In late January, after 10 days of relentless preparation, 52 Miss America hopefuls took the Atlantic City stage for a final early-morning rehearsal with host Mario Lopez. Among them was Miss New York, Leigh-Taylor Smith (Col ’07). After she and her competitors spent hours memorizing their marks and rehearsing dance numbers in cinched dresses and glued-in-place swimsuits, they took turns napping on the decorative loveseats at the rear of the stage. They discovered, much later, that they had left drool stains all over the purple couches. “Literally hundreds of drool stains,” Smith says, laughing. So much for the glamorous lives of so-called beauty queens.
“I hate that phrase, ‘beauty queen,’” Smith says. “The most important thing to realize is that the first competition at Miss America is the interview. That’s where they get their top girls, and that says something about the Miss America organization.”
Smith also respects that the Miss America organization is primarily a scholarship-giving enterprise. While she did not take home the Miss America title, she won the Lifestyle and Fitness competition in a black Winnwear swimsuit and placed third overall. From this and other pageants—Smith was Miss Arlington and Miss Brooklyn, as well as third runner-up in two Miss Virginia pageants while she was at the University—she has earned roughly $30,000 in scholarship money. She works for an interior design firm in Manhattan and hopes to use her winnings to pursue a career in design, possibly at the Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York City.
Smith says the pageant experience has already helped her grow. “I have found myself through this. I have realized what is important to me—my platform.” One of Smith’s most passionate causes is youth empowerment through service. This year she has lobbied the New York State Senate for a bill that would make community service mandatory at all New York public high schools.
As for her own education, Smith, who majored in theater at the University and was president of the Virginia Belles, says she owes a lot to her multifaceted experience at UVA. “I learned how to take ownership and leadership with activities in and outside of academia,” she says.
Her family’s support has also proved invaluable. Smith prepared for months with Miss America 1998, Kate Shindle, as her unofficial coach. But she had her own special coach at home. Her father, Mike Smith, head football coach at Hampton High School, has won more games than anyone in the history of Virginia high school football (and ranks in the top five nationally). But at her pageants, he’s just another nervous parent. “My dad gets more nervous for my competitions than he does for any of his games,” Smith says.
Despite all her preparation and support, Smith says she was still anxious when she finally stepped on stage under the bright lights. She wasn’t afraid that she would trip or forget her answers, but that she would burst into tears. “This was something I had wanted to do since I was younger, and I actually made it.”