By KETURAH GRAY, TARYN HARTMAN AND LAUREN EFFRON
Thousands of young women from across the country compete each year to become the next Miss America, but in Alaska, almost every contestant in the state competition is a winner, whether she takes home the crown or not.
In big “pageant states,” such as California or Florida, contestants are required to be local title-holders to make it to state competition. In Alaska, though, a contestant only needs to fill out paperwork to get the chance at the crown, and the money that comes with it.
Each year, the top 10 Miss Alaska finalists receive a year’s worth of tuition to the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Every other contestant gets at least $300. The winner of the competition gets a four-year scholarship to the university, plus $5,000. To the 11 ladies who vied to become Miss Alaska 2013, the money that comes with the title is more important than the crown itself.
“Everybody that participates does walk away with a scholarship and so just knowing that, it makes it that much easier competing,” said Miss Alaska contestant Lillian Crayton, 20. “But the pressure is there, knowing that the higher you place, the more scholarships you get.”
In the months leading up to the Miss America competition, which will take place in Atlantic City on Sunday, ABC News’ “20/20″ went behind the scenes of the glitz and glam to meet this year’s contestants, following several of them from their hometown pageants to the Miss America crown.
The Miss America organization doles out over $45 million in cash and tuition scholarship assistance to the 12,000 some women competing every year, making the pageant an attractive option for those paying for college. For some Miss Alaska contestants, and contestants in other states, competing in the pageant means turning dreams of being able to afford college into a reality.
“I have a year of school left,” said Miss Alaska contestant Sveta Solovyova, 21. “If I can graduate debt-free, that would be awesome.”
In Alaska, the emphasis is on the “sisterhood.”
“You don’t run into cattiness up here between contestants,” said Miss Alaska contestant Victoria Ray. ”I think the sisterhood is a lot stronger up here in our pageant because we’re a smaller organization and it’s wonderful.”
As in other state pageants, Miss Alaska contestants have be between the ages of 17 to 24, have a community or social “platform” to promote and perform a 90-second talent.
While Alaska doesn’t drum up images of swimsuits, the contestants are no strangers to bikinis and pageant props, like “butt glue,” which helps hold the suit in place, for the swimsuit portion of the competition.
In a last-minute pep talk to contestants, though, Christy Rockwell, the Miss Alaska pageant’s co-executive director, reminded them of why Alaska’s pageant is so unique.
“Tonight for me is about you walking away with money to go to school,” Rockwell said. “I want you to go out there, I want you to smile, I want you to remember that I believe in every single one of you and I that I know that you’re all going to set the world on fire someday.”
“I’m ready, so ready. It’s been a long time coming,” said contestant Michelle Taylor, 20, as she applied some final touches to her make-up before heading out on stage.
In June, Taylor, a hospitality and restaurant management major at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, was selected as the new Miss Alaska. The Anchorage native will go on to compete at the Miss America 2014 competition.