Five Life Lessons I Learned from Competing in Beauty Pageants

Alissa Musto
The Startup
Published in
5 min readJan 29, 2023

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Earlier this month, the 71st Miss Universe competition, often regarded as the “Superbowl” of pageants commenced in New Orleans, culminating in Miss USA receiving the ultimate promotion. Like with any major sporting event, fans participated in brackets, attended viewing parties and rooted for their favorites. And while I didn’t partake in any of the festivities this year, I eagerly checked my phone for updates while at work. My glory days as a competitor and titleholder are over, but pageants will always have a special place in my heart and in my story. One month after my college graduation and 21st birthday, I was crowned Miss Massachusetts 2016 and went on to compete in the nationally-televised Miss America pageant, ultimately placing in the top 15.

Throughout my reign, and years later, I’ve received all sorts of reactions from people when they find out I was a “pageant girl”: impressed, surprised, intrigued. It becomes a punchline. It evokes curiosity. I’ve had well-meaning people tell me I seem too smart for “that sort of thing”. I’ve heard every unfounded complaint, critique and criticism about pageants and I’m equipped to combat them all. Pageants develop confidence, poise, public speaking and interview skills in young women. They encourage community involvement, charitable work and scholastic endeavors. However, the long-term effects go beyond just these skill sets and values. Pageants emphasize several concepts that have consistently proven to be relevant and important in my personal and professional life as I navigate my 20’s and a career in the entertainment industry.

1) The competition starts the moment a contestant decides to enter.

Before a contestant even steps foot in front of the panel of judges, or even arrives at pageant week, they have numerous opportunities to make an impression on the organization, sponsors and other contestants; through their correspondence with pageant staff, at orientation and on social media. It’s important to be polished, punctual, consistent as well as supportive and approachable throughout the whole process and make a stellar first impression. Being a titleholder is a job and a year-long commitment; even a perfect performance in front of the judges only proves you’re ready to win, not that you’re ready to reign. In life, when you want something, you’ll achieve it through consistent action, not just choosing to be “on” when you think others are watching.

2) You don’t have to be the “best” to win.

When I was crowned Miss Massachusetts, I beat out girls who were more experienced than me, were taller and had better wardrobes, styling and makeup. In my eyes, they were “better” at pageants. But in life, you don’t need to be the smartest, the prettiest, the most talented, have the best résumé or have the most resources to get the job, the promotion, the part, or the recognition. You need to work harder and even more importantly, smarter than the competition, really lean into your strengths, be honest with yourself about your shortcomings and know your competition. What can you offer that the last titleholder fell short on? What sets you apart and will allow you to grow the organization in a way others cannot? Capitalize on your unique qualities.

3) Don’t be a walking résumé.

One of my pageant coaches used to tell me that my interview answers sounded more like I was trying to win a seat in the Senate rather than a pageant. I wasn’t approachable. I wasn’t relatable. I came across as a list of accomplishments rather than letting my personality and sense of humor shine through. It was perceived as unrelatable, conceited and rigid and I can now see that I looked like I was trying to overcompensate. Whether it’s a pageant, a job, or a relationship, that is NOT what people are looking for. You should be proud of your education and accomplishments. But that does not really define who you are and what you stand for. You shouldn’t care about what other people think. But if you plan to have any success in endeavors that involve interpersonal relationships, recognize that likability can account for just as much (and sometimes even more), as merit.

4) Learn how to do your own makeup.

I was not super “girly” growing up. I didn’t wear makeup until later in high school and even once I had a few pageant titles under my belt, my styling skills needed major work. I fought it. Dedicating hours to makeup felt superficial and shallow. However, the reality is, as a professional woman and especially as a woman in the entertainment industry, doing my makeup is a responsibility I’ll have my entire career. So at some point, I was going to need to learn how to do it. This doesn’t mean you need to wear dramatic eyelashes and a deep contour for every occasion. However, taking the time, and even a lesson, to master a go-to makeup look makes you look polished, presentable and professional in any situation, makes a sharp first impression and is a skill set you’ll use your whole life. You’ll ultimately save time and money too, rather than living in a habitual experimentation phase of different products and techniques.

5) Sometimes, you’re just not what they’re looking for.

You can do everything by the book. You can be the most prepared. You can check off every box. And still lose. Pageants taught me that you can do everything “right”, but not be what they’re looking for. We’re not the right fit for every title, every job, every opportunity nor every relationship — even if it seems like it’s what we really really want at the time. You have a particular set of strengths, talents, experiences and characteristics to offer and if an organization or individual doesn’t view those as assets, there are other ventures that will embrace what you have to offer. Sometimes, you’re just not what they’re looking for. And that’s ok. Your time and energy will be better served elsewhere. Of course, being a titleholder is a partnership and winning means you become the representative of that pageant brand. Naturally, there are going to be certain expectations and responsibilities regarding how you represent the organization. However, if those requirements feel too disingenuous or deviate too far from your own message and goals, a crown and sash just aren’t worth losing your sense of identity.

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Alissa Musto
The Startup

Musician. Singer. Songwriter. Signed Actor. Miss MA ‘16 & Miss America Top 15. Sailor. Vanlifer. 50+ countries. Harvard ‘16. UMiami ‘19. IG: @AlissaMustoMusic