students share the same goals of working for a famous judge or a prestigious law firm. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Hollywood loves representing both these environments: “Law & Order,” “Suits,” “The Paper Chase,” “Legally Blonde” (a good transition), “Miss Congeniality,” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” to name only a few.
Both “total institutions,” pageants and law school, present the danger of losing perspective. In preparation for pageant competition, you have days filled with confidence; the chatter about you is positive, everyone loves your evening gown, your hair looks great. Then you have days bogged down with stress: your microphone didn’t work at rehearsal, a board member doesn’t like your interview outfit, and your crown keeps slipping off your head at the worst possible moments. Most law students have similar ups-and-downs. You make an insightful comment in a large class, you have a super-productive office hours meeting, your professor loves your paper ideas. Or you don’t remember the right case when you’re called on in class, you couldn’t think of an original idea for your 25-page paper even if someone put a gun to your head, and you’re totally confused about where to do your first summer internship. In these circumstances, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture: that life is much broader than this community and its concerns. Having participated in pageants showed me the value of placing external affirmation in context. The self-reflection and confidence that come from knowing yourself despite a current of conformity is indispensible to making the most out of law school.
There were a few more tactical lessons from pageants as well around verbal communication and story-telling. Public speaking is an important part of law school, whether you are giving a closing statement at a mock trial or answering a professor who calls on you unexpectedly. Pageant interviews are also a big deal. The one conducted behind closed doors is a large part of the score (usually 20% to 33%), and those on-stage are highly visible. Mock interviews help remove the typical filler – “ums” and “uhs” – that pervade normal conversation. They pressure you to make eye contact, get comfortable behind a podium, and maintain posture even in the most uncomfortable or potentially malfunctional clothes. Though the content is usually different, those skills have been invaluable in the first few months of law school and in my professional life as a consultant and media expert.
Pageants also help you think through your narrative, which is instrumental in navigating law school life and beyond. Doing well in an interview means finding a “hook,” telling a touching story, choosing a box you fit into and emphasizing it. Hearing audience members – or even judges – talk about participants is a testament to the effectiveness of the strategy. Oh, they say, she’s the musical theater woman or the woman whose mom had breast cancer or the first person in her family to go to college. In addition, most pageants have each contestant choose a platform: a cause to which they dedicate their reigning year. It always helps if there is a personal connection. In fact, it’s probably required. For example, girls or women who used to have anorexia or bulimia will choose to promote awareness of eating disorders. Contestants who were bullied in middle or high school will do choose that as a platform. Similarly, having a “story” or a cause – a platform, if you will – helps one stand out among numerous highly qualified applicants. Those of us who wrote personal statements to get into law school, cover letters for jobs, or e-mails to professors to get into those small seminars will understand. Having a personal connection to the subject matter is often an advantage and translates to higher scores – in pageants and other selective processes.
Looking back, I see how pageants allowed me not only to explore and develop a different side of myself but also turned out to be useful in my intellectual pursuits. They helped me focus, stay calm under pressure, and communicate with my audience. They have made me a more effective law student and professional … and, frankly, a more interesting person. Perhaps a Yale Law beauty queen shouldn’t be such a surprising combination after all.
Sopen Shah is a student at Yale Law School. Illustration by Graham Gremore. For their full bios, see the About page.