From studio to stage: Senior eyes Miss Boston title

by Katy Rushlau / Beacon Staff • February 9, 2012

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Senior Samantha Russo will participate in the Miss Boston pageant on Feb. 19.
Senior Samantha Russo will participate in the Miss Boston pageant on Feb. 19.

Samantha Russo often refers to herself as “one of the guys.” Now she is one of 11 girls competing in the Miss Boston pageant. The senior broadcast journalism major combined her inner sports-reporting tomboy and runway-striding girly-girl to compete in her first pageant Feb. 19. 

“At first, I thought, ‘pageants are not like me, I’m a tomgirl, I don’t do that,’” said the Nashua, N.H. native. “Then I did a story on pageants for one of my classes, and it was an eye-opening experience.”

Russo, a singer and former athlete, said she originally felt pageants focused too much on physical beauty and she saw them as superficial. Last February, a project for her English class allowed her to interview the Miss Boston director and participants before a dress rehearsal, giving her a behind-the-scenes look at an actual pageant Russo said.

“It wasn’t your stereotypical beauty pageant. It was these intelligent, talented, and beautiful girls competing for a crown,” said Russo. “What girl doesn’t want to wear a crown?”

She signed up to compete after her professor, Dana Rosengard, persuaded her. Rosengard, a journalism professor and Miss Boston judge, said he believed Russo was an ideal contestant after having her in class and seeing her perform with an Emerson a cappella group.

“I saw Samantha in a Noteworthy performance, so I knew she was talented,” said Rosengard. “I also had her in class, so I knew she was funny and bright. You put those things together and you have a contestant.”

The preparation, according to Russo, has been the most surprising aspect. Aside from eating healthier, working out, and brushing up on current events for interviews, Russo also participated in “pageant school,” a one-day workshop to acquaint the contestants with each other and the competition.

“I didn’t really know what to expect going into the workshop, and before I even went in I was intimidated,” said Russo. “But it was so much fun. There were a few other girls who had never done pageants before and that was refreshing.”

The day consisted of a Miss Boston orientation and overview, a walking lesson, and a taped mock interview. Each student was given feedback, tips, and a Vera Bradley bag full of goodies to reward them for their hard work.

“When I got home, I just felt so excited and happy that I decided to take a step outside of my comfort zone,” Russo said.

As Russo became more enthusiastic about the competition, she started preparing for what she said is her favorite part of the pageant. Each contestant, according to Russo, is required to earn $100 for the Miss America charity, the Children’s Miracle Network. 

Russo was mainly excited to go beyond the typical pageant contestant fundraising, she said. In lieu of asking for sponsors and donations, she is hosting a karaoke fundraiser at Limelight Stage + Studios Feb. 9. All proceeds made between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. go directly to the foundation. 

“I really like the fact that there is a required amount of money that you have to raise,” said Russo. “It’s taking my love for singing, karaoke, and my new-found love for pageantry and mixing it together, which is kind of cool,” she said.

Rosengard praised Russo’s enthusiasm for fundraising as many contestants prefer to ask for donations rather than host a fundraiser, he said.

“The source of those funds never gets back to the judges,” he said. “At this level of the game, fundraisers are a little unusual. It speaks for Samantha’s commitment to the program.” 

Russo said she wasn’t always committed to the world of pageantry, and initially agreed with the widely known stereotype that pageants are superficial. 

Pageantry is not without its critics. Emerson Feminists member Larissa Sapko, a senior political communication major, said she believes the pageant industry sets impossible standards for women.

“I think that the industry itself, by setting up this basically unattainable standard of the ‘perfect woman,’ is just feeding into the massive self-esteem crisis that adolescent girls are dealing with,” said Sapko.

While Sapko said she saw some validity in the charity portion of a pageant, she said she felt strongly that pageants portray women negatively by using a numeric score to rate a contestant’s body. 

“The winner cries every time, and there’s never a triumphant gesture like you might see in sports or some other public accomplishment,” said Sapko. “They’re expected to just totally break down and cry, and I think that says something about the pageant industry’s expectations of the ideal woman.”

Despite the industry standards, the Miss Boston pageant, according to Rosengard, is the largest preliminary pageant for Miss America and allows young women to earn scholarships and serve the community. With the pageant just around the corner, Russo’s mother, Cindy Russo, said her nerves are growing.

“I am really excited for her. I think this will be a great experience, but as her mother I am a little nervous,” C. Russo said. “It is hard to sit by and see people judge your child.”

Rosengard explained that the phases of competition are broken down into five sections: the private interview, the physical fitness in swimsuit, talent, eveningwear, and the on-stage question. The prizes include $4500 in scholarships and many other gifts from pageant sponsors.

Russo, who is coaching herself, said she is excited to showcase her love for singing. She is preparing the classic Les Misérables song “On My Own” for the talent portion and polishing up her public speaking techniques. She and a friend are also revamping her red prom dress for the eveningwear phase.

When reflecting on the swimwear preparation, Russo explained that the fitness phase in particular tested her self esteem. She hopes to encourage pageant newbies to push past this confidence barrier and go for it.

“The biggest challenge is not focusing on everyone else. If you do that, you’re going to eat yourself alive,” Russo said. “The biggest challenge is being OK with yourself, knowing who you are, and not worrying about the other girls. It’s about being confident.”