Two women — an Honor Society scholar and a communications professional — embraced each other in a spotlight onstage at the Eden Prairie Performing Arts Center on June 22, waiting to hear a name. After a drawn-out pause from the emcees, it came:
“Our new Miss Minnesota 2019 is Miss Coon Rapids, Katheyrn Kueppers.”
The theater erupted in applause as Kueppers, in a red evening gown, sank to her knees. As her predecessor, Michaelene Karlen, settled a crown to her head, Eden Prairie Mayor Ron Case stood by with a bouquet and plaque for the winner. The 23 other candidates for Miss Minnesota gathered behind Kueppers to hug and congratulate her.
As Miss Minnesota connects with Eden Prairie as its official home after 12 years in the city, it’s also putting into effect the changes that parent organization Miss America introduced last year, known as Miss America 2.0. With its 100th anniversary in 2021, its candidates and messaging are turning away from an image-oriented history in the hopes of rebranding an event best known for its ballgowns into an empowering event for women.
The most visible change to Miss America, and to the state-level pageants that feed into the national competition, was the elimination of the swimsuit component and increased emphasis on social advocacy in 2018. In 2019, the Miss Minnesota candidates walked across the stage in an outfit they would wear to a red carpet event and spoke briefly about a social impact project they had championed as local titleholders before returning for a final interview question with the judges.
With such tweaks, the event is leaning away from its pageant roots, said Gina Cavanagh, president of Miss Minnesota organization.
“We’re moving away from the word ‘pageant’ and more towards ‘competition,’” she told Eden Prairie News. “When you think of ‘pageant,’ you think of beauty. With a competition, you’re vying for scholarship money.”
A $10,000 scholarship comes with the title of Miss Minnesota.
Organizers heavily emphasized the educational bent of the competition and the aspirations of those who compete.
“The Miss America mission statement probably sums it up best: To prepare great women for the world, to prepare the world for great women,” said Shantel Krebs, the former South Dakota secretary of state who took over as board chairwoman of the Miss American Organization after Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss Minnesota, stepped down in 2018.
“You can’t compare it to any other nonprofit that’s a household name,” Krebs added.
This year was the fourth time Allyson Helms competed for Miss Minnesota. The 2019 Miss Great Lakes has participated in pageants since age 17 and noticed the changes as they trickled down from the national level.
“Everything is a little bit different now that it’s Miss America 2.0,” she said. “Things are much more focused on who the candidates are as a total person.”
Helms’ performance on the final night of competitions reflected Miss Minnesota’s aspirations for empowerment. At her final night of competition — at 24, she’s aging out of the pageant — Helms proudly announced her recent degree as a pharmacist by introducing herself as “Dr. Allyson Helms.”
“Even though they’re talking about their outfit, they’re talking about their platforms, their social impact statements,” Cavanagh said of the candidates. “I think there are girls that are out there thinking, ‘Well I can’t be in a beauty pageant, I may not be pretty enough or I can’t afford this outfit,’ but listening to (the candidates) talk about their social impacts — any one of them can be up there because they’re all smart, intelligent women and they all have something to say.”
In the midst of a week of rehearsals and appearances leading up to the final competition on June 22, Helms, Sage Hovet, Muira MacRae, Elle Jorgensen and Sally O’Brien reflected on their personal motives for joining the pageant life and the expectations — both realistic and unwarranted — that can accompany a crown.
“I think people are always surprised at the strength of the women and how well-educated and how well-spoken we are,” Helms said. “That’s not necessarily the first thing that people think of when they think of a pageant girl.”
Hovet, who is Miss Winona, agreed. Her first pageant came at age 13 when her next door neighbor, the local pageant director, asked her to fill out the roster for that year’s pageant. Hovet wore her older sister’s prom dress and loved the experience; she credits it for helping conquer her social anxiety and develop public speaking and interview skills. Even so, she maintains a separate social media presence for pageant-related posts to let her friends and family “opt-in” to hearing about it, and it’s not something she leads with when meeting new people.
“For a long time it was definitely something I joked that, you know, ‘bring it up on the third or fourth date’ sort of thing... because there is such a stigma,” said Hovet, now 20. “And I understand why that is — I know the history of the program and everything, that it started as a swimsuit competition. And it’s something that I’m very proud of, but I’d like people to get to know me, for me, first. The crown can come later.”
Sally O’Brien, Miss Waseca County, originally passed on participating in Miss Minnesota this year, busy as she was with a master’s program in elementary education. But as she worked in a classroom of first graders, she became aware of how anxiety and depression affect children and the lack of awareness around the issue, she said.
“If you would just run, that’s what you could talk about,” O’Brien recalled thinking, which spurred her to sign up for the statewide competition.
Many candidates draw their social impact initiatives from personal experiences. Jorgensen, Miss Midwest, was born with a cleft lip, and her experiences with bullying as a child drew her to Operation Smile, a nonprofit that funds cleft lip and palate surgeries for those who can’t afford them. Hovet educates students and families about the LGBTQ community — which she is a member of herself, Hovet said — with her “An A.C.T. of Kindness” initiative. MacRae, Miss Northern Lakes, has a platform of body confidence for young women.
MacRae was the youngest candidate at 18. She first participated in a local Miss Crookston pageant outside of the Miss America system and never considered that she could be a part of the official Miss Minnesota competition until the local pageant director approached her and asked her to run.
“When Angie came along and said ‘I want you to be a part of the system, I want you to come do my pageant,’ my parents were as confused and reserved about it as I was,” she remembered. “I always struggled not only with body confidence but with the way that I portrayed myself to others.”
“The whole reason I did it in the first place was to prove to myself that I could get on a stage in front of people and be who I am,” MacRae added. “I’ve felt so welcomed.”
The chance to learn from, and about, other local titleholders was the cherry on top of a week of exhilaration and exhaustion, the five candidates acknowledged. Judges read candidates’ resumes and get to ask a few questions, and the audience hears even less about the social impact side of the competition: Candidates have 10 seconds during the evening wear part of the competition to talk about their advocacy. Talking about each others’ passions throughout the week added immensely to the experience, Jorgensen said.
“If everyone got to have the experience that I just had with you two, they would have much more understanding of what we’re doing and why it’s important,” she told O’Brien and MacRae.
The newly crowned Miss Minnesota had little time to rest and celebrate her achievement. Kueppers, 21, quickly took up her role as Miss Minnesota, meeting her new pageant directors and judges to learn more about her duties in the coming year.
The St. Paul native is perhaps uniquely prepared for the crown: Her mother, Vicki Kueppers, was crowned Miss Minnesota in 1983, and the mother-daughter duo is the first in Miss Minnesota history to win in two generations. Kueppers grew up admiring the women who she met through the organization, she told Eden Prairie News.
“They weren’t women that you saw on TV, they were women that were real and right in front of me,” Kueppers remembered.
Kueppers is ready for the responsibility of her new role. She studies family and consumer science at Minnesota State University, Mankato but plans to take a semester off, maybe two, to focus on her duties as Miss Minnesota.
“This is my full-time job,” she explained.
It’s fitting that Kueppers’ social impact initiative is Invisible Crown, a resource she created for former Miss Minnesota title holders to strengthen and raise awareness of the pageant and mentor young women. During the red carpet portion of the competition, she used her few moments at the microphone to point to the organization’s legacy and future.
“As Miss Minnesota, not only will I show people we still exist, I will show them we’re relevant and here to stay,” she told the judges.